Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Weren't People Talking About It?

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Last year I spent a lot of time watching movies with my mom. We watched a lot of comedies, and quite a few romances, and usually we didn't pause too long to talk about any one movie before we were off and running, watching the next one. But one movie started us doing a lot of talking.

It seems that everybody has some awareness that Charlie Chaplin did a satirical depiction of Hitler; but unless you've actually seen "The Great Dictator", it's hard to imagine just how bitingly accurate it was. Take a look, for example, at the way Chaplin, in the role of "Adenoid Hynkel" perfectly parodies Adolf Hitler's body language and verbalizations in this clip. (Does that speech actually mean anything in German? Does it matter?)

But what was more remarkable to me was the way the film shows the treatment of Jews by Hitler/Hynkel and his countrymen. For instance, this scene shows Chaplin's Rip Van Winkle-like character returning to his barbershop in the Jewish ghetto after experiencing amnesia, unaware of the persecution that has become commonplace there.

The conceit of the film is that this innocuous Jewish barber (played by Chaplin) is a lookalike for Hitler/Hynkel (also played by Chaplin), and at a crucial moment the two switch places.

It is often said that the West was shocked when the first reports came out of the Nazi concentration camps after the war. I found this hard to believe after realizing how thoroughly, explicitly, and pointedly this 1940 film -- a major studio film, by a Hollywood legend, which was nominated for 5 Oscars -- portrayed German persecution of Jews, including beatings, lynchings, and concentration camps.

After we watched "The Great Dictator" together, I asked Mom if people were talking about German persecution of Jews in 1940. "No," she said, "For instance, at that time I was spending time with your father's family, and because they were in the newspaper business, they were up on all the latest news and events, and talking about everything. But they never talked about this."

"I don't understand why people weren't talking about it," she said.

That conversation got us talking about a lot of things that Mom saw and experienced, especially during the early '40s when she was living in "the big city" of Philadelphia as the country was being drawn into WWII. I was glad that it finally occurred to me to ask, and also that she remembered so much, and so well.

I wonder if, years from now, we will be thinking back to today and feeling surprise at how little we thought about some of the developments in our world, and in our country, and how we talked about them even less. Someday will I have to explain to my kids, or to my kids' kids, why it was that "people just weren't talking about it" . . . ?

MORE: "What did Americans know as the Holocaust unfolded? Quite a lot, it turns out."

[This turned out to be one of my favorite blog posts of 2011. Check out my other 2011 favorite "Scarry Thoughts" blog posts here!]

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