Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator
Satirist Sacha Baron Cohen likes to mess with people’s heads. In 2012 the creator of the controversial films Ali G. Indahouse, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Brüno released The Dictator, loosely based on Zabiba and the King, a propagandist novel by Saddam Hussein. This map explores the reach of modern propaganda—as art, entertainment and weapon of mass destruction.
As their titles suggest, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator and Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator (1940) are two films cut from the same cloth. Cohen’s film, marketed as an interpretation of Saddam Hussein’s romance novel Zabiba and the King (2000), tells the story of a simple goat herder who inadvertently switches places with a flamboyant Middle Eastern dictator; Cohen plays both primary characters. Chaplin in The Great Dictator likewise plays the two leading roles: a simple Jewish barber and a megalomaniacal dictator, who, you guessed it, wind up trading stations. The Prince and the Pauper—with tyrants! Both films feature thinly veiled caricatures of real-life dictators, fictitious foreign languages, and beautiful, oppressed women who fall in love with the little guy.
The similarities between Cohen and Chaplin don’t end there. Both are gifted physical comedians: Chaplin earned his clowning chops in music halls, while Cohen trained with the world-famous theater instructor and clown Philippe Gaulier. And both hopped the pond from England to win over Hollywood with comedic films that slyly employ slapstick humor and absurd situations to address heavy issues like class politics, racism and foreign policy.
Sacha Baron Cohen claims The Dictator is based on Zabiba and the King, penned by then–Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (and/or his ghostwriters) a few years before his execution in 2006. The novel, one of several Hussein released, follows the story of the tragic and beautiful Zabiba (a woman who not-so-subtly symbolizes Iraq), who is protected by the titular king (representing Hussein’s Ba’athist regime) from her cruel, sexually abusive husband (invading United States forces), before she is ultimately killed on January 17 (the date, in 1991, of the U.S.-led coalition’s opening aerial raid on Baghdad during the first Gulf War).
Muslim leaders love to go down in history as published authors. Like the creative writing of many dictators—Muammar el-Qaddafi, Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov and Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, to name a few—Hussein’s work reads like a highly dramatic parable with a clear moral message. Cohen’s film turns the allegory on its head, telling “the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”
When they aren’t writing propaganda, world leaders hire filmmakers to produce it for them. The genre is nearly as old as the medium itself. As far back as 1898 the United States paid Vitagraph Studios to shoot films glorifying the Spanish-American War. In the early 1900s Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin called film “the most important of the arts” and appeared in silent reels, gesticulating powerfully to his followers. His successor, Joseph Stalin, capitalized on Lenin’s appraisal of the medium; Stalin, probably the bloodiest dictator in history, commissioned colorfully idealized films of Soviet workers and idyllic pastoral scenes that recalled the bucolic poetry he had written in his younger days. Even Mao Tse-tung had himself filmed among bustling peasants as they worked China’s vast agricultural plots.
The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s film based on the novel Zabiba and the King by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, is pure propaganda film parody. Exhibit A: the movie poster in which a bearded Cohen poses in a khaki military jacket bedazzled with emblems and golden epaulettes, smirking behind enormous sunglasses. The image is reminiscent of exiled dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, who controlled Libya’s media for 42 years.
Leni Riefenstahl’s personal friendship with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler all but ensured the success of her breakout film, Triumph of the Will (1935), called by many the quintessential work of propagandist cinema. Riefenstahl used groundbreaking documentary techniques to capture convincing images of happy, healthy Aryans flexing their military might and deep commitment to National Socialism. Biographers have written that Riefenstahl often approached her subjects with an erotic eye, describing her art as sensual. For much of Triumph of the Will, she photographed Hitler in close-up, casting him in an intimate light in which he’d never been seen.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator follows its buffoonish tyrant with similar, if mocking, admiration. Of course, with source material as rich as Cohen’s, self-aggrandizement comes easily. The film is based on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Zabiba and the King, an “erotic” novel in which the king of Iraq saves a beautiful woman from the unwanted sexual advances of an infidel. Hussein’s allegory follows an arc not unlike the message Riefenstahl delivers in Triumph: that Hitler, Germany’s champion, will protect pure Aryans from the unwashed lesser races. Propaganda film parodies, as you can begin to imagine, essentially write themselves.
Though propaganda films existed before Leni Riefenstahl’s time, her techniques in Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) left a permanent mark on the genre—and on the medium as a whole. Riefenstahl was the first filmmaker to use aerial photography, eye-level and ground-level perspectives, and B-roll footage of undirected (or at least minimally directed) extras. Her sweeping images of Nazi troops goose-stepping in formation became the gold standard for nearly every propaganda film to follow.
Frank Capra, the American filmmaker behind the Why We Fight series of military films intended to agitate the U.S. into entering World War II, said Triumph of the Will inspired and challenged him to make films that packed the same punch. Capra even borrowed some of Riefenstahl’s techniques in his blockbusters Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), each of which contains a persuasive stump speech on a hot-button issue—government corruption and capitalist oppression, respectively.
Riefenstahl claimed she “was first and foremost an artist, never a Nazi propagandist.” But as Capra—once called the “American dream personified”—demonstrated throughout his long career, the line between art and propaganda is not always clearly defined.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Dictator is a satirical comedy based on the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein. The Atomic Cafe is a satirical documentary based on—or rather, compiled from—American propaganda surrounding the atomic bomb, the Cold War and the fear that followed. Though the two films differ in form, they both utilize humor to illuminate the absurdity inherent in their subject matter. Whereas The Dictator follows the over-the-top narrative of Hussein’s agitprop novel, The Atomic Cafe employs subtle editing to allow the source material to reveal its own absurdity.
Both films share a satiric forebear: Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of the Atomic Age, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Both The Atomic Cafe and Dr. Strangelove make excellent use of deadpan voice-over. And like The Dictator, Dr. Strangelove lampoons world leaders whose ideologies trump the lives of everyday citizens. The master of multiple roles, Peter Sellers gives brilliant performances as the American president, RAF Captain Lionel Mandrake and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, a closeted Nazi scientist. Likewise, the chameleonic Cohen, who made his name with outsize characters, pulls double duty as the titular dictator and a hapless goat herder.
A mockumentary composed entirely of government-produced propaganda, training films and news reels from the 1940s on, The Atomic Cafe is like no film that came before it. Jayne Loader, one of the film’s three directors, called it “compilation vérité.” The Atomic Cafe contains no direct commentary; rather, it delivers its message in the way the filmmakers layered and sequenced the footage—a technique documentarians such as Errol Morris have gone on to use to powerful effect.
The Atomic Cafe illuminated propaganda film tropes that had become ubiquitous over the half century preceding its release: the spinning newspaper with enormous headlines, flashing text, ominous music and inflammatory “expert” oratory. But unlike actual propaganda films, The Atomic Cafe contains a great deal of graphically violent footage gathered by journalists in the irradiated aftermath of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series notably leave out such imagery, for the sake of uplifting the viewer and promoting the films’ nationalistic causes. The juxtaposition of brutal images with straight-faced agitprop exposes the latter’s inherent untruthfulness and absurdity, and sends a message diametrically opposed to what the original propaganda intended.
In the early 1930s German actor-turned-filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and comedian-auteur Charlie Chaplin became obsessed with the same man: Adolf Hitler.
Chaplin’s fascination began when a promotional tour for his film City Lights (1931) took him to Berlin, where Hitler was running for president. In Chaplin’s Great Dictator, the clownish autocrat Adenoid Hynkel bears an uncanny resemblance to Hitler, right down to the miniature mustache—which Chaplin claimed Hitler stole from his own trademark tramp persona!
Chaplin’s caricature of Hitler seems to have coalesced while the actor watched Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Chaplin uses similar camera angles and levels of focus in The Great Dictator, and he echoes Riefenstahl’s shots of Hitler in his motorcade, coyly listening to speeches delivered by underlings, shaking hands, kissing babies and even giving his limp-wristed wave—all made famous in Riefenstahl’s intimate close-ups. Film scholars agree that The Great Dictator was the first film to imitate Riefenstahl’s signature shots of Nazi troops in military formation. And Chaplin begins The Great Dictator with a backhanded tip of the hat: a farcical airplane flight ending in an embarrassing crash, which parodies Riefenstahl’s iconic opening shots of Hitler’s plane flying into Nuremburg.
In many ways, Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator is itself a work of propaganda. Certainly, it satirizes propaganda films of the past, mimicking tried-and-true techniques like emphatic voice-overs, twirling newspapers with sensational headlines, foreboding music, idyllic pastoral scenes of laborers in the fields, soldiers marching in formation, and the melodramatic introductory narration titles—all of which set a dire wartime scene for the viewer.
Chaplin had already proved he was not above producing propaganda: During World War I he appeared in several other pro-war films and even made a silent short called The Bond (1918), which endorsed the purchase of war bonds.
But in The Great Dictator, the manipulative tactics borrowed from propaganda often smack of earnestness rather than satire. At the film’s rousing conclusion, the hero, a Jewish barber who has been mistaken for the Hitleresque “great dictator,” delivers a moving moral speech while looking directly into the camera. Meanwhile, the film’s ingenue, a beautiful, oppressed Jewish girl named Hannah (Chaplin’s mother’s name), looks into the sky with tears in her eyes, her face glowing like one of Stalin’s bucolic heroines. This is propaganda for the little guy—the barber, the goat herder, the pauper and the tramp.