If he is to succeed in Berlin, there are two steps to be taken. First, he must win the city of Munich by the greatest possible margin; to that end, he must convince people there that his film, The Great Dictator is more accurate, more truthful, more truthful, more accurate, more accurate than all of the other movies that have come out of Munich. “And if he fails,” says Bader, “I have no doubt he will become a footnote in cinema history—and there will be much discussion about that on the world stage.”
It is a cliché to begin an essay with the same words one quotes earlier about a movie’s power, but this time, the cliché feels less than fitting. No one can deny the importance that such a film wields upon the minds of the people whose lives it depicts. For many people, The Great Dictator feels like a moral, rather than a political, victory. As the most controversial film of the last quarter-century, it provoked a great deal of reaction. Many criticized it for its frank and explicit depiction of the horrors of war; but most others applauded it for showing it in a less harsh light than in its predecessor, Vertigo. Perhaps if the film had been released last summer, it would have been a different story. The director Bader would have a new audience. The result is a film that seems like a masterpiece of propaganda—an example, it seems, of why the propaganda film is all the rage, and why, for much of the last decade, it seems that this film has been as good as it gets in America.
The Dictator may be an art-house film, but that is not its only advantage. Bader uses his trademark hyper-emotional direction, in addition to great editing, to create an immensely moving film. He also makes good use of the material found on hand in the Nazi concentration camps. For some, The Great Dictator offers a glimpse of the horrors of Germany. But the most troubling part of the film is the way it makes the Nazis seem almost human, just as Hitler was such a monster. If this film was not a propaganda effort, then it at least tries to show that the Nazis were at least likeable characters—albeit misguided and often cruel.
The film shows that even with the best intentions, Nazi brutality and violence is not a choice. In Bader’s films, the Nazi ideology becomes a necessity, a fact of life that can only be overcome
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