Thanks to an award of $5,000, 2016 Chanhassen High School graduate Eric Pitz, a senior at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, will have ample resources to research and write about one of Hollywood’s most famous stars and directors.
Pitz, an English major, loves film and admires the work of Charlie Chaplin. The fellowship enables Pitz to do a deep dive into Chaplin’s 1940 film classic, “The Great Dictator.”
Produced and released before the start of World War II, Chaplin portrayed both a Jewish barber and a caricature of German dictator Adolf Hitler, using his first sound picture “to make a boldly satirical political statement on anti-Semitism,” according to a news release announcing Pitz as the recipient of the $5,000 Anna and Rich Lundin Honors Summer Research Fellowship.
In his proposal, Pitz wrote, “This research is significant, as it delves into the background of one of the most important satirical films of the 20th century and will critically look at how Chaplin turned one of the most feared men in the world into a farce.”
Pitz is president of both NMU’s Quiz Bowl team and the Honors Student Organization. He is a DJ at student station Radio X and an editor for NMU’s undergraduate research journal ‘Conspectus Borealis.’ He also recently formed a new student organization, the Culture-Shock Film Society, as a way to spread awareness about different types of film — classic, cult, art-house, international and independent cinema — not often seen in mainstream media.
Pitz is a self-described English person, “not much into math or engineering,” he said in a recent phone interview from Michigan. “I have always had an interest in film, but hadn’t started watching and reading about films until junior year of high school. College expanded my horizons, when I had access to more resources. Originally, I wanted to be a screenwriter, with a major in English with film studies and Spanish, but after taking a film course, became more interested in the academic side of film.
His introduction to Chaplin’s work began in sixth grade when his class viewed one of his films in history class.
“I never saw a silent film before,” Pitz recalled. “I was impressed by how well done it was and what people were capable of back then. But only since freshman year (in college) have I watched the rest of what he’s done. I like all of his feature-length films and shorts that are available.”
What Pitz likes about Chaplin’s work is that, “among the big names of silent comedy, he is the most sentimental,” Pitz said. “More of his films are about the drama of life, rather than just slapstick. They are more social commentary than other comedic actors of his period. And he was one of the only major directors from that period to make it successfully into the sound era. He was able to succeed even after his medium had died out.”
In addition to “The Great Dictator,” Pitz also names Chaplin’s other films, “Monsieur Verdoux,” “Limelight,” “King of New York,” and one he directed but didn’t appear in, “Countess from Hong Kong,” as favorites.
In this day and age of YouTube and the internet, Pitz is able to hunt down many of Chaplin’s films and shorts. “There are companies that release (his films) on DVD and BluRay,” Pitz said, and a lot of his stuff is starting to enter the public domain. Anything of his pre-1924 work can be found on YouTube or miscellaneous streaming sites and fan sites.”
The Anna and Rich Lundin fellowship award is given to five students every summer. “Typically they go to students in the sciences or other groups,” Pitz said. “There’s not a ton in the humanities.”
The scholarship enables Pitz to fund anything he needs to pursue research and writing his project.
“I’ll be able to use it to fund anything I need, even rent,” Pitz said. “I’ve already used a decent amount of it to acquire books and films to help me pursue the research, and allow me to have the most accurate content possible. The intention of the fellowship is to give you money to study and live so you can pursue the research and do it full time.
Pitz plans to publish his work in an academic film or history journal, or even a political history journal. He graduates this December and is making plans to attend graduate school, earn an Ph.D. and teach film studies.
“I plan to expand on my previously written essay on how ‘The Great Dictator’ functions as a piece of Chaplin’s oeuvre and his role as an auteur,” Pitz said, “and introduce new ideas about the impact of his film as a political statement and its long-lasting legacy.”
The film was released in 1940, before the U.S. entered WWII, Pitz said. At the time, film studios were afraid to to approach the subject and to speak up for the oppressed, he said.
Pitz noted that The Three Stooges had actually been the first to parody Hitler in a film. However Chaplin’s version was more artistic, and endured to become a classic.
“The film is complicated,” Pitz said. “Can we laugh at such a thing in a post-Holocaust world? It is funny, but in the context of the world years later, it’s difficult. Chaplin said that had he known what happened later in the concentration camps, he’d never have made the film. But this is his first entirely sound feature, and he was the most famous man of the time. He’d (Chaplin) been playing the same character for years. This was the moment he would abandon it, and start anew.
“If he’s going to break his silence which he had maintained, then he was going to have something to say,” Pitz said. “In the final speech in the film, the barber, who’s been mistaken for the dictator, gives the speech at the rally. Rather than promoting invasion and persecution, he openly speaks against it.”