Films to help you understand complexity of International Relations: Part 1

In 2009, in the online edition of Slate‘s sister publication Foreign Policy, two of its regular bloggers, namely Stephen M. Walt and Daniel W. Drezner, drew up lists of what they regarded as the best movies ever made about international relations. Walt was inspired to compile the list after a friend told him about a film festival featuring more than 30 movies about wine. ´That got me thinking,´he wrote. ´If Foreign Policy had a film festival, what movies should we show? ´

Nine years later that same question made me ponder, and as a result, I decided to compile my own list of influential movies concerning the topic of international relations. Over the upcoming weeks, I will present three films that I have chosen for my list which should demonstrate the complex nature of international relations. Although I have tried to be as diverse as possible in choosing the top films, all three capture the subject of war (perhaps because the idea of violence sells?). Furthermore, I feel obligated to mention that my cinematic knowledge is dominated by British and American filmmakers; do not hesitate to comment below with any suggestions of foreign movies concerning international affairs to broaden my existing knowledge.

Now let’s start with the first movie of my choice: The Great Dictator (1940)


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The Great Dictator

Although my first choice is greatly criticized by Fred Kaplan, one of the column writers for Slate, I consider The Great Dictator, starring Charlie Chaplin, to be one of the most influential movies for the same reasons for which Kaplan criticizes it. To give you a brief idea of the film, the movie follows the life events of a Jewish barber (Charles Chaplin) who spends years in an army hospital recovering from his wounds, unaware of the simultaneous rise of fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) and his anti-Semitic policies. When the barber (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Hynkel) returns to his neighborhood, he is astonished by the changes, and recklessly joins a beautiful girl (Paulette Goddard) and her neighbors in rebelling against the situation. I am however not the only one to find this 1940s film ridiculing the character of Hitler (in film, introduced as Hynkel) significant. In Walt´s list, The Great Dictator earned third place, together with the explanation that The Great Dictator ´reminds us that making fun of despots is often an effective weapon.´ Through this understanding, Walt underlines the power of satire as an effective tool to oppose to the current ideologies and policies.

Through the lens of satire, The Great Dictator expresses controversial views and statements. The film builds on the principle that, when the viewer is exposed to humor, they become more apt to accept the content. This understanding gave the film’s writer, also Charlie Chaplin, a “rule-breaking” edge and opportunity to expose his audience to debatable subject matter. By lightning the complex subject of a movie with humor, Chaplin was able to raise his voice and opinions concerning the international affairs of the world in which he was living.

For Kaplan, this analytical understanding is not a good justification for finding a movie relevant. In his article, “Hillary Clinton, Watch These Movies!”, he mentions the time when Chaplin himself regretted making this movie after learning about the Holocaust and the true extent of Hitler’s monotonousness. Moreover, the conclusive speech at the end of the movie, which laments the pessimism, violence, and greed that had overtaken the ´free and beautiful´ way of life, is condemned by Kaplan as a disgrace. Although Kaplan´s view on the film and the last speech is not necessarily wrong (given the timing of Chamberlain’s appeasement), one needs to take into consideration the era and politics in which the film was produced. At the time, no-one could have known how far Hitler would go and just how much anti-Semitism would change the world.

To elaborate further, Chaplin´s speech of pacifism captures his values and his understanding of the situation at the time. This film should be comprehended as one example of the mind-sets of people at that time, their understanding of politics, and the ways in which they chose to engage. Simply put, the movie should be read within its historical context, and not be judged on how the future turned out to be. Therefore, there should be a complex reading that critically re-evaluates the role of the movie and its conclusive speech.


The Last Speech

As already hinted, The Great Dictator speech laments the pessimism, violence, and greed that had overtaken human life. Chaplin’s use of power and passion in his delivery of speech and view on the loss of humanity, dedicated to bettering welfare for all, makes for a convincing appeal that an audience can revitalize the vigorous life. What I find impressive about the speech is Chaplin’s delivery of the speech, which maintains the common characteristics of Hitler´s delivery, but with a new twist. In his delivery, Chaplin precisely mirrors the common patterns Hitler used in his public presentation, yet the humane charge Chaplin advocates juxtapose the crude content in Hitler’s speeches. This makes for an immediate connection to the audience. To elaborate the subject further, Hitler had a very specific strategy to execute his speeches. He would begin calmly, and present with the moderate tone. As the speech progressed, however, he became increasingly impassioned. Although the content was often controversial and cruel, Hitler’s rhetorical ability to smitten away people was outstanding; Chaplin mimics this skill perfectly in his role.

Chaplin, posing as the dictator, opens his speech rather modestly, speaking simply and soft. However, similar to Hitler´s delivery, as the speech progresses, he becomes increasingly emotionally involved and passionate. His voice-level rises accompanied with wild gesticulations and, due to his delivery technics, everything he is saying becomes more relatable. Before the audience even realizes what is being said, they are intrigued by the simple fact that the presenter is captivated by his subject. Thus, by the time when the audience fully realizes the meaning of the words, they are already drawn closer to the speaker because of his intensity. They are attracted by his delivery, and as a result, more inclined to truly listen and understand the plea that Chaplin is making, that is, to better humanity.

Once Chaplin ensnares his audience by his delivery tactic, he is in prime position to provoke his listeners (those watching his film) to react to his plea. In my opinion, Chaplin creates a very provocative appeal, hitting directly on your emotions. In his role, Chaplin is able to claim that humanity has sacrificed the responsibility to provide a quality of life to all people, and replaced that responsibility with greed, hate, and violence. He uses intensely-charged words that cut straight to the core of the human emotion.


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We Think Too Much and Feel Too Little

I wish to conclude with one of the strongest statements made in the movie: ´We think too much and feel too little; more than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost´. I believe that these words are still accurate and fitting for the 21st century and should be taken into consideration rather than dismissed as pathetic. Although the movie can be difficult to process (especially after what went down during the World War II), they still send us messages that we can listen to. First, it demonstrates the power of satire and attempts to decrease the influence of dictators by ridiculing them. And secondly, it uncovers the patterns of power which manifest how such power comes into existence, to begin with. Whether you hate or love this movie, it is worth watching as it makes you wonder about the world, familiarizing you with contrasting takes on international affairs.


Katarina Krajcirovicova

School of Gender Studies and Law

University of London


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