As depicted in new Sacha Cohen movie ‘The Dictator,’ tyrants have long loved films

Here and Now

Sacha Baron Cohen’s bringing his brand of comedy back to the big screen this week, with a look at a fictional dictatorship in North Africa

Cohen’s character, Admiral General Aladeen, draws inspiration from an array of famous dictators.

Critic Leigh Paatsch in Australia’s Herald Sun said the film, stocked with offensive words for every demographic, is good bad-taste comedy.

“Yes, you will be offended,” Paatsch wrote. “But there’s no hope of not laughing often at a film dedicated ‘in loving memory of Kim Jong Il.’”

As it happens, the late Kim Jong Il of North Korea considered himself a film connoisseur, as did a number of notorious dictators of the 20th century. 

When Kim Jong Il was dictator in waiting, he reportedly ordered the kidnapping of South Korea’s famous director, Shin Sang Ok. Shin was imprisoned for years in Pyongyang, and forced to make movies under Kim’s supervision. Shin and his wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee, produced seven films for Kim, including “Pulgasari” (1985), which has been described as a Communist version of “Godzilla,” before escaping North Korea in 1986. 

Kim Jong Il took on the role of executive producer of Shin’s films and closely supervised his work. In his 1973 book “On the Art of Cinema,” Kim described filmmaking as a powerful propaganda tool.

“The task set before the cinema today is one of contributing to people’s development into true communists,” Kim wrote. “This historic task requires, above all, a revolutionary transformation of the practice of directing.”

China’s Mao Zedong was another leader with a taste for film

When Mao was diagnosed with a cataract in 1974, his doctors suggested he stop reading. Afterwards, Mao requested films from studios in Hong Kong and he became a devout fan of martial arts action star Bruce Lee. 

According to Liu Qingtang, then deputy minister of the Ministry of Culture, Mao broke into tears the first time he watched Lee’s “Fist of Fury” and declared Lee “a hero.”

In Russia, Joseph Stalin created and assassinated heroes. He was notorious for carefully monitoring the film industry, and regularly killing filmmakers who crossed him. 

Stalin had a movie theater built in each of his homes. Beyond entertainment value, Stalin considered films a primary tool for disseminating party values. He made his presence felt throughout the industry by personally changing scripts, rewriting titles and coaching actors in their craft. 

Master Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein had a tumultuous relationship with Stalin. Eisenstein is considered the founder of montage, and his famous 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin” broke new ground in cinema. 

According to Eisenstein’s great grandnephew Paul Eisenstein, the filmmaker’s innovative practices got him in trouble with Stalin. 

“Ironically, this tremendous focus on creating a new vision of what cinema should be ran afoul of what they called Soviet socialist realism,” Eisenstein said.

Eisenstein’s 1927 film “October,” a depiction of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, was criticized for not glorifying Stalin enough. The filmmaker traveled to Hollywood to escape Soviet backfire, but the American entertainment industry thought his ideas were too socialist and his career faltered. 

Eisenstein returned to the Soviet Union and got back into Stalin’s good graces with “Alexander Nevsky,” the film which won him the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize.

“This was the great film that more or less resurrected Eisenstein,” Paul Eisenstein said. “It was a film that was created at the time of the crisis between the Nazis and the Russians and it helped motivate his country. It was a remarkable piece.”

Eisenstein next embarked on a trilogy chronicling the life of Ivan the Terrible, the 16th century Grand Prince of Moscow who Stalin likened himself to. The first part of the film was well received, but successive chapters were heavily criticized. Paul Eisenstein thinks the stress of failure and censorship contributed to the filmmaker’s early death from a heart attack. 

Paul Eisenstein said his great granduncle’s creativity was curbed by Stalin’s calculated vision for Soviet cinema, but thinks Hollywood wouldn’t have been a better environment.

“One of the great ironies of that era I think is that Hollywood was as scripted and rigid about what it filmed as the Soviet Union did,” Paul Eisenstein said. “And it had as much trouble dealing with an auteur with his own unique vision as did Stalin.” 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.