The Politics of Casablanca

Yes, I know that most of the things I say here will have been said before and said better.  I’m just starting out, internet.

Maybe it is because I am of the female persuasion, but for most of my life all I had heard about Casablanca was the love story.  Rick and Isla’s doomed love was at the forefront of every recollection of the film I had ever heard or seen (The Great Movie Ride at Disney comes to mind).  To me that did not sound like some amazing movie that I had to see.  Especially since I knew they didn’t end up together.  If I knew the ending already, how interesting could the rest of the story be?

Well, I was so incredibly wrong about Casablanca.  I saw it for the first time on Valentine’s Day in 2008 when I was about 24.  I thought it might be fun to spend the evening watching a “great romance” with the boy.  I was completely blindsided by it.  Yes, the love story is grand and tragic, but holy shit, the politics are shocking.

This is a movie made in 1942 that explicitly states that Nazis are putting people in concentration camps and either working them to death or outright murdering them.  At a time when, according to Hollywood Goes to War* by Clatyon Koppes and Gregory Black, most Hollywood productions were concentrating on creating the idea of the “good German” Casablanca successfully disregards that idea.  The Germans and the French collaborators are shown to be corrupt, though the French Captain Renault gets to be funny and corrupt, as well as clueless.  The most sympathetic character is Ilsa’s husband, Victor Laszlo, a Czech freedom fighter who was thought to have been murdered in the camps.  It’s all right there on the page and on the screen.  Looking back you hear a lot of “I didn’t know.”, “I had no idea.”, “It was the politicians, not me.” from Germans (and many others) when discussing the camps.    Even coming at the subject from only this big Hollywood production you can come to the conclusion that everyone knew.  If these people 5,000 miles away knew, everyone knew.  I think I had been rather naive about who knew what and when before seeing Casablanca, but they all knew.

Casablanca completely identifies with the downtrodden French people who are trying to get out of Vichy controlled Morocco.  For me, the most emotionally resonant scene has nothing to do with Rick and Ilsa.  It is the scene where the Germans sing “Die Wacht Am Rhein” and the French refugees counter with “La Marseillaise” drowning out the German song.  I have seen the movie between six and ten times and I cry every time I see that scene.  According to IMDB the song was supposed to be the “Horst Wessel Song”, which was the Nazi anthem about an assassinated party member, but there were copyright issues.  Either way it is a powerful and highly emotional moment.  Since some of the actors were German Jews and subversives that had escaped the war they hardly needed to act.  The conviction and tears are real and it is an incredibly stirring moment.

Casablanca is more than just a love story, it is a testament to what people knew and when they knew it.  I think it gets sold short as just a romance; the political meanings are much stronger than people let on.  It is a very funny film as well, which I didn’t even begin to touch on here.  I may pick this thread up again another day, but let’s leave it as just one of my favorite films.


*I by no means recommend this book, other than as an index of WWII films and their basic themes.  It is, quite frankly, repetitive and boring, bringing up the same ideas again and again.  The main idea of the book is to distinguish between the moves that Hollywood made about Japan and those they made about Germany.  There are many movies mentioned but a few are repeated as evidence over and over until if you see one more reference to Little Tokyo you’re just going to throw the book against the wall.  The only thing it succeeds at is documenting the development of the offices of propaganda the US had during the war.


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