Understand Chaplin's philosophical point of view for this film
Aug 15, 2010
After one has viewed Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, one can easily see that Chaplin had read his Nietzsche, and that he took Nietzsche’s warnings against the “herd mentality” to heart. Chaplin released his film, Modern Times in 1936, during a time when the world was in the throes of the Great Depression. The film has Chaplin’s fingerprints all over it. He and his wife, Paulette Goddard, star in it Chaplin wrote the script, composed the music score, directed and produced the film. Thus, one can easily assume that the film is a work that depicts what Chaplin is thinking on how “modern times” are negatively affecting the health and welfare of humankind. This review will compare the writings and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Chaplin’s portrayal of the hapless worker in the 1930’s. It will show how Nietzsche accurately foretold how he thought humankind’s abysmal future would turn out. Nietzsche thought that either people were destined to become a member of the faceless herd, or to use a modern day metaphor, a cog in the wheel of society; Chaplin’s film actually uses both metaphors.
The first thing that one notices about the movie is how the credits at the beginning are prominently superimposed over a large clock. Chaplin uses the clock to make a statement that the modern industrial society has control over the worker and makes them live by the rhythmic speed of the assembly line. Nietzsche wrote, “The misery of men living a life of toil has to be increased to make the production of the world…” The second surreal aspect of the movie is how Chaplin used sound in a predominantly silent film. Mostly used in relation to speed up the assembly line, sound is used in the film as a tool to control people. Chaplin hated “talkies” and this movie is clearly his attempt to show his displeasure that the film industry was moving in that direction. Modern Times’ first scene is an endless herd of sheep rushing through a chute, which morphs into men ascending from the stairway of a subway all rushing to go to their factory jobs. Even the most casual observer cannot miss this juxtaposition of sheep and workers being herded about; to slaughter for the sheep, and going to work for man. The worker, reduced to laboring at such monotonous work, would of course, cause Nietzsche to think that workers were trudging off to a kind of death, which is the vapid existence of the factory worker. The portrayal of Chaplin’s Tramp in the movie, as a slave to an industrial society, is just what Nietzsche thought lied in store for the future of humanity. “The majority of people are living a mundane life and with no reflection or introspection of their lives.” A machine and not a person’s own will rules him. Chaplin proves this point in one of his more famous scenes, where he portrays the Tramp ploddingly tightening bolts on pieces of metal whizzing by him on a conveyor belt at an ever-increasing rate of speed. The supervisor constantly harasses the Tramp to perform his task faster in order to keep up with the speed of the machine. Chaplin astutely shows the immediate psychological effect that the assembly line work has on the Tramp. When he takes a short break from work, the Tramp displays the herky-jerky motion of his job as he walks about. Near the end of the workday, the assembly line is running at full speed and becomes too fast for the Tramp to stay up with; thus, he cracks under pressure. In the most telling scene of the movie, the Tramp hastens to keep pace with his work, which causes him to fall onto the conveyor belt and he is literally swallowed up by the machine. Once spat out, the Tramp suffers a nervous breakdown and he is carted off to a psychiatric hospital. During the 1930’s, out of all the available art mediums only film could vividly portray life in the industrial age. Chaplin shows the audience how the machine eats the worker, as the Tramp moves through its wheels and gears only to be spat out like so many other unidentifiable pieces that the machine manufactures during the day. Chaplin makes sure that his message is abundantly clear, which is that modern society is churning out workers like so many nondescript pieces; thus, their only use is to feed the machines with their labor so that they will operate to maximum efficiency. Nietzsche saw what exploitation was about. “Exploitation is not part of a decadent or imperfect, primitive society: it is part of the fundamental nature of living things.” To drive his point home, Chaplin’s film includes several scenes illustrating the deplorable condition in which the unemployed workers are left to their own devices to take care of themselves. In the modern industrial society, the workers find themselves dehumanized and unimportant to both society and the government, except for their one reason for being, which is to keep the wheels of industry turning. This inevitable existence for humankind that Chaplin’s film showed, and that the industrial revolution fostered, is exactly what Nietzsche was preaching against in his writings. Nietzsche was fearful that humankind’s destiny was to take the path of least resistance, to be easily lured into conforming to the norms of the tribe and to become just another member of the herd. “So what concerned him is that we have a herd society that sees it a virtue to not be any different or not to be better then anyone else.”
Cured of his nervous tic, the Tramp returns to society jobless. It is at this point that Chaplin shows the audience the futility of life in the industrial society. Chaplin portrays the Tramp in several sequences where every action he takes to hold a job backfires. The film shows the Tramp to be just a hapless bungling victim of circumstances, and this message serves as a strong indictment on modern society. As Nietzsche would remark, the modern industrial society has taken away the Tramp’s “will to power.” In addition, the government through its long arm of the law, arrests the Tramp and incarcerates him, simply because his circumstances put him at the wrong place at the wrong time. The Tramp is released from prison because he inadvertently foils a prison break. The next sequence of circumstances also has the Tramp meet and pair up with Paulette Goddard’s character, the gamin who has been recently orphaned. This allows Chaplin to turn his camera’s lens on the other ill of the modern industrial society, which is the plight of the orphan representing the human cast offs of society. The gamin is running away from the police, who feel that it is their duty to arrest and imprison her, since she is a vagrant in society’s eyes. Chaplin exposes the utopian dream of the masses in the film when he has his couple dream and do all in their power to obtain a home for themselves. That modern industrial society has filled its workers’ heads with the notion that equating ultimate happiness with possessing even a ramshackle home is not lost on Chaplin. In his movie, Chaplin with comic absurdity, questions modern society’s cultural standard of happiness, and he exposes it for a fiction just as Nietzsche did.
Near the movies end, the couple finally obtains steady employment at a restaurant and is well on their way to attaining their utopian dream. However, in a scene that is reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, an ironic twist of fate befalls the couple. The police catch up with the gamin at her place of employment so that they can arrest her because they have a warrant classifying her as a vagrant! Chaplin makes sure that the audience understands his message of Modern Times—no matter how hard one tries, one is not in control of their lives because society has ultimate control over them. This is the recurring theme of the movie.
Chaplin’s film ends with the lesson that Nietzsche believed to be of paramount importance for humankind to survive. “To live, as a human being is to participate in life, and you have to play the game. We must play with passion and creativity and power.” Chaplin closes his film with the Tramp telling the downtrodden gamin, “Buck up - never say die. We'll get along”! The final scene flickers across the screen with the couple walking down a dirt road arm in arm into a sunrise, and with a new optimism and passion for being in the game of life.
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About the reviewer
Michael Neulander (MNeulander)
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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Modern Times is a comedy released on February 5, 1936 and produced by United Artists.The film was directed, produced, and written by Charlie Chaplin. Modern Times starred Charlie Chapman, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman,Stanley Sandford and Chester Conklin
Modern Timesis a story of a man who tries to live in modern industrial times with the help of a young homeless woman.After its release the film received 1nomination, and celebrated 2 various wins.
It was given an MPAA rating of G and runs 87 minutes.