Charlie Chaplin’s famous movie “Modern Times” (1936) offers us a very rich menu in order to make an analysis from a Marxist perspective. The film is often integrated into the genre of comedy but in fact it is very political film. Modern Times is also considered as one of top 100 films in cinema history and a real masterpiece although it is a silent, black and white film. The scenarist, director and the star of the film is Charlie Chaplin. Paulette Goddard and Henry Bergman are other notable actors. In this assignment, I am going to analyze Chaplin’s famous movie “Modern Times” from a Marxist perspective by taking help from Marx’s own views from “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”.
In the film, Chaplin plays his favorite character “The Tramp”. The Tramp as usual (Chaplin played The Tramp in many other films too) is a clumsy, funny and a naïve character. However, in this film one of the most apparent characteristics of the Tramp is that he is a laborer (worker) who lives in very difficult conditions in the times of rapid industrialization and urbanization. In the film the city streets are full of newcomers who search for job in factories. The Tramp is one of these newcomers who migrated from rural places to newly establishing big cities and industrial areas. This brings us to our mind Marx’s famous saying about capitalism. Marx claimed that “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural”. During the film we notice that the streets are very active since there are political-ideological and economical-sociological groupings and clashes. Although workers seem to be a new class they constitute the majority of the population and their opposition to their slavery soon began as Marx predicted by saying “The capitalists produce their own gravediggers”. Karl Marx also pointed out that “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities. The proletarian movement is self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”. The dynamism of the streets reflects the bad old memories of the Great Depression period.
In the film, The Tramp works in a factory with machines in very difficult conditions. He had to work without break for many hours and his work requires heavy physical strength. His conditions are so inferior that he is alienated to his own labor and his actions soon become automatic rather than a pleasant job. He acts and works like a machine with hundreds of machines and other alienated laborers. Workers’ lunch time is very short and the food is not really good. Moreover, mechanization of the industry brings many new risks. First of all, machines are very dangerous since they could kill or hurt workers. In a famous scene from the film Chaplin falls into the machine and has a great difficulty of escaping from it. The second problem machines bring is that machines and other technological devices take workers’ jobs since they are faster and stronger. This contradiction is very reflected in Communist Manifesto since Karl Marx believed that materialist dialectic is based on the opposition between men and machines. Marx though that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them, the whole relations of society”.
The film also shows Chaplin’s mistrust and antipathy towards authority since police and wealth businessmen are shown us bad people. Policemen generally use violence against workers and other poor people while they get along very well with reach people. As Marx predicted “The workingmen” seems to have “no country” since their state does not protect them and exists only for a group, class of people. Paulette Goddard plays the character “The Gamin”, a poor woman that The Tramp falls in love with. Both The Gamin and The Tramp represent the working class. They are nameless and homeless.
Finally, in my opinion Modern Times is an excellent movie that should be watched in order to understand the viciousness of capitalism before the invention of welfare state. The film shows Chaplin’s genius and talents.
- Marx, Karl, 1993, “The Portable Karl Marx”,
: Penguin Books London
- Imdb.com (Internet Movie Database), http://www.imdb.com/