“Modern Times” has endured the test of time. Chaplin was creating a testament to his times of extreme poverty and employment during the Great Depression in the 1930s USA when he made the film in 1936. But its viewing in 2022 brings everything shown in the film into alignment with the conditions that plague us even now. It is not a bygone era that we have in mind when we see Chaplin meddle around the city, looking for a job or being caught in a strike of the workers against a better quality of work and more wages. Chaplin would not have realized that the “modern” times which he refers to in the film will hold true almost a century later as well, more in some parts of the world than in others, but assuming different forms. At the very basic level, it is but an explosion of capitalism which deems some people as machines not to be given basic dignity and equal resources while some people at the top have their tummies filled with wealth each second.
Placing his famous “Little Tramp Character” in the background of the great depression, Chaplin goes on to make important observations about the rise of industries and the poor conditions workers have to deal with. In an absolutely hilarious sequence just at the beginning, where he has to tighten the screws of objects running at high speed on the machine, he has a breakdown and loses his senses. Obsessing over the nuts, he goes into the machine, and we see him rolling in the parts. This is an iconic image of a man getting trapped in a machine, having several political implications. The entire sequence in the factory portrays how the extreme, inhumane conditions of work affect the psyches of the workers. Taking it further, Chaplin writes a scene where a new machine is invented to save the company time so that it can better stand the rising competition from rivals. The automatic food-eating machine, subjecting the worker to not even taking a break for lunch, calls on him to continue his work while a machine makes him eat. While the expressions on Chaplin’s face evoke uncontrollable laughter, the harrowing reality present within the layer of over-the-top comedy is a great example of how the aesthetics can be designed to evoke social realities without the risk of falling into sloganeering.
The character Chaplin plays in the film, as in his other films, is a man of good heart caught in a world stomped by all perils. This quality is used to touch upon and create numerous images of social realism where Chaplin intersects with the political happenings around the city. Trying to give back a red flag fallen off a vehicle by following the owner, he suddenly becomes part of a protest against the pitiable conditions in the country. The rally, coming in his direction, is mistakenly taken to be led by him as he walks ahead with the flag held high in his hands, shouting for its owner. He is then put behind bars as the police take charge and shoo away the protestors. This is a powerful scene that highlights the rebellion of the citizens through the worldview of Chaplin. It is through such innovative amalgamations that the visuals carry with them certain ideas, bringing them along with a slapstick treatment as if simplifying them for a wider understanding and acceptance among the masses. The fist is not directly bumped into the air, to our faces, but takes the route of clever storytelling to hide beneath a sheath of visuals, putting the point across while never posing as a threat of the filmmaker bringing his “agenda” onto the screen.
Many of these instances are resonant even today on the streets when the oppressed come out for the protection of their rights. Coming back to the striking visual of a man stuck in a machine, of capitalism drenching away human dignity, thinking only of expanding and making a profit while the employees continue to work in toxic environments, it all holds true today. Charlie, and his romantic interest in the film, The Gamin, run away from the police for stealing bread from a bakery truck and stop at the house of a family living well, unaffected by the happenings in the country. As the two, homeless and jobless, look at them, they imagine a life of their own where they would own a home and have the privilege of having a healthy treat for breakfast each day. Just like how everyone is supposed to have. But is such a life possible for the two in the system that runs on the exploits of capital? This is a question that the film keeps asking on various occasions. But Chaplin doesn’t sound like a cynic when he seems to be saying all this. Instead, he drives on a street of optimism, of trying, even when the powers that be don’t allow the lower class to dream. And towards the end of the film, when Gamin is hopeless and questions whether it is even worth trying when all they are ever going to get is displeasure and poverty in return, Chaplin again invokes hope by telling her not to despair. The last frame underlines this further as the two walk away from us with the rising sun.
Through his widely expressive body, Chaplin speaks volumes in the silent frames of his films. It is such a pleasure to see him surprise us with the mere movement of his eyebrows and innocent eyes. He is the driving force of “Modern Times,” moving around and taking us close to extreme conditions. In all of his stupidity, he still professes love and kindness. Raj Kapoor, heavily influenced by his films, frequently attempted to bring his tradition into the Indian setting. And his iconic song speaking of spreading love, “Kisi ki muskurahaton pe ho nisaar,” holds true when viewed with the images of Chaplin as he helps anyone in need with his shining innocence and flowers kindness with his presence. “Modern Times” is a masterpiece, and its elongated relevance, even today, is a reflection of the oppressive systems that have still refused to hop on board to change.
“Modern Times” is a 1936 Drama Comedy Film directed by Charles Chaplin.