Looking at Dark Comedy with Charlie Chaplin and Four Lions

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The most profusely used method of dealing with human tragedy is by laughing at it. Black comedies have a deliciously bittersweet way of dealing with, often times, very tragic circumstances in a way that allows the observer to scoff at the horrific reality that is life. I should specify, the comedies I will refer to in this post are specifically ones that mock the evil associated with the subject matter, rather than mock the victims. Pot-shots taken at innocents are par for the course. As with any comedy, humor is subjective and movies of this genre prove successful at offending as many people as they entertain. Today I will discuss two, very dark, films in the comedy genre. The first film is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a film I had the pleasure of discussing earlier this month on another blog that I write for. The second is a lesser known British film entitled Four Lions. Both focus on extremely dark themes.

     The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin’s world famous lampoon of Hitler. The movie was made before America had entered World War II and was at, more or less, peace with Germany. This didn’t stop Chaplin from creating a film that openly mocks the dictator’s of the time, with a character that is almost certainly representative of Adolf Hitler. The audience watches as the silly and self important dictator, Hynkel, oppresses the Jewish people by openly attacking them and putting them in concentration camps. It’s important to note that Chaplin didn’t know the extent that the regime went to to persecute the Jewish people when he made this film. That being said, he addresses one of the greatest tragedies in modern history with slapstick and pratfalls. Not only do we laugh at his barber character, but his depiction of Hynkel is downright hysterical. Chaplin’s portrayal is akin to something you might see on SNL, except perfected to an infinite degree, the man was a master at his art.

     Four Lions focuses on something much closer to us, historically speaking. Jihad terrorism, specifically suicide bombers. The movie follows a group of aspiring suicide bombers as they attempt to perfect their technique and hone their knowledge before choosing a target and carrying out an attack in the name of Islam. The humor in this movie is incredibly deadpan, as is often the norm with British cinema. The characters present their lines with such conviction and believability, that if you’re not listening to their absurd logic, you very well could miss the entire gist of the humor, which is that these men are complete idiots.  It was far more uncomfortable of a movie to watch than The Great Dictator, simply because it deals with something that’s historically closer in proximity to me.

     Both of these films have subject matters that, if taking a survey of 100 people would have a unanimous voice in saying that they are not funny. However, if film history has proven anything, it’s that you can make a comedy on almost any subject matter and it will sell tickets, often times the more offensive, the more it makes. The Great Dictator was well received by audiences, and became Chaplin’s highest grossing film, taking a very serious subject matter and making people laugh with it. Four Lions certainly hasn’t garnished the same attention or success as The Great Dictator, it’s a lesser known release with a relatively unknown cast. It’s violent and crass and as I stated before, very uncomfortable at times, particularly in the scenes where the would-be-terrorists are preparing for their attacks. But it uses the same methods as The Great Dictator to fuel it’s humor. Part of the fear that goes along with terrorism is how we view the culprits that commit the violent acts. Just as we laugh at the Hitler-like Character of Hynkel as he dances with a globe, we laugh at Omar and his band of Jihadist brothers as their stupidity and misguided attempts to reason through what they’re doing cause hilariously dark situations. Darkness is often accompanied by a face or a description. It is often the goal of dark comedies to warp that face or description into something goofy and laughable. Humanity, generally speaking, abhors tragedy, but loves laughter. If one can destroy the other, then we have an excellent understanding of why this genre thrives.