Chaplin’s Modern Times, The Portrayal of “Dehumanization”


“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” – Frederick Winslow Taylor (The Principles of Scientific Management)


Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” shows a multilayered social concern ranging from alienation to the modern age Mcdonaldization. It also reflects the psychological side of human being that undergoes exploitation for prolonged period. The movie underlines the deterioration of the human mind under the unbearable pressure of a monotonous mechanical industrial world. Psychologically, the Tramp, who is the central character of the movie, undergoes nervous breakdown due to the repressive working conditions. The movie exhibits dehumanization of human being if he is pushed to the limits. At the same time, sociologically, this movie is the comment on the exploitation and the domination of the working class. Historically the movie is made on the backdrop of the great American depression, Taylorism, Fordism, unemployment and the overall unrest due to the collapse of the US market and in addition, the influence of the machine over human being. This paper is an attempt to show how historical, social and psychological context of the movie helps us to understand the concept of dehumanization. I have selected the famous conveyer belt sequence to explain the multifaceted dimensions of human reality in the industrial age where human being is just the cog of a machine.


As a movie Modern Times (Released in 1936) is a milestone in Chaplin’s career as well as in the history of celluloid world. It was the last silent movie made by Chaplin though the talking movie were there around for sometime. It also the final appearance of Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp character. Modern times is a commentry on the evils of modernity and industrial age which was the product of enlightenment period. The movie is a portrayal of capitalist lust for profit. It’s interesting to find that this movie can be explained through different perspective but each perspective leads the viewer to one and only outcome i.e. Dehumanization. Chaplin filmed the pessimist ending of the movie where the tramp is admitted in the hospital at the end but changed it to optimistic ending. And hence the movie is also the triumph of man over machine and the cruel instrumental metallic world. Exploitation is not the new theme in movies but Chaplin has added his special flavour using his art of pantomime with satire and displayed the negative aspects of industrialization.

Chaplin’s tramp is a factory worker, just an extension of a machine or a cog of a giant machine. His monotonous job is to tight the bolts that are passing on the conveyer belt which is controlled by the higher authority. Sometimes it runs at the unbearable speed and he doesn’t even get a time get rid of a fly that is sitting on his face. The monotony of this work makes him insane and he is sent to asylum due to nervous breakdown. The story goes with Chaplin’s frequent visits to the jail. Rescued from the jail but unable to find the work or messed up with the work he managed to get. In the meantime he meets a girl and tries to help her in her misery. They both started liking each other and help each other to stand and fight against destiny. At the end both of them successfully run from the cage of the exploitative society, in the search of a free world and the movie end with a note of “Never say die “ attitude. This is a brief summary of a movie to get an idea what it’s all about. But it has lots of important scenes that are carefully crafted within the storyline. This includes Chaplin’s gibberish song in the restaurant, which is in Chaplin’s own voice.

Conveyer Belt Sequence

In the opening scene, the screen is covered with clock. Its shows the destiny of a man bound to clock in the modern times. Next interesting frame shows the crowd of a sheep passing through the narrow congested path and it is replaced by the crowd of workers interchangeably. Then it opens the sequence of famous conveyer belt where Chaplin tightening nut bolts passing on the belt. Factory manager has a leisure time while workers are busy with their work; he is passing his time solving jigsaw puzzle. Occasionally he orders to increase the speed of the conveyer belt where the tramp is working. The speed is increased so much that he cannot even have a time to wave a fly sitting on his face. After a while he gets some relief and replacement for a while to go to washroom. The washroom is under surveillance and he couldn’t manage to smoke for a while. He is kicked out from there and back to work. One can observe the antagonistic behaviour among workers because they all are under the stress. Chaplin tries to buy some time while his replacement worker is busy on his job. Everyone is buying some leisure time at the expense of others. The monotony of work reaches to such a level that Chaplin’s body follows the jerky action of his job even while he is away from the work.

During lunch time, Chaplin spoils the dish of a soup of his fellow worker because he cannot control his jerky mechanical actions. Soon a team comes to company manager with their invention of a machine that will automatically feed worker and save valuable production time. Chaplin was used for the demonstration and machine fails in between due to the electrical fault that left Chaplin feeding nut bolts in place of food. After the brief rest workers goes back to work and the speed of the conveyer belt is increased more by the manager. This crushing pressure was unbearable for Chaplin and he loses his mental balance. Rest of the sequence includes the exaggerated comic display of Chaplin’s insane behaviours where he try to tight everything that look like bolt including the buttons on the ladies skirt. He passes through the huge machine gears and come back. He pours black oil on everyone’s cloth and eyes. Soon, the ambulance comes and takes him to asylum.

Historical Context

It was F.W. Taylor who invented “Principles of Scientific Management” in 1911, that consists of scientifically studying worker’s production process and organijzing working line with more profitable and rational way. This was done in two ways, one breaking the jobs into small tasks and two, the workers are not paid to think but just to follow the orders. This cocept was known as Taylorism that swept USA and Europe with a radical change in the production process. In 1925, Ford applied Taylors idea to the production process and 10 millionth car rooled off the production line that leadto the birth of Fordism. Depression hit USA in 1929 and it was at the peak in 1933. Massive groups of unployeed youths were migrating in the search of jobs. Banks were closed down. Companies cut down on the labour and the wages. If the jobs are available, the massive crowd would gather for the claim.

In 1931, Chaplin left Hollywood for 18 months world tour where he observed the effects of depression. He was disturbed with unemployment and the outcome of industrialization. Movie showed the conveyer belt sequence and the assembly line in the opening sequence where the work is divided into small task and Chaplin is trying hard to cope up with the crushing speed of the conveyer belt. The environment of the factory which is shown in Modern Times doesn’t encourage for creative activity but there is a quantity that is counted for good performance. And hence Chaplin has no other way out than to stretch himself more and more with the increase of the belt speed.

Sociological Context

While explaining the concept of Alienation in EPM 1844, Marx says that “Firstly, the fact that labour is external to the worker – i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working and not at home when he is working. His labour is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of labour for the worker is demonstrated by the fact that it belongs not to him but to another, and that in it he belongs not to himself but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, the human brain, and the human heart, detaches itself from the individual and reappears as the alien activity of a god or of a devil, so the activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is a loss of his self. The result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions – eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment – while in his human functions, he is nothing more than animal.”

Marx has taken psychology of a human being into account while explaining the concept of alienation and it is reflected in the conveyer belt sequence. We can observe and understand Alienation when Chaplin mechanically tights the bolt on the conveyer belt. It’s a forced labour for him and there is nothing in that work that will interest him. He is human in the free time where he can smoke or rest for a while. But capitalist system doesn’t allow him to do this human activity. He is forced back to become machine.

Since Chaplin cannot develop his creative mind while at work, the work becomes monotonous and gradually he is detached from his work. In the movie it is shown that it’s just a small break or the lunch time where a worker can feel like humans. But the factory manager willing to steal that small leisure time of the workers by introducing the feeding machine, which will save time for more production.

Psychological Context

According to Baron and Richardson (1994), dehumanization occurs when an individual views another person in negative ways, which leads to the belief that they are undeserving of the respect and kindness usually afforded to another person. It is as if that individual is compared to being nonhuman (Haslam, Kashima, Loughnan, Shi, & Suitner 2008). There are three different ways in which people are dehumanized. Haslam, et al. (2008) points out that people can be compared to animals, in which uniquely human attributes are denied and the person is described as being coarse, uncultured, amoral, irrational, and childlike. Bandura (2002) adds that attributing demonic or bestial qualities to a person also makes them less than human. A second way in which people are dehumanized is by comparing a person to a machine (i.e., “mechanistic dehumanization”), in which human attributes are removed, and the person is perceived to be unfeeling, cold, passive, rigid, and lacking individuality (Haslam, et al., 2008). By doing this, the person is denied of emotionality and desires (Haslam, et al., 2008).

The third way that a person can be dehumanized is by perceiving the other person as being the enemy. Esses, et al. (2008) state that the enemy is constructed to exemplify manipulation and is described as being opportunistic, evil, immoral, and motivated by greed. The consequence of constructing these dehumanizing forms is the inequality that is brought on as a result. It can be seen that those who support the existence of social dominance view the world as a competitive place where only the toughest survive and are willing to discriminate against other groups in order to reach or uphold group dominance. What this does is legitimize entitlement and the dehumanization of others (Esses, et al., 2008).

Modern Times displays the classic example of dehumanization in a way it was described according to psychology. The opening frame of the movie shows the crowd of sheep passing through the congested way and the scene is changed with workers in the place of sheep following the same path with same mechanical; follow the order kind of path. This follows the first way with which the human beings are dehumanized. They are compared with the animals. Secondly, in the conveyer belt sequence, Chaplin showed the workers as an extension of the machine or a part of the machine. They are following the smallest possible task assigned to them without the slightest indication of using their creative ability or the interest. They are not just compared with the machines but reduced to the machines. They are not allowed to show any human qualities. They cannot take a break for smoke, they don’t have time even to wave the fly sitting on their face, they are not suppose to waste time in having their lunch. To save the precious production time, the manager brings the machine that will feed the worker automatically and save some time which can be utilized for more profit making. Unfortunately the machine fails while the demonstration but the sequence gives the clear idea of the greed and lust of the capitalist system that is working with the single point instrumentality of making profit.

The movie fulfils the third way of dehumanization where a man perceives other as an enemy. This relation of enemy other is not only developed between the superior and the workers but among the workers themselves. The superior is also the slave of the capitalist system where he is driven for the better performance by forcing workers for their optimum capacity. This leads to the antagonistic relations among them. The manager cannot allow them to take rest, he cannot slow down the speed of the conveyer belt. One cannot indulge in such exploitation until unless one perceives other as less human or enemy.

The image of enemy other also developed among workers due to cut throat competition. Crushing pressure of the Great American depression and unemployment make everyone to follow their own interest for the survival. The competition of that era gives birth to the dominance and the survival of the toughest. This relation is shown in the movie while Chaplin is having lunch and he is bullied by his colleague.


While analysing this movie from the sociological point of view, Marxian concept of Alienation covers all the aspects that are described under the domain of history and psychology. Alienation includes the dehumanization that brings the human to the level of machine or animal or brings to him to the level of enemy other.

Marx has differentiated between the status of the worker in terms of being human and animal. His articulation of Alienation says that when a person is forced to work, he is not happy and slowly gets alienated from the work that no more develops his creative abilities. By continuing this kind of work, the human is reduced to the level of machine. And he is human only when he is not working. According to Marx, eating, drinking and procreating are similar with the humans and the animals. In the capitalist system, the humans are free only in the areas of the animalistic functions. And hence they are reduced not only to machines but to the level of animals.

In the summery, the movie Modern Times is like a kaleidoscope, where the workers acts like the particles inside the kaleidoscope which is made up of the capitalistic environment. You watch into this kaleidoscope from any perspective or angle; historical, social or psychological; you will see the pattern emerges expressing nothing but the Dehumanization of the working class.

Atul Thakur



  • My Autobiography – Charlie Chaplin
  • Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 – By Karl Marx
  • Charlie Chaplin – King of Tragedy – Gerith Von Ulm Filmography
  • Modern Times (1936)

Internet Resources – Web Sites & blogs

Internet Resources – Readings (PDF, Docs)

  • 2009 PARAMOUNT SUMMER FILM SERIES – Frank Campbell
  • Political Science 2300 Make-Up Worksheet: Karl Marx, Alienated Labour, and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times
  • Horizon High School Film Study – Jay Seller
  • Comedy, Pain and Nonsense at the Red Moon Café: the Little Tramp’s Death by Service Work in Modern Times – Janet Sayers and Nanette Monin
  • Kino International press book – Modern Times
  • Notes on Modern Times – by David Robinson’,’Chaplin’s

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