5. I, Claudius (Herbert Wise, 1976)
This BBC mini-series based on Robert Graves’s acclaimed pair of historical novels “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” which are about the rise and reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, played by Derek Jacobi. Starting with his childhood as a troubled, half-deaf descendant of the Julio-Claudian line, Claudius is often forgotten by his relations like emperors Augustus and Tiberius, but is noted by others for his goodness towards people.
After the reign of his tyrannical and insane nephew Caligula, played excellently by John Hurt, Claudius becomes emperor because he is not considered a threat. Indeed, he becomes the most benevolent and one of the greatest Roman emperors, but falls due to the greed of his adopted son Nero who wishes to become powerful himself.
I, Claudius is one of the most intriguing and thorough examinations of dictatorship and the hate it brings out in people. Over it’s 10+ hour runtime the lives and reigns of Rome’s most famous and notorious leaders are dramatized and analyzed. Claudius, the lone well intentioned leader, is also not perfect, at times placing his own interests above the people and compromising his values.
This film more than any other on the list shows repeatedly the harm that complete control can cause to a civilization and to the wielder of that power. One of the greatest and most in-depth cinematic portrayals of Ancient Rome, I, Claudius is a fantastic depiction of tyranny as well as setting the standard for what a TV series could be.
4. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)
Triumph of the Will is one of the most famous and, arguably, the most successful propaganda films ever made. It documents the 1934 Nuremburg Nazi Party Congress over its four day period, capturing much nationalistic and powerful imagery and presenting Hitler as a great man and leader.
Through the inclusion of many speeches by Nazi leaders including Hitler and Goebbels and footage of the enormous masses the film shows the influence that the Nazi’s held. Religious themes throughout also help to show Hitler as prophetic and holy, further rising his reputation.
The film, of course, is not praised for its message but for the incredible technical skill and the effectiveness of its spread of Nazi ideals. Riefenstahl was chosen to direct the film by Hitler due to her lack of knowledge of the politics so that she would record the most aesthetically pleasing material instead of what was actually most important.
This would relate better to the masses and gain him a larger following. Her success became worldwide, cementing herself as the first great female film director.
While most of the films on this list attack the reputations of their violent subjects, Triumph of the Will is a fascinating exception, giving the audience a look into Nazi Germany, allowing them to see how Hitler was able to convince an entire country to follow his malicious orders. It’s incredible to see how he appears without the context of the Holocaust and his other crimes.
The charisma and rallying methods of the Nazis are shown the greatest in this film, making their widespread support more understandable. While the focus and intentions of the film can be unsettling to think about, Triumph of the Will is an amazing accomplishment in the field of documentaries and provides an unequaled view into the rise of the Nazi powers.
3. The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)
The only entirely fictional film on this list is a hilarious and emotional satire of Hitler’s regime leading up to World War 2. Charlie Chaplin stars as the two main characters of the film as well as directing and writing it. He plays Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomainia who obviously represents Hitler and his empire. His other character is the Jewish Barber who becomes involved with an uprising force trying to kill Hynkel.
The film divides the story between the two characters equally, providing a devastating portrait of repressed Jewish life as well as a ridiculous parody of the Nazi party. The film also mocks the fascism of Mussolini in the form off the character Benzino Napaloni who is as egotistical and bumbling as Hynkel.
The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first entire “talkie” film as well as one of his most iconic and successful. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, the film finds much humor in its dark subject without disrespecting the seriousness of the situation. Classic Chaplin charm and slapstick gags are interwoven with heavy handed political satire of the hypocrisy of the Nazi movement.
By having himself play both Hynkel and the persecuted Jewish Barber, Chaplin compares the two characters directly bringing out the differences in their personalities. The film, while not very accurate in its depiction of Hitler, is still historically relevant due to its successful condemnation of Nazi politics. The Great Dictator is not only the funniest films about a dictator but also one of the most damning and powerful.
2. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Downfall is one of the greatest, and most controversial, portraits of a dictator as it examines the subject very closely in order to understand his personality.
The film’s accomplishment is even greater due to the fact that its subject, Adolf Hitler, is the most infamous tyrant of all time making the humanization of the character that much more impressive. Much of the film’s success is due to the incredible performance by Bruno Ganz who’s capturing of the dictator is chillingly uncanny.
Taking place during the last ten days of Hitler’s life and the Nazi regime, the story shows the party’s disintegration and collapse as Allied troops close in on them. Hitler loses his composure and control as his counsel breaks apart, some leaving to compromise with the enemy, and his decisions become more belligerent and drastic.
After lying to many of his counsel about the hope that the Nazi’s still had, he finally resigns himself to his bunker, famously ending his life, along with many of his followers, before the Allied forces could make him surrender. The film also shows the conflicting emotions that many of his close friends and allies felt regarding his final decisions and their own fate.
Their has been much controversy over the film as some thought it glorified Hitler, or in some way tried to excuse him of his actions. While Downfall does show Hitler as a more relatable person, it does so in order to strip him of his mythological figure and greatness. It shows his vulnerability and weaknesses which does not mean that the film is trying to praise him.
The separation of his horrendous actions from this film is meant to focus on his final breakdown, not to play down their importance as some have suggested. Downfall is one of the most emotionally powerful and interesting of the many representations of Hitler, differentiating itself by focusing on Hitler as a person instead of as a figure.
1. Ivan the Terrible (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944 & 1958)
Legendary Soviet director and innovator Sergei Eisenstein helms this two part historical epic about Ivan Vasilyevich (Ivan the Terrible), the powerful and uncompromising Tsar of Russia during the 1500s. Eisenstein’s film follows Ivan, starting at his coronation as Tsar and ending with the eradication of all of his enemies inside of Russia. His rise in power and ruthlessness includes conflicts with many internal and external foes.
The boyars of Russia along with his scheming relatives try constantly to kill him and take away his power. Other nations like Poland are also trying to destroy him, causing his brutality and distrust in others. The portrait of this great leader is not condemning but it also does not show Ivan as a terrific person, only that his actions were necessary for his and Russia’s success.
Originally commissioned by Josef Stalin who idolized Ivan, the film was supposed to have included a third part which would document Ivan’s end. The project was halted, however, when Stalin objected to the cruel light in which Ivan was portrayed in the second film, also delaying the release of the film until Stalin had died. Unfortunately by this time Eisenstein had died leaving the three part film unfinished.
Besides the political motivations of the film, Ivan the Terrible is a masterpiece of cinema and one of Eisenstein’s greatest works. The film features some of his most developed and complex imagery, including many elaborate sets and battle sequences. It also features heavily integrated symbolism throughout, showing the shifts of power in the Russian hierarchy and Ivan’s increasing determination among other themes.
Like other Eisenstein films it is also fortunate enough to be accompanied by a terrific score by the great Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev. The most notable technological advancement, however, was the inclusion of one of the first sequences of Soviet colorized film during the end of Part II, signifying Ivan’s shift towards evil.
As much a masterpiece of craft as it is in storytelling, Ivan the Terrible is one of the most definitive portraits of a dictator in film.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.