A dictator is an absolute ruler, in his modern incarnation, usually of a one-party state that operates under repressive laws that are nevertheless more loosely enforced than the expressed will of the dictator himself. Modern dictatorships are characterized by the repression of political opponents, who are designated subversives, censorship of the press, the state education system, and the arts, limitations on civil liberties, and the perpetual deployment of the military, whether the formal army, the police, or paramilitary groups, to control the citizenry. The term "dictator" has acquired negative connotations, not least of all because high death tolls are the cost of dictatorial power. Here I've compiled a list of films that examine dictators, dictatorship, and the life of those living under, and sometimes resisting, dictatorial power. Though the word "dictator" is often used indiscriminately as a synonym for despot, tyrant, emperor, or even just absolutist monarch, this is incorrect usage and so none of the most famous tyrannies or despotisms, such as Rome under Nero, Russia under Ivan the Terrible, or France under Napoleon, are represented. Perhaps the most obvious exclusion from this list is Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator; though its sincerity is indubitably moving, the film is uneven, suffering from a herky-jerk pace that veers between the tragic and the comic without ever managing to reconcile the two tones, and, while Jack Oakie was nominated for an Oscar, his performance as Mussolini stand-in Benzino Napaloni has aged very badly indeed.
The Conformist (Il conformista) - 1970
Based on Alberto Moravia's novel, The Conformist is one of Bernardo Bertolucci's best films, in the same league with 1900. This film delves deeply into one of the central problems of fascist dictatorship: if the dictatorship is so oppressive, why do most people living under its power, even educated intellectuals, support it, at least tacitly? Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an ordinary intellectual who refuses to see the inconsistencies, fallacies, and dangers of fascist governance, even when he is ordered to assassinate his mentor and father figure, an anti-fascist professor (Enzo Tarascio). The desperate desire to be normal at any cost fuels his capitulation, but this desire is complicated by Clerici's tortured sexuality. Beautiful women (Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda) haunt the screen like pagan spirits, sexual, alluring, and incomprehensible, subjugated by the regime and yet constantly evading perfect control, while Clerici drives himself deeper and deeper into a political entanglement he cannot even begin to contemplate.
The Damned (La caduta degli dei) - 1969
The Damned (the title would be better translated as The Fall of the Gods) is an unremittingly disturbing film and one of Visconti's masterpieces. The film revolves around the Essenbecks, a wealthy industrial family. Set in the turbulent years of the Nazi rise to power, and unlike the vast majority of such films, The Damned probes the rifts and fissures among the various factions of Hitler's supporters; the family is less split along lines of simplistic support for or opposition to Hitler than it is riven by inter-party conflicts, with one member a virulently racist member of the SA, another an opportunist happy to collaborate with the SS, and another, deeply troubled but sensitive and brilliant, proves that pain and suffering hardly guarantee any degree of sympathy for others who suffer. The viciousness and cruelty with which they treat each other, the sadism and devastating confusion of a decadent world corrupted by the too easy fulfillment of even the most revolting desires, the arrogance that masks a pitiful sense of one's own inadequacy, these are the traits of the Essenbecks, prominent German industrialists, whether they collaborate or oppose the Nazi regime, whether they stay silent or declare their allegiances. The queasy quality of this film lies precisely in its stark refusal to continue past the point of total Nazi victory; hope is stripped away to reveal a gaping horror beneath; brutality doesn't suffice to keep any of these characters alive: only a totalizing despair that destroys whatever shreds of morality remained.
Downfall (Der Untergang) - 2004
Bruno Ganz gives a monumental performance as Hitler in this film that narrates his final days in his Berlin Bunker. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film is scrupulously accurate in terms of its history for a narrative film. If it can be said to have a heroine, she is Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), one of Hitler's private secretaries, a somewhat milquetoast and oblivious girl whose shock at realizing that the Third Reich is coming to end less than two decades after it began stuns her, somewhat, out of her complacency. The film's strength, and the reason it awoke significant controversy, lies in its insistence on creating a three-dimensional portrait of the most powerful Nazi figures, including Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) who murdered their own children in the bunker and Himmler (Ulrich Noethen). Truthfully, Downfall, no matter how complex its portrayals, doesn't come close to inspiring sympathy for these people, responsible for some of the worst atrocities in history, but it does frighten, precisely because it becomes clear that one needn't be a monster to do monstrous things, a salutary lesson in this age of threatened democracies.
Hitler's Children - 1943
Hitler's Children is the pulpiest among a handful of Hollywood films that confronted Nazism head-on, which included The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage's masterpiece) and Tomorrow, the World! Though not a critical success, the film made boatloads of money, perhaps in large part due to its overwrought and almost hysterical vision of Nazi Germany. Tim Holt plays a young Gestapo thug, whose love for an American girl of German descent, played by Bonita Granville, forces him into ideological crisis. The film makes only passing reference to concentration camps and anti-Semitism and prioritizes melodrama over realistic depiction, but the aim of the film is to stress the brutality and horror of daily life under a totalitarian regime: Germans are the perpetrators, but they are also the sheep being led to the slaughter, in desperate need of re-education, of an intrusive reality that contradicts the ideologies they believe, or pretend to believe, messianically. The film's portrayal of mass sterilization of "undesirables" still shocks today.
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie - 1988
Marcel Ophuls is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of cinema history; his abilities as an interviewer and editor render the four hours of this film endlessly fascinating and deeply disturbing. Ophuls refuses to satisfy the viewer's increasingly desperate desire for clarity, even as there is no question of his values and his own fiery and righteous point of view. Hotel Terminus, like the equally merciless The Sorrow and the Pity, examines the moral quandaries of World War II unflinchingly, but totally without sensationalism, an effect created by the use of pure testimony rarely illustrated with stock footage. Ophuls simply refuses to centralize his ostensible subject, but he also recognizes that simply defining Barbie as a monster fails to grant any depth to an understanding of the horror of the torture that was Barbie's specialty. The film welcomes dissenting voices, but allows a Jewish concentration camp survivor the final word. While dozens of documentaries have taken Nazi war crimes and criminals as their subject, none other has succeeded so perfectly at balancing condemnation with complexity.
The Interview - 2014
The Interview would almost certainly have been a moderately successful and swiftly forgotten political comedy if the North Korean government hadn't reacted to it with such wrath; ironically, the film's significance is almost entirely due to the interference of North Korea. Easily half an hour too long and at times descending to comedy more in tune with a toddler's sense of humor than an adult's, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's film takes a simple premise - barely competent talk show host (James Franco) and nebbishy producer (Rogen) are invited to interview Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and ordered by the CIA to assassinate him while they're at it - and builds a series of comic scenarios that eventually culminate in a bloody finale that implies revolution without granting politics any substance. Even so, the movie has its cake and eats it too: the movie's politics are simplistic in the extreme, and yet the friendships between the characters feel fresh, real, and genuinely anchor the film's values; the adolescent desire to blow up the bad guy is freely indulged, but the starry-eyed innocents are more concerned with the safety of a puppy than the success of their mission; female characters are sexualized and lack personality, while the male characters have unexpected depth. What charmed me most, however, were Franco's frequent, nerdy Lord of the Rings jokes.
Judgment at Nuremberg - 1961
Seeing this film was a major event in my childhood - I'm surprised my mother let me rent this particular video - because it was my first exposure to footage filmed by the Allies as they liberated the Nazi concentration camps. Rewatching it as an adult, I'm struck as much by the tacit assumptions, political lacunae, and careful moral delineation of the film as I am by its profound emotional impact, largely due to brilliant performances from Judy Garland, who could wring tears from a stone, Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Marlene Dietrich. Though director Stanley Kramer strives to inject moral complexity into the drama of the courtroom, what complexity there is can be ascribed almost purely to the actors. The nastiest Americans are still earnestly striving to live by a moral code, the nicest Germans teeter on the edge of villainy, and their victims are wounded lambs at the altar. Even so, the film's defects in some ways make it a more precious document, one that, in attempting to wrestle with the issue of the victorious Americans, who had just dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, setting themselves firmly on the moral high ground in choosing to try Nazi criminals in military tribunals (as opposed to setting up international tribunals that would be placed above all countries, rather than only the one whose officials were being tried). This is an issue far from clearly resolved; I applaud Kramer for trying with such sincerity.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) - 2006
Released seventeen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's debut film is about a Stasi agent (Ulrich Mühe) assigned to monitor a pro-communist playwright (Sebastian Koch), whose actress lover (Martina Gedeck) has lamentably attracted the interest of the greedy Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme). Mühe gives a revelatory performance as a lonely man whose senses and conscience are awakened as he presides over the apartment, like a silent and lesser god moved by the plight of the mere mortals under his control. The Lives of Others is devastating, but it works well both as a thriller and as an examination of the workings of human morality stretched to its limit under surveillance. Though the film attracted controversy for portraying a Stasi agent sympathetically, I would argue that this is largely the point. Had Mühe's character been portrayed as a monster, the film could not treat its central subject, that is, that humanity lurks in every person and can be revived even after the most exacting indoctrination if that person comes to care for another, to see himself in that other. This is a much more compassionate point of view, and it is also a more hopeful one, for otherwise the monsters among us could only be eliminated by their own methods, by murder, and those who eliminate them would risk constantly becoming such cartoon creatures themselves.
Love and Anarchy (Film d'amore e d'anarchia) - 1973
One of Italian director Lina Wertmüller's four masterpieces released in the 1970s, Love and Anarchy stars two of her favorite actors, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. The film is set in a Roman brothel in 1932 where Salomè (Melato), a prostitute popular with Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), the head of the fascist police, collaborates with the anarchist resistance by manipulating her powerful clients. Tunin (Giannini), a naive country bumpkin, hides out in the brothel, biding his time: his mission is to kill Mussolini. Love and Anarchy is both a blistering comedy - Spatoletti in particular is a fascist caricature par excellence - and a heart-rending tragedy, for Wertmüller uses both laughter as a means of exposing the moronic nature of fascist ideology and a realistic depiction of fascist abuses to mourn the sacrifices made by partisans, sacrifices that all too often proved futile, for Tunin is a buffoon, but one capable of passionate and pure love, selflessness, and a very reasonable fear of death. Special mention should be made of the costumes by Enrico Job, who manages to endow each of the prostitutes with a sense of personality with their garish finery.
Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) - 2006
Guillermo del Toro's heart-breaking film is about Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in an astonishing and insistent performance), a ten-year-old girl whose widowed mother is pregnant and deathly ill and whose stepfather, a falangist officer tasked with annihilating the local rebel forces, orders the doctor to save his son and let his wife die without a flicker of an eyelid. Ofelia is an innocent in a world of monsters and so when she meets a faun who gives her three tasks as the price for admittance into a magical kingdom where she will rule as an immortal princess, her bravery, a desperate necessity as her stepfather tortures dissidents in the cellar, is imbued with a positive purpose. Del Toro's fairy tale admits no childish ideas of absolute good and the magical world in which Ofelia attempts to complete her tasks is as violent and dangerous as the real world in which her mother lies dying. By the end, it becomes impossible to draw a distinction between real and imaginary, and blood sacrifice is demanded. Pan's Labyrinth is proof that "realism" can hardly claim superiority when it comes to portraying such surreal and horrifying eras of history as the Spanish Civil War.
Passenger (Pasażerka) - 1963
This Polish film is extremely hard to track down, but it is also one of the most potent cinematic confrontations with the Holocaust. Left incomplete after director Andrzej Munk's death, Passenger uses the techniques of documentary filmmaking to deconstruct and probe the veracity of the testimony of Liza, a female SS guard at Auschwitz, played by Aleksandra Śląska. Years after the war, Liza finally admits her past to her husband, claiming that thanks to her a Jewish girl named Marta (Anna Ciepielewska) survived the liquidation of the camp. The film contrasts this telling with Liza's private remembrance. The bias of both accounts is obvious, but what makes the film so daring is its way of forcing the viewer to sift through the differences between them, to search for some trace of the unadulterated truth, if it can even be said to exist. Passenger is rife with haunting moments: in one scene, a tiny Jewish girl pets an SS guard's German shepherd; the guard smiles down at her before waving her down the steps into the gas chambers.
Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze) - 1975
Another of Lina Wertmüller's masterpieces starring Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties revels in the grotesque, the abject, and the wretched; it is one of the most challenging and one of the most brilliant of films addressing the horror of concentration camps. It is also howlingly funny. Pasqualino (Giannini) is a Neapolitan ne'er-do-well, a petty crook, whose machismo lands him in jail after he kills his sister's pimp. In a tour-de-force scene, Pasqualino pretends to believe he's Mussolini, which lands him in an insane asylum, and when he gets tired of acting crazy, he volunteers for the army. Once in the army, Pasqualino, ever the scallywag, deserts and lands in a German concentration camp, where he schemes to seduce the grotesquely hideous commandant (a chilling Shirley Stoler). The humor in this film is literally brutal; Pasqualino shrieks for his mother in jail as he's swarmed by an army of weeping sisters, while in Germany he breaks into a private house and gorges on food in front of a shocked granny, and in the concentration camp, the seduction scene is so macabre that its absurdity borders on monstrosity. In other words, Seven Beauties is not for everyone. It does, ultimately, make more than one profound statement about the price of dictatorship, whether that of a man in his family, of il Duce over Italy, or of the commandants over concentration camp inmates.
To Be or Not to Be - 1942
Ernst Lubitsch's wildly subversive comedy is unquestionably Jack Benny's best film and among Carole Lombard's best. The movie's sense of humor is gleefully dark and yet it still has that light, frothy Lubitsch touch. A Polish theater troupe in Warsaw watches with dismay as the Nazis march in, but finds their talents uniquely suited to resistance when they discover that a traitor has a list of the Polish pilots enlisted in the RAF, the families of whom the Nazis want to send to concentration camps as reprisal. Solemnity hasn't got a chance in this film that has a running joke about Concentration Camp Ehrhardt and a false beard, there are Hitler impressions (some of them excellent) scattered throughout, and yet, To Be or Not to Be never hits a false note. Every line has a double, or triple meaning. For instance, Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" is recited several times and its meaning alters and amplifies with each recitation. To Be or Not to Be, for all its slapstick and pratfalls, is a genuinely subtle film, its politics crystal clear and not even a little heavy-handed. It is also an impassioned argument in favor of the subversive power of art, even when the artist is a ham.
Vincere - 2009
Marco Bellocchio's gorgeous film (the cinematography is by Daniele Ciprì, who uses complex blacks and deep reds to great effect) tells a curious and until recently secret story of Mussolini's biography. Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) was the passionate, headstrong lover of the young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi, who also plays Benito, fils) and newly unearthed research has all but confirmed that Dalser was, in fact, his first wife before Rachele Guidi and that therefore Mussolini was a bigamist. Dalser's life is a tragic one; she spent it on a quixotic mission to be acknowledged as Mussolini's rightful wife and the mother of his legitimate son. For this, both she and her son were imprisoned in separate insane asylums, where both would die under suspicious circumstances. Dalser's erasure from the public record testifies to how dangerous her claims were considered to be. In Vincere, Mezzogiorno gives a luminous performance, one that embraces all of Dalser's more difficult qualities without by one iota diminishing the depth of her misery and the extraordinary force of her stubborn indomitability. This operatic film gives full scope to the dramatic possibilities of this piece of history, finally granting Dalser some justice and exposing the unthinkable repression of Mussolini's dictatorship.