One of the memes that has popped up in the last day in the wake of Sony Pictures backing down to North Korean cyber terrorism is the comparison between The Interview—the film at the heart of the present controversy—and The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 satire about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Actor Steve Carell and countless others have brought up the precedent of Chaplin’s classic and openly wondered about the way puny North Korea has been able to do what mighty Nazi Germany could not: intimidate Hollywood. The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor is having none of it. But in taking down the analogy, he’s wrong to dismiss North Korea as merely a basket case. It may not be Nazi Germany, but its ability to perpetrate genocide via nuclear weapons or starvation of its own people should not be dismissed. More to the point, Pyongyang’s ability use cyber warfare to compliment its nuclear capacity should require us to take it very seriously indeed.
Any analogy with anything connected to Nazi Germany is a perilous business and Taylor is not wrong to point out the many differences between the situation in 1940 and that of today. North Korea is a small, relatively isolated nation while Hitler had already begun his conquest of most of the European continent when Chaplin’s film came out. Though it was a military superpower, Germany lacked the capability to threaten the United States in any credible manner or to influence opinion or the distribution of The Great Dictator as North Korea has done with The Interview.
He also points out something that is painfully obvious. Chaplin’s movie is a widely admired classic while Sony’s blockbuster was thought to be an awful comedy. It’s also true as he notes that while Hollywood was somewhat ambivalent about taking on Hitler prior to the entry of the United States into World War Two, it’s been open season on North Korea in American popular culture for some time.
But there is one thing that the two films have in common. Neither comes anywhere close to detailing the horror of the regimes they are satirizing.
As Taylor notes, even Chaplin came to believe that the film that he worked so hard to get made and then distributed ultimately fell short of the mark. Though it is rightly considered a great work, its depiction of a faux Nazi Germany where a Jewish barber finds himself in big trouble underestimates the depth of Hitler’s hate and the peril facing the Jews. Like most observers at the time, Chaplin could not imagine the existence of the Nazi death industry. Though delightful in many respects, its juxtaposition of traditional slapstick and anti-Semitism doesn’t adequately convey the menace of the Nazis even as it made fun of them. Though the film is rightly revered for both its artistry and courage, silly and the Holocaust are two things that really don’t mix.
The same can be said for all the lame jokes that have circulated about North Korea and its appalling first family of murder. The North Korean regime is a punch line in which buffoons such as former basketball star Dennis Rodman figure. We rarely hear about its concentration camps, regime-imposed mass starvation, and bizarre kidnappings of foreign nationals, let alone the very real possibility that its mad leaders will one day try to use their arsenal. It may be, as some have written, that the main reason why North Korea is mocked so often is that it is not a market for Western films or television and thus was thought to be a country that could be tweaked with impunity. But the deadly nature of the regime is no joke. Nor is its ruthless and successful determination to have its way.
If we want a good World War Two analogy, it’s not absurd to think of the apparent North Korea blitz of the Sony Corporation and its ability to intimidate the film industry to withdraw the film with threats as a cyber Pearl Harbor. In 1940, Germany was powerless to stop American companies from doing a thing. This week, a minor power showed that it could bring a major American industry to its knees while Washington looked on impotently.
Though the artists attacking them are not to be compared, Kim Jon-un’s North Korea is no funnier than Hitler’s Germany. And the threat to the United States from its terrorist activities as well as its nuclear capability is equally lacking in humor. Even worse, while the United States eventually mobilized its manpower and industry to defeat the Nazis, it’s far from clear that there is any will or ability on the part of the U.S. to ever do the same to the maniacal regime in Pyongyang.
Instead of pooh-poohing the danger that may come from a small Communist dictatorship, Americans need to be spreading the alarm about North Korea and pondering how best to push the government to do something about it.