Harry Truman didn't like Jews
Eugene Chaplin explains his father Charlie's humor with a joke: "Someone keeps hitting his thumb with a hammer, is asked why and says: Because it feels so good when I stop"
A good eighty years ago, Charlie Chaplin dared his most delicate mission with “The Great Dictator”. In an interview, his son Eugene explains what drove his father on - and how he experienced it privately.
Eugene Chaplin, we are in Corsier-sur-Vevey on the estate where you grew up. Outside, little museum visitors play around on mighty old trees like you once did as a child. How does that make you feel?
The garden, the house, a lot has remained the same, even if it is of course not the same with hundreds of visitors. And my father's spirit is still there. Whoever visits the house gets a good feeling. It has always been like this.
How do you break out of the shadow of such a famous, brilliant father?
At a very young age I understood how infinitely high the bar was. But I had learned from him and my mother: It is much more important to be myself than to compare myself to him. And I had the talent to realize that, for example, I wouldn't be a good actor.
They became sound engineers, worked with people like David Bowie. How many times had you talked to your father about music?
Not often, but I was surrounded by her all the time. He was the first to fully understand the importance of music to films. That's why he began to compose himself. And he loved music. As a child I always heard him play the piano, we also had many concerts in the house, for example the pianist Clara Haskil came by.
What are your memories of Truman Capote's visits?
Once we all went to Circus Knie in Vevey! He was a very close friend of my mother's, extremely extravagant, and he loved to provoke my father: Once he said in the living room that he had just finished a work on the death penalty, that there was now a new, fantastic way of killing people, without making them suffer. My father was horrified, Capote insisted it was a great thing.
A strange sense of humor. The new special exhibition in the “Chaplin’s World” museum is dedicated to “The Great Dictator”. It was the first major Hollywood film in 1940 to portray the Nazi regime critically, and Chaplin's first sound film - his most important work of all?
That is hard to say. One thing is certain: The tramp could now speak for the first time, so he had to have something important to say. And it was also the last time that Chaplin appeared as a tramp, as he soon felt too old for this character. This time he turned her into this Jewish hairdresser. Our exhibition shows particularly well the determination with which he approached this project. Many advised him against it, saying that it was not the right time. He also received death threats, there were many pro-Nazi forces in America at the time. But he found a way to finance this film himself and see it through. He was always a perfectionist, attached great importance to every detail - in this case even more: he did not want to be a target for attack on this delicate mission.
However, he later said that if he had fully known the horror of the Nazi regime and its concentration camps, this parody would not have been possible. Does a comedian sometimes have to look the other way to get on with his job?
He didn't look away, he just couldn't know. In addition, he laughs at the figures of the dictators, not at their deeds and their victims. For example, a despot who is concerned about his power prepares one chair in order to appear larger than the other. It is no coincidence that one feels reminded of some of today's leaders.
The Nazis called Chaplin Jewish. He left behind what he later justified by stating that a denial would have been in solidarity with the Jews.
I even think he once said in an interview that he had Jewish ancestors, although that was not proven. He wanted to show that this is nothing to be ashamed of. This is what he did when it was said later in the McCarthy era that he was a communist. He did not let himself be carried away to demonize the communist idea in order to save himself.
He finally escaped the harassment of McCarthyism by settling in Switzerland while he was in Europe for the doctorate of "Limelight".
He felt so badly treated that he did not want to return in 1952. My mother was pregnant with me and put pressure on me to find a home for the family soon. They first looked in the south of France because of the climate, then they found this house above Vevey. I was then the first of their eight children to be born here.
What role did your mother play in this large family structure?
She had a balancing effect, found the compromises and served as a buffer when there were conflicts between the father and us children.
What kind of conflicts?
I knew this question would follow now! Conflict is the wrong word, let's call it disagreement. Of course there were. For example, he always wanted us to be really good students, and I didn't like school at all. He got very angry when I came home with bad grades and thought I wasn't trying hard enough. It was also very important to him to teach us best manners. He liked people who were good manners and knew that doing so increases the chances of being liked by others.
It is said that many clowns and comedians are basically deeply sad people with a dark side. Was that true of Charlie Chaplin too?
No. He was serious, but not sad, nor did he have a dark side. His life began in poverty, he suffered greatly in childhood, then later became famous and successful in America before he was criticized there for his views or his relationships with very young women. Then he met my mother, she was 17 and he was 53, and they married a year later. She was the love of his life, the two always held hands until his end and were very emotionally connected to each other. He had made his fortune and valued what he had achieved instead of always wanting to earn more like many others. He entered this incredibly happy phase of life with my mother and children. So I was allowed to grow up with a strong feeling of security.
Maybe a little overprotected?
Maybe yes. But when I went to boarding school at the age of twelve, I quickly learned how so-called normal life works. I later realized how much my parents' harmonious marriage shaped my conception of relationships - and that it was not easy to reconcile that with my own experiences.
What is the most important thing that he gave you?
The joy of the circus and art in all forms has shaped us, siblings, very much. He gave us the feeling that with art, with imagination, you can always find a way in life. And then of course the sense of humor, which is also the most important thing I want to pass on to my children. Humor not only helps you feel better about yourself, but is also usually more useful than aggressiveness in pointing out injustices.
Chaplin's humor is timeless and appeals to all age groups. How can this be explained, apart from the universal language of pantomime?
There's a joke. One person keeps hitting his thumb with a hammer and is asked why and says, "Because it feels so good when I stop." Charlie Chaplin shows how bad and bad things are - and then lets a little bit of good shine through that is wonderful. He chose timeless themes, but above all everyone has a little tramp: We recognize a part of us in this little man who would like to be a little more, but never forgets his modesty.
Your father would surely have found ways to make us laugh at Corona.
I am convinced of that. Also about things like the computer, which we think are fantastic, but which at the same time can make us very lonely. He wasn't particularly fond of new technology. His last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, was his only one in color in 1967. This did not make him happy either, he felt it was fake.
He didn't like color TV either, and there's a delicious anecdote from your childhood, right?
Exactly. In our library there was a black and white device, the first model ever in Switzerland. There were only six hours of programming a day, and we were allowed to watch with the father for one hour at a time. Then the mother bought a color television and the old set came to us in the children's room on the upper floor, which made us very happy. 48 hours later, however, father wanted the black and white device back and gave us the color television.
Eugene Chaplin and "Chaplin’s World"
Chaplin's World, Corsier-sur-Vevey, special exhibition until August 29th.
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