By Peggy Nelson
Casablanca – 1942 – dir. Michael Curtiz
So. Here you are, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman in your twenties, newly hatched and out and about in the world, meeting the usual suspects. Among them is Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid); he’s handsome, passionate, committed to a good cause, the only cause: liberté, égalité, fraternité. In fact, he’s actually the leader of the resistance! And single. And he singles you out. You cannot believe your luck. There are many late nights in the café, and then later nights at his apartment. Your relationship is secret, this is for your protection he says, but that just adds to the aura. There’s a lot of travel, too; it isn’t safe to stay too long in one place, especially for him. There seems to be one “it” city every half-century, Paris is currently “it,” and you’ve arrived.
Then the Nazis pick him up. Then you fall in love. But not with him.
Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942) was adapted from an original play entitled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” And everybody does, good guys, bad guys, and all those who make their living in-between. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is making his living, running Rick’s Café Américain, a swanky nightclub and casino filled with people bargaining for escape with whatever assets they have left; or drinking and sinking into ever-darkening shades of grey.
Casablanca the city was part of a well-traveled “escape route” for refugees from all parts of Nazi-controlled Europe. Tinker to Evers to Chance – from Paris to Marseilles to Oran to Casablanca in French Vichy-controlled Morocco, and then, if you were lucky, to Lisbon in neutral Portugal, from which ships sailed to America for the luckier-still. Every point on the journey was fraught, every link in the chain was weak, every passage-between was dangerous, and every attempt was liable to be reversed without appeal. Escape was not a single step, it was every step, with the result that many, many people were stranded at points along the way, and many, many never made it out at all.
But we can’t go straight to Casablanca, any more than we can leave it straightaway. We need to retrace our steps, back to Paris. When passion is committed to a cause, to *the cause, there often isn’t a lot left over. Despite the swirling excitement of the mission, despite your appointment to Head Consort, despite the undeniable necessity of resistance, and leadership, despite the knowledge that this is not only a meaningful life, but a privileged one – in the end it’s impersonal. Head Administrative Assistant lacks a certain, shall we say, je ne sais quoi. Now, this is the real world of warcraft with real consequences, not a game and not to be trivialized, but still – when he’s absorbed in strategy and tactics, you feel like you literally do not exist.
And maybe you’re ok with that, maybe that’s what love is in the time of war, maybe all essential energy must be diverted to the cause. It’s bigger than individuals, you’re all part of it, agape trumps eros. But no one lives on administration alone, and when you unexpectedly meet a man in Paris who is not only on the right side but is passionate about you, you fall for him. Hard.
Fast-forward. The Nazis have invaded most of Europe, and the three of you find yourselves in Casablanca, playing roulette with love and the cause. And the stakes could not be higher.
The film is a classically-composed narrative noir, with a moral dilemma framed by strong light and shadow, whip-smart dialogue, a tight plot and a twisted ending. The usual character actors, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, are rounded up for the virtuoso ensemble. They either collaborate with or oppose the Nazis as per their nationalities: Norwegians, Czechs, French and Italians all mirror the relative positions of their countries out in the world. And of course there are the Americans, whose early neutrality in WWII was problematic to many Europeans. Less than two hours long, the film’s fast pace contributes to the sense that time is running out. And every action has serious repercussions –a musical play-it-off between Die Wacht am Rhein and La Marseillaise in the café, a juxtaposition effectively lifted from La Grande Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir’s World War I escape film, convinces the Nazis that Victor Laszlo will indeed take up permanent residency in Casablanca – underground. (Interestingly, Die Wacht am Rhein was *not a Nazi song, but was used in place of the Horst-Wessel-Lied, which was still under international copyright at the time of filming.)
So what do you do? Do you choose the love of your life, or the cause? Especially when you see that your desertion (it was for his own good! It was to protect him!) has turned the love of your life from a freedom fighter into a stony-eyed cynic, concerned only with making a buck and preserving his hide, and none too worried about compromises in service to the cause of himself. Rick’s “neutrality” is a political indictment in a situation where every choice takes a side, even – and especially – the choice to stand apart from it all. The consequences of disengagement are devastating, both personally and politically.
Yet the rewards of reengagement are uncertain, and the ending is a twist, which I will not further remark here in consideration of those for whom the film is a new experience. Except to note that it was new for the writers too – it was re-written until after the last moment, and Bogart had to be called back well after shooting had wrapped to redub some lines. And it was released quickly, premiering just 18 days after the Allies landed in North Africa and liberated the real Casablanca. Newly hatched and out and about in the world itself, the film had a merely adequate start in cultural life, but then it soared up into the iconic stratosphere where it remains today.
Casablanca’s triumph of idealism over cynicism, and its perfect balance of love story and political allegory, continues to speak to audiences. The film was so popular in 1960s Cambridge, Massachusetts (for example), that Harvard undergraduates would have Rocky Horror-like speak-alongs during finals week, and the bar (now restaurant) attached to the Brattle Theatre was named in its honor. And it seems that every other line is a “line:” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Round up the usual suspects,” “I’m shocked – shocked!;” even including some that weren’t in the movie at all, like “Play it again, Sam.”
If you’ve seen it before, welcome back. And if you haven’t, this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.