There’s a moment in Casablanca that resonates now more than ever, and proves why the film has remained the epitome of timeless. As tensions among the citizens and visitors of the title town arise due to the presence of Nazi officers and the fear of further invasions, all passions converge at Rick’s Café Americain where one evening German soldiers burst into a loud rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Appalled by the realization that unoccupied France is on the verge of succumbing to Nazism, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) approaches the café’s band and demands “play ‘La Marseillaise’!”, in one of the film’s most subtly powerful cuts, bandmembers turn to their boss Rick (Humphrey Bogart), who until then has remained completely neutral in matters of war, asking for approval. With a soft nod Rick lets them know it’s alright, and the band break into the French national anthem. As if commanded by some sort of supernatural power, the patrons stand up and begin to sing “Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”, with an urgency that makes one think it was the first time the anthem had ever been played.
Even though that scene has always been quite powerful, watching it in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, as we see a steady rise of fascism and white nationalism take over America, was absolutely chilling. It made me wonder if we might be in store for our own real life version of Casablanca in the not so far future. Will we too find ourselves one day bursting into an anthem of our own, as we see white nationalists reclaim the spaces they feel have been stolen from them by people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people and women? If that comes to happen, will we have our own versions of Laszlo, Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who are willing to put their emotional problems behind, as they’re deemed to petty in the face of world destruction?
What director Michael Curtiz and company did in the 1942 film (playing in 35mm at Film Forum from 12/28 - 01/03) was nothing short of miraculous, not only because the production was rather serendipitous, but also because like all the great art, it has found a way to remain relevant year after year. In 2017 the film will celebrate its 75th anniversary, it opened in the late summer of 1942 to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa, and would extend its debut all the way to the spring of 1943, when it premiered officially allowing it to win the Best Picture Oscar for that year, rather than 1942 (becoming also one of the all time best Best Picture winners, if not the absolute best).
Beyond its sublime romance (which not coincidentally served as one of the bases for the one in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which sees Emma Stone’s character obsessed with Paris, Bergman and even pointing out the window where Ilsa and Rick kissed in the Warner Bros.’ lot) and perfect screenplay (like another 2016 release, Moonlight, the screenplay was based on an unproduced play), the film is filled with hope that springs from empathy being born out of a swamp of corruption. The film is too smart to believe in the romanticism of goodness triumphing over evil as if by magic, instead it concentrates on showcasing strategic alliances that spring from the seemingly contradictory idea of “greed for community”.
We see Captain Renault (an impeccable Claude Rains) for example realizing that even though his love of money and power are immense, he could find allies outside of the white supremacists who would eventually be done with him. Therefore by the time we get to the film’s legendary final line, we’ve seen him transform from a selfish lone agent, into a man open for bipartisan collaboration. Even though he doesn’t see eye to eye with Rick, and will most likely hold a grudge for being tricked near the end of the film, Renault knows that in order to have a space for his greed to flourish, he needs to be alive and in a world where he can spend the money he’s making and benefitting from the power he’s gaining. Casablanca is by no means child’s play when it comes to linking realism and cynicism, over blind hope.
Not that the latter is sent away completely either, many times during the film, Renault comments that Rick is a secret romantic who can’t help but root for the underdog. Despite Rick’s constant denials, we see him always favor those who are in need, he even sends away a desperate woman who clearly inebriated wishes to spend the night with him. He might be no hero, but he would never take advantage of someone under the wrong circumstances. And isn’t that perhaps the message the film most wants to get across to us? We don’t need to be the saintly, perfect Laszlo when we can be Rick. As we leave 2016 behind and the possibility of a world of darkness seems almost a certainty, how wonderful it is to spend two hours inside a film that shows us that we have been able to overcome darkness and tragedy in the past. Casablanca is a film that celebrates human nature with all of its flaws, and invites us to strive for achievable change. In a culture that’s become so determined to see things in only black and white, Casablanca focuses on the beauty in the complexity of the greys. As we find ourselves wanting to give up because we can’t single-handedly defeat fascism, end racism and put a stop to white supremacy, let us find our strength in a film that has faith in us in spite of our weaknesses. To the wisest 75 year old in the world, here’s looking at you, kid!
For more information on Casablanca at Film Forum visit their website.