- “Hannah, Can You Hear Me?”—Chaplin’s Great Dictator, “Schtonk,” and the Vicissitudes of Voice
In an article that appeared in the New York Times attending the release of City Lights in 1931, Charlie Chaplin sketches the transition from silent to talking picture and outlines the terms of his own “Rejection of the Talkies.” Like film theoreticians and other practitioners of the time, Chaplin offers a lapsal narrative in which we move from an idyllic situation that requires no (spoken) language to one that replaces the imaginative work of the audience with a mere receptivity to “the particular tongue of particular races.”1 On this view, the introduction of sound cinema abolished the freewheeling internationalism of the silent films with their easily substituted intertitles, their montage principle, and a gestural vocabulary assumed to be nearly universal. Suddenly, film was capable of constructing viewing communities, interpellating certain spectators, and marking others as outsiders. These communities come into existence through a shared understanding—they know what the characters are saying. But perhaps more importantly they also constitute themselves through incomprehension—the “intended” or “proper” audience is one that does not know or understand certain things, codes, and in particular languages. Chaplin himself relied on this latter effect in one of his most famous films: The Great Dictator undertakes its critique of Fascism by offering us a language that we the viewing community cannot understand and spends its running time working out the implications of this nonunderstanding.
As Michel Chion has pointed out, debates precipitated by the advent of the talkie circled around the question of speech and language, shirking the category of the voice entirely2—even though speech and language had been characteristic of films long before the introduction of the sound cinema.3 Rather than language, what was genuinely new in sound cinema was the particular embodiment of human vocality: tone, cadence, and [End Page 451] accent brought a bodiliness to filmic communications that the abstract rhythm of intertitles had previously kept at bay. Sound film revealed whether an ostensibly Anglophone everyman or everywoman was actually saddled with a thick European accent. It introduced the question of how to mark difference and particularity in human speech while rendering it comprehensible: How does dialogue make clear that characters are speaking German while translating their conversation? And, conversely, what about speech that the film’s ideal viewer is not supposed to understand—is there something wrong with a viewer who can follow the discourse of a Hollywood film’s German, Japanese, or Vietnamese bad guys?
After first compromising in Modern Times (1936), Chaplin altogether abandoned his “rejection of the talkies” for The Great Dictator (1940). This is anything but coincidental, as the same period gave rise to broadcast technologies that made human speech, and in particular political speeches, available to wider communities of listeners. In particular the rise of Nazism in Germany is inextricably bound up with an obstreperous vocal performance, perhaps the most recognizable in history.4 It was “the Führer’s voice” (much more so than his face5) that reached and thereby constituted “the German people,” as one propaganda slogan put it.6 Many contemporary observers suggested that it was this preponderance of Hitler’s voice that accounted for his rapport with the German people—one that visual communication not only would not have sustained but would have fatally undercut. As Max Picard put it in his famous Hitler in Ourselves (1947), Hitler’s blank oval face was something like a road sign—“but there were only a few who read this warning sign.” Hitler’s very success as symbol for an enraptured collective (Volksgemeinschaft), Picard argues, depended on the hypertrophy of his voice and the nullity (or straightforward unavailability) of his face: “Hitler was heard but was not seen. That was his big advantage.”7
In both discourses, then, visuality is played off against vocality, and their interactions are mapped in explicitly political categories. This essay argues that it is this question of voice versus image in film and the role of voice and vision in theorizations of Fascism that underpin Chaplin’s attempt to challenge Nazism in and through film and comedy. If Hitler...