Phil Brett draws some lessons for today's refugee crisis from Casablanca.
Casablanca often features in lists of favourite films, and often receives highbrow scoffing. The novelist and critic Umberto Eco, for example, says of the movie, 'To make a good story, a single archetype is usually good enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses them all.' I want to make the case that Casablanca is not only a good film but one with a strong political element to it which socialists can relate to.
Most people will be aware of the plot. It is December 1941, American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a nightclub/gambling den in Casablanca, a city controlled by Vichy France, with the head of police being the corrupt Louis Renault (Claude Rains). The clientele is a mixture of Vichy French, locals, Nazis and people desperate to flee war-torn Europe and get to then still-neutral America. Three people arrive to disrupt Blaine’s apparent apathetic life: Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader, his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and a man who intends to stop these two fleeing - a German major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt). Whether Lazlo will be able to escape is a central part of the narrative arc, along with the complication that Lund had previously (in pre-invasion Paris) a relationship with Blaine - which man will she choose?
So why is Casablanca so good? Well, the cast is sublime, aprt from the above-named there are actors such as Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. Many of the performances are excellent: Bogart’s nonchalance, Lorre’s slimy petty criminality and Claude Rains amoralism (which steals virtually every scene). The film also drips with classic lines which are among the most quoted (and misquoted) in cinema history.
But I think it resonates with people on other levels too. It's an anti-Nazi film, and one which has the question of refugees at its heart. The opening credits feature a map of the world and a narrator talking about 'imprisoned Europe'. Images of lines of refugees appear the narrator describing the 'tortured roundabout refugee trail', with people anxiously crossing the Mediterranean to safety. The images then would have touched a chord. They do now, the direction it is the opposite, but the desperation of refugees to flee war is the same.
Later, Greenstreet’s character, when discussing Sam, the café’s piano player, echoes the major theme, telling Rick that people are the key commodity in Casablanca.
This was no accident. The script was adapted from the play Everybody comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, who had written it after a visit in 1938 to Vienna, where he had been appalled by what he had seen of the treatment of Jews. The twins Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch, politicised it further. The Epsteins were Jewish liberals and Howard Koch was a radical who became a victim of the McCarthy 1950s witch-hunts. One example of their alterations, which is symptomatic of the layering of the theme, is the change of the customer who Rick bars from the gambling room. In the play it was an English cad, in the film, a representative of the Deutsche Bank.
Yes, it was made by Hollywood through the studio system, but as Mike Quille writes about The Third Man and Peter Frost about the more overtly political Spartacus, it has always been possible to create interesting movies within the mainstream. Casablanca is a melodrama, and there is much which can be ridiculed: the fact that Laszlo is a refugee on the run, but still sports a wardrobe of sharply pressed linen suits, and after his time in a concentration camp has only a dashing scar on his forehead. However, there is a certain realism to it. The famous scene where the bar stands up and drowns out Germans singing by a rendition of an emotional La Marseillaise, shows the extras crying with the passion of the fight against the Nazis. Many were not acting, because virtually the entire cast were real refugees, including the actor playing the German major, Conrad Veidt, who had fled Berlin because of his anti-Nazi activities. Another German officer in the bar is played by Hans Twardowski, who had fled the Nazis because he was gay. Director Curtiz lost family, murdered in Auschwitz. Many had leftist leaning - Lorre for example was a friend and colleague of Bertolt Brecht. And the list goes on.
If the realism of a film is defined as characters behaving logically within their world, then for the most part, they do. Eco believed the film was a “hotch-potch” of scenes, a result of the well-known story that the three writers were unsure of the ending. It is true, Ingrid Bergman found her role difficult because the uncertainty of who her character would end up with, right up to the filming of it. But I think that adds to the realism of her performance. I think it has a strong unified theme: for example, there is a young couple attempting to flee, and their story runs in parallel to the main story, often pre-empting it. Viewers thus see that this is a story not just of one couple fleeing for their lives, but of many.
As expected in such a film, (it is after all, Hollywood) it does focus on individuals but there is a strong supporting cast of characters with their own stories. The opening scene shows a street (with, for the time, a large number for black actors) bristling with people. The message is clear – the threat of Nazism is world-wide, it is a danger to the collective whole. When Major Strasser says that the Germans will have to acclimatise to varied types of climates – from the arctic to the desert, modern audiences will see it as the Nazis being dastardly. Audiences in 1943 would see it as still quite a distinct possibility.
Written in a period of defeats, (it officially entered the studio system the day after Pearl Harbour), it was early enough to avoid the Bureau of Motion Pictures, America’s heavy hand of censorship and propaganda. The Bureau was too new to enforce its dislike of the use of the La Marseillaise and the criticism of Vichy (who, at the time, the States were cosying up to) within the film. Rick represents the USA, stirring out of its isolation. The audience though is told early on that whilst he is a cynic, he has historically been on the right side - fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and supplying guns to the anti-fascist side in Ethiopia (acts which in real life a few years later would have got him into trouble with Senator McCarthy). But it isn’t just Rick who is the United States, but the café itself. Curtiz makes the café America in microcosm. The music playing, not only the iconic As Time Goes By, is American, playing as a backdrop to a multinational clientele. This is classic American self-mythologizing. But whether intentionally or not, it isn’t all heroic. The roulette wheel represents the dependence on chance which the refugees rely on, but it can also equally act unwittingly as a metaphor for the capitalist system. Supposedly with luck and skill, people can ‘get on’ and ‘win’, but ultimately, the game is rigged.
And whatever the impression which Ricks likes to give, and read that as of America, not everybody is equal. Pianist Sam (played by actor and singer Dooley Wilson) may be portrayed fairly sympathetically for a black character in a nineteen forties movie, but he is still made to be subservient to Rick. At one point Ilsa refers to him as a ‘boy’. Sexual conservatism is also present, with Hollywood rules only allowing the backstory of Rick and Ilsa because she thought Laszlo was dead.
This is not a Marxist film then, but I believe that one of the most important lines is not one of the most celebrated, it is not witty or amusing but it is at the heart of the film. It is spoken by Laszlo, an earnest, sincere and brave character (if somewhat boring): 'If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die'. The enemies here are Nazis, espousing a murderous racial superiority which not only threatens the world but forces it to look to its conscience to decide what its reaction will be.
Umberto Eco says audiences feel a sense of déjà vu when viewing Casablanca. These days, with the far right growing in popularity on the back of anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia, maybe there will be a sense of déjà vu. Watching a time when Europeans were seeking sanctuary in a Muslim country should make people think. Today, there are millions of refugees desperate for safety. They are not fleeing Nazism, but they are fleeing a war, and being met with states closing borders and denying transit. In Casablanca, countries and people have to decide on what action to take: the same is true now. In the film, the choice made is solidarity - that is the 'beautiful friendship. Ilsa and Lazlo get the transit they need; so should today’s refugees.
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher who has written a future fiction/crime novel, Comrades Come Rally, and is at this moment writing a sequel. He lives in London.