Podcast #164: The Great Dictator (1940) & Charlie Chaplin

Welcome to Episode #164 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss four classic comedies directed by Charlie Chaplin, starting with the anti-fascist satire The Great Dictator (1940).

00:00 Welcome

00:57 Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
05:25 Last Night in Soho (2021)
09:45 Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
13:05 Studio 666 (2022)

18:50 The Great Dictator (1940)
38:30 City Lights (1931)
47:00 Modern Times (1936)
1:01:45 Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

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– The Podcast Crew

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Is it okay to admit that I genuinely don’t know what to make of this movie? After Taika Waititi’s hot streak of instant 5-star classics—Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Boyit’s tempting to give the writer-director the benefit of the doubt in my unease with Jojo Rabbit’s tone & aesthetic. I especially wish I could celebrate Waititi’s willingness to immediately torch all the money & goodwill he earned making a crowd-pleasing Marvel movie by starring as Adolf Hitler in a pitch-black comedy with wild, deliberately alienating tonal shifts. Still, Jojo Rabbit’s mashup of Cute & Vile sentiments left me more confounded than either frustrated or moved. I suppose that discomfort & unease was largely the point, but it ultimately just didn’t feel as confident or personal as Waititi’s previous experiments in light-and-dark tonal clashes. It’s the first time I can assume one of his films didn’t fully achieve whatever it set out to accomplish.

The titular Jojo Rabbit is a 1940s German boy, Johannes, who is foolheartedly committed to his enrollment in The Hitler Youth. Already a victim to Nazi propaganda before the film starts, Jojo treats The Hitler Youth as a Weekend Fun precursor to The Boy Scouts (which it kinda was). He fully buys into the program’s antisemitic brainwashing that portrays Jewish people as magical, greedy demons with horns, scales, and forked tongues. This naïve, fanatical devotion to Nazi ideology is challenged when Jojo discovers that his own mother is secretly hiding a teenage Jewish girl from the Gestapo in the walls of their house, trapping him between the White Nationalist lies he’s been immersed in and the quiet demonstrations of kindness & charity towards Jews his mother exhibits at home. Naturally, he talks himself through this internal conflict with the help of his imaginary friend – a goofball, superheroic version of The Fuhrer himself, played by Waititi with the same vaudevillian broadness Charlie Chaplin brought to The Great Dictator.

Between the film’s Wes Andersonian visual fussiness, cutesy childhood humor, and ice-cold stares into the depths of wartime cruelty, Jojo Rabbit tosses a lot of clashing flavors into one overflowing gumbo. The not-for-everyone ingredient in that recipe (the okra, if you will) is the film’s peculiar sense of humor, which is broad enough to feel like it was intended for an audience of children despite the thematic severity it’s supposed to undercut. This film is consistently gorgeous as a meticulously tailored art object and seemingly heartfelt in its pangs of familial & genocidal drama, but it’s never quite funny enough to full earn its self-proclaimed status as “an anti-hate satire.” Making Hitler out to be a goofball lunatic who “can’t grow a full mustache” and teasing him with schoolyard names like “Shitler” registers only faintly on the satire scale, a whisper of righteous dissent. To be fair, it’s the kind of humor a school-age young’n might find darkly subversive, which fits the POV character’s mentality just fine. For an adult audience, though, the jokes rarely land with anything more than a droll chuckle of recognition, which to me means this outrageous Hitler comedy is paradoxically playing it safe.

Thankfully, it works much better as a political & familial drama, especially in Jojo’s relationships with the women in his house. Spending time with an actual, in-the-flesh Jewish girl reorients Jojo’s dehumanization of her people as horned demons in the exact ways you’d expect. His relationship with his mother (played by Scarlett Johansson with an SNL-tier “German” accent) is much more complex & capable of surprise, as she grieves for the loss of her sweet, kindhearted son to Nazi propaganda as if he had died in battle. The women’s disappointment in Jojo’s indoctrination into antisemitism and their dismissal of his burgeoning Nazi ideology as “a scared child playing dress-up” registers as the most clear-eyed satirical target in the film – one with undeniable parallels to the resurgence of Nazism among young white men online in the 2010s. The imaginary Hitler device doesn’t lead to anything nearly as poignant as that dramatic anchor (although it is satisfying to see the racist icon portrayed by a self-described “Polynesian Jew”).

If I’m unsure how successful Jojo Rabbit is overall, that unease is mostly due to its middling successes as a comedy. A few jokes land here or there with a light chuckle, but the humor peaks early with an opening credits sequence that reframes Leni Riefenstahl’s propoganda footage of Nazi crowds to play like a precursor to Beatlemania. Overall, the film’s “anti-hate satire” wasn’t nearly as pointed or as ambitious as the 2016 German comedy Look Who’s Back, which amplified tonal clashing in its parody of modern Nazism to the scale of a cosmic farce. For me, Jojo Rabbit worked best as a maternal parallel to the paternal drama of Waititi’s Boy. The difference is that I left Boy marveling at how he pulled off such a delicate tonal balance with such confident poise, whereas I left Jojo Rabbit wondering if I had just seen him lose his balance entirely and tumble to the floor for the first time. The answer remains unclear to me.

-Brandon Ledet

Look Who’s Back (2016)




Look Who’s Back, the latest German satirical comedy from the writer-director who unleashed Wetlands upon the world, just might be the weirdest film to hit Netflix’s streaming service since, I don’t know, Wetlands? David Wnendt’s last two features seem to be establishing a pattern where the filmmaker bravely dives head first into adapting controversial, provocative German novels for the big screen that challenge the outermost boundaries of basic human decency: one a slapstick romance about an anal fissure & the other a Borat-style farce in which Adolf Hitler clumsily navigates & eventually finds popularity in the modern world. The latter film adaptation, Look Who’s Back, mixes seemingly tame, broad comedy with fiercely biting, unforgiving political satire, a tonal whiplash that recalls the unlikely romantic comedy/vulgar gross-out mashup of Wetlands. Look Who’s Back isn’t quite as successful as the delightfully depraved film it follows, but it does help solidify Wnendt’s status as a prankster provocateur, a comedic mind very much astute in finding delight in modern human grotesqueries.

Part of what makes Look Who’s Back such an odd delight is how difficult it is to classify. The film starts with a sci-fi/fantasy premise where Adolf Hitler is mysteriously transported to modern times Germany and follows his first-person POV as he tries to make sense of concepts like selfies, television, the internet, etc. This broad, cheaply campy farce mostly functions as a Trojan horse for the film’s real bread & butter: unscripted, Borat-style street interviews where Hitler interacts with the modern public. A lot of folks treat Hitler like a joke — hugging him, posing for pictures, chirping “I love Hitler!” & honoring him with a Nazi salute — an uncomfortable gaze at toxic hipster irony & modern refusal to engage with life sincerely. These subjects recall the pitch black satirical attacks of works like The Comedy, but they’re not the darkest place the film goes. Look Who’s Back‘s main mode of political satire is in pairing Hitler with real-life, unscripted people who agree with his nationalistic, horrifically racist rhetoric when it comes to the issue of Muslim immigration. They aren’t all easily identifiable neo-Nazi skinheads, either. Think of the German equivalent of your average diehard Trump supporter and you pretty much get the picture. It takes very little effort for Hitler to push German citizens’ Islamophobic rhetoric into verbal support for eugenics & racial purity, a deeply disturbing revelation of a barely-concealed ugliness. As if that weren’t enough territory for an eerie camp comedy to cover, the back half of Look Who’s Back indulges in some weird Adaptation-type meta play where the film indicts itself and its source material for their cultural popularity in a modern media landscape it openly loathes. It’s a singularly strange work, however overstuffed, that finds a lot worth mining in its initially limiting premise.

Comedies don’t always translate well across cultural borders & language barriers and I’ll readily admit Look Who’s Back starts from a shaky place in its early farcical camp machinations. Once the film digs its talons into its not-at-all subtle political commentary, though, it can manage to be a downright harrowing glimpse at modern racism, a nightmarish terror just barely hiding under the guise of concern for “border security.” I was particularly haunted by Hitler’s post-credits tour of modern German where he thinks to himself, “I can work with this.” It’s chilling. Look Who’s Back‘s main conceit is that Hitler just sort of reappears, which initially seems like a far-fetched starting point until you realize that his rhetoric has already done the same. The film’s structure is a strange patchwork that initially mines humor from the visual comedy of a modern times Hitler (Hitler in dad jeans, Hitler in bumper cars, Hitler at the dry cleaners, Hitler bowling), then reminds its audience how dangerous the dead dictator’s very much alive ideology still is in a modern context in candid street interviews, and concludes by pointing a finger in the mirror for not taking history seriously in a meta reflection on the dangers of reducing such a fucked up cultural figure to a casual gag in the first place. Not every joke lands, especially in the early proceedings, but the way Wnendt shoehorns biting political commentary & self-lacerating attacks on ironic humor into the shape of a campy farce holds just as much shock value as the de Sade levels of sexual depravity & beyond-unsanitary pizza toppings of Wetlands. Look Who’s Back is something of a structural mess, but it’s a fascinating mess with a surprising amount to say about the current political attitude towards immigration that disgraces a vast majority of The West, America included (obviously). Wnendt uses the hacky device of a campy Hitler comedy to strike a vary particular nerve in his viewers. It evokes a strange feeling, but it’s a surprisingly potent effect considering the trash pedigree of its chosen genre context.

-Brandon Ledet