VPR Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Craven: Thinking About Satire

I was stunned by the brutal killings of cartoonists and writers at the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. My heart went out to the families and the Parisians who poured into the streets holding pens to declare, “I am not afraid.” And I was glad that SONY decided to release The Interview even though I wish the film itself were a more effective satire on North Korean tyranny.

I’m reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, that took aim at then-sitting Adolph Hitler, through his character, Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania.  Chaplin played both Hynkel and the film’s look-a-like barber living in the Jewish ghetto who eludes Gestapo soldiers and ends up, through a comic turn of events, mistaken for Hynkel.

Chaplin satirized Italian potentate Benito Mussolini through Hynkel’s self-centered ally, Benzino Napaloni, dictator of the nation, Bacteria. Hynkel’s right hand man, Garbitsch, was modeled on Joseph Goebbels - and his Army chief, Herring, on Nazi strongman Hermann Goring.

It’s hard to imagine anyone keeping a straight face during the making of The Great Dictator - but the film still met resistance.  Hitler called the comic “A disgusting Jewish acrobat” even though Chaplin wasn’t Jewish.  The British, still hoping to appease Hitler, banned The Great Dictator, then politics shifted, and the film helped steel England’s anti-Nazi fight.  Chaplin said Franklin Roosevelt called him into the Oval Office to ask him not to release the picture, since we still had diplomatic relations with Germany. Indeed, Ben Urwand’s recent book, The Collaboration, shows Hollywood executives working throughout this period, to avoid offending the Germans.

The Great Dictator survived - though it was made early during the Nazi regime and Chaplin said that if he had known of the concentration camps he would have not made the film, since he could imagine no basis for humor.

Stanley Kubrick’s landmark black comedy, Doctor Strangelove, staged an accidental launch of nuclear weapons by the U.S. against Russia.  Initially planning the film as a serious drama, Kubrick read more than 50 books and talked to a dozen experts - finally deciding that the Cold War nuclear policy of “mutually assured destruction” was so outlandish that it could only be treated through satire.

The Great Dictator raised consciousness about Nazi brutality even before the worst was known.  Doctor Strangelove, let people know what could happen with nuclear weapons ready to fly.

Satirists ask us to laugh at the outrageous and unthinkable – to inspire change.  Sometimes they make us uncomfortable.  And we need them.