Charlie Chaplin film fest evokes lessons for today

BERLIN – Charlie Chaplin in Berlin, like everywhere else, past or present, equals hilarious laughter but means also, for all whose eyes are wide enough, no lack of true drama, full of nuances.

Chaplin had visited Berlin in 1931, touring with his new film, “City Lights.” On his way to the Adlon Hotel, enthusiastic crowds wildly greeted him. But it was a Berlin under the double shadow of the Great Depression and the menacing growth of the forces led by Adolph Hitler.

Hitler and Chaplin, known for their similar little mustaches and born only four days apart, represented in every other respect exact opposites.

Eighty years after Chaplin’s triumphant Berlin visit, Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate proved an unusual but fitting backdrop for the giant screen showing of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, his own moving declaration of war in 1940, against hatred and fascism, racism and all oppression.

It was this same big arch through which, two years after Chaplin’s visit, Hitler’s storm troopers had marched triumphantly to power. It is very close to the spot where, in 1945, he swallowed a fatal dose of poison just before Red Army soldiers raised their red victory flag nearby over the hulking ruins of the Reichstag.

This pillared arch has always been of historic importance, also in our own recent lifetime. At the free showing Friday evening July 15, hundreds of people, most of them sitting patiently on the ground, undoubtedly followed the advice uttered by Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine before the film started: “…to enjoy it, to think and to grow.”

This slender little actress, no longer young but contagiously full of much the same joyous energy and attraction as her father, came to Berlin, where she is staying in that same famous Adlon Hotel, to help host a Chaplin retrospective of all of her father’s films.

Except for the one remarkable outdoor showing of the mockingly anti-Hitler film at Brandenburg Gate, so fraught with symbolism, all eighty of Chaplin’s films, early ones and late ones, 8-minute shorts and those of feature length, will be shown in the next three weeks, as many as five or six a day, in a cinema orgy of laughter mixed with occasional tears in the Babylon cinema theater.

The Babylon is a building full of its own anti-fascist symbolism; it was designed in 1929 by a great anti-Nazi architect and, later, a small resistance group here was able to provide a brief hiding place behind the scenes for people pursued by the Nazis.

The opening night in Babylon theater was devoted to Chaplin’s “Gold Rush”, with the little tramp hunting for gold on the Klondike. Before it started, Geraldine Chaplin said a few words to the eager audience, with a line or two in German, words filled with her lively humor and informality, while also showing how moved she was by this ambitious tribute to a father she still admires so vividly.

Her words in English were translated by the noted film director Volker Schlöndorf, while curator Friedemann Beyer and theater director Timothy Grossman welcomed prominent guests and thanked all who had been of help, including U.S. Ambassador Philip Murphy and Berlin Mayor Wowereit.

But then filmmaker Chaplin took over with his major early film success, accompanied by the Neues Kammerorchester Potsdam, an ensemble of young musicians who are playing the music to all the silent feature films with exactly the music Chaplin composed for them. Even old buffs, who know the films well, were amazed at what a difference an orchestra made!

Those lucky enough to see many of the eighty films can follow the route of this little slapstick comedian from London, landing in those early heady days in Hollywood and developing into a stirring spokesman, not only for those oppressed by Hitler and his legions, but for all tramps, outcasts and underdogs against the greedy and the narrow-minded, the violent and hateful everywhere in the world.

Although he never publicly committed himself to any particular political direction, his message was clear enough, and strong enough, as in his film “Monsieur Verdoux”, exposing all eager warriors.

He was forced to give up his adopted American home in 1952 thanks to just such views, and finally settled in more neutral Switzerland with his young wife Oona and his many children.

[People with pro-peace, progressive and leftwing political views were persecuted for them in the United States during this time, known as the McCarthy era.]

In 1957 he voiced his angry reaction to the likes of Senator Joe McCarthy in “A King in New York.” Neither of these two films was shown widely in the U.S. Yet, both are today as relevant as ever.

“Circus”, “Modern Times”, “City Lights”, and “The Kid”, with countless wonderful laughs and all with something to say, will have the fine orchestral backing – as well as “Limelight”, of course, his coming to terms with old age, the recollections of his lonely childhood years in London and a haunting, hugely successful signature song.

The shorts, some little-known, will be shown in a smaller room with piano accompaniment by fine pianists.

After the first two showings nearly everyone spoke about how wonderful it was to watch the films with a large audience, to laugh out loud with all the others but also, secretly, to wipe away a tear or two.

Somehow even sentimental passages, easily derided in other films, never seemed kitschy when Chaplin filmed them. His taste was superb; he was one of those very rare masters who was able to reach all ages, all levels, all interests, and almost all views.

So many of his sentiments, though interpreted in many different ways, remain as relevant as ever before in the contradictory, challenging, ever-changing life of the German capital, and far beyond it. There are still too many homeless tramps and hungry children around and still too many of the men who love weapons and often long to use them.

(Personal note: If my review seems especially enthusiastic, it is not solely because of the great films, though I love nearly all of them. As I must disclose, a main organizer of the retrospective and director of the theater, Timothy Grossman, is my son. And just incidentally, it was he discovered that Chaplin had found it necessary to abandon McCarthy-ridden America exactly one month to a day after I was compelled to make the same unhappy decision.)

Photo gif: (CC)


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.