We live in strange times. A huge hack against Sony Pictures and apparent threats against cinemas planning to play the James Franco/Seth Rogan film "The Interview" has lead to Sony shelving the release indefinitely. Stranger still, the U.S. government now thinks that North Korea, incensed by a scene that apparently shows the assassination of North leader Kim Jong Un, was behind the attack.
Many are saying the decision to pull the film is a cowardly act. Steve Carrell, star of the TV show "The Office," had his own film about North Korea canceled in the aftermath of the threats. On Twitter, he expressed dismay – and made a powerful allusion to Charlie Chaplin's classic 1940 film "The Great Dictator," a satire of Hitler.
Carrell is not alone in seeing the echoes here.
It's an interesting idea. But ultimately, comparing "The Interview" to "The Great Dictator" really misses the point.
North Korea is not Nazi Germany
North Korea is an awful place, and many of its worst aspects (such as its political prison camps) bare comparison to Nazi Germany. But consider them on a international scale, things are very different.
In September 1939, when Chaplin began filming, Germany was seen as one of the strongest nations in the world. It was technologically and economically advanced, and militarily successful: It had only just annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia and was at that moment invading Poland. It had partners: It was allied with Italy and had a crucial non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.
Now, consider North Korea in 2014. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's been one of the most isolated countries in the world, with only the half-hearted support of China propping it up. It's technologically backwards and economically weak – it is estimated that its economy is 40 times smaller than South Korea.
While the United States technically never signed a peace treaty with North Korea, it's still hard to imagine the two countries actively going to war anytime soon (and if such a war did happen, it's even harder to imagine that North Korea would stand much of a chance). While the United States did not go to war with Germany until 1941, World War II had begun in September 1939 and the threat of Germany was seen as very real.
Mocking North Korea is easy
In recent years, North Korea has been frequently used as a "bad guy" in films, whether it's the dreadful 2012 remake of "Red Dawn" or Kim Jong Il's infamous appearance in "Team America: World Police." There's nothing especially daring or exciting about mocking the country these days – last year, hackers defaced North Korea-linked Web sites and put up a picture of Kim Jong Un as a pig.
The vast majority of these criticisms say little about North Korea. Even at their best, they say more about the United States than they do North Korea ("Team America" is a satire of America's foreign policy, remember, not of North Korea's). "North Korea is not funny," Adrian Hong wrotes in the Atlantic. "It is hard to imagine a comparable comedy emerging about quirky Islamic State slavers or amusing and “complicated” genocidaires in the Central African Republic."
As Canadian journalist Jeet Heer noted during a great tweet storm on the subject, this is likely because the country is not a market for Hollywood films (unlike, say, China or countries in the Middle East).
In contrast, mocking Hitler before 1940 was relatively daring (Chaplin later said he would not have made the film if he knew the full horrors of Nazi Germany). And Hollywood had bowed to pressure from Nazi Germany a number of times in the 1930s. David Denby of the New Yorker picked up on this last year: He writes that Hollywood's response to Nazi Germany in the 1930s was marked by "half-boldness, half-cowardice, and outright confusion" and notes that many films were canceled or had scenes altered due to German pressure. Chaplin actually had to fight to get his film made even in 1940, pouring his own money into the project.
The world is a very different place in 2014
Nazi Germany didn't like Chaplin's film: Hitler himself apparently watched it twice, and was said to have cried (he was a fan of Chaplin, it seems). But ultimately, the Nazis didn't respond. There are a few reasons why:
First, Germany's attention was elsewhere. It was already at war. The film was irrelevant in the broader scheme of things. For North Korea, however, "The Interview" may not be irrelevant. One thoughtful analysis of the current situation with Sony comes from Scott A. Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, who points out that "The Interview" has come out at a time of unprecedented pressure from the international community for North Korea. The battle of perceptions, over Kim Jong Un's leadership and North Korea's human rights record, is North Korea's "war" right now.
Then there's also a more obvious difference: The Internet didn't exist in 1940. There was no way for Germany to "hack" Chaplin or United Artists (which distributed the film). And if the Nazis wanted to threaten them, they would have to send a letter or a telegram. We do not know how United Artists would have responded if there had been such a threat.
Of course, for Germany carry out any such threat would have been difficult, especially at a time of war. Meanwhile, it took relatively limited resources to hack and threaten Sony Pictures. Resources that even an economic basket case like North Korea could have. Or, for that matter, a currently unknown third party.
'The Interview' is, by most accounts, a bad film
"The Great Dictator" was well-received when it came out and became a box office hit. It was Chaplin's first true talking movie and his most commercially successful. While some critics take issue with certain aspects of it (Chaplin himself was thought his satire of Hitler was perhaps too silly), it's generally viewed as a classic of the genre, with a 92 percent "fresh" rating on movie review Web site Rotten Tomatoes. It was selected to join the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1997 because it was "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
Before the hack, it wasn't looking like "The Interview" would be any of those. In private e-mails between Sony executives (revealed by hackers), the film was criticized for being "desperately unfunny" and a "misfire." It has a 48 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "If you're hoping for any cogent political satire here, then the joke's on you," TIME Magazine's Richard Corliss noted in one review.
It's understandable to look for historical parallels in a situation like this, of course. But the Sony Pictures fiasco may have no real precedent, and it's a mistake to look to Chaplin's situation as any kind of guide for how to behave. This is a uniquely strange situation, in a 2014 way rather than a 1940 way.