I was over in Germany visiting a relative last week and one of the things we did was go to see Casablanca at a local art house cinema. This was a strange experience for a number of reasons, the first of which was realising that i’d never actually seen the film before. I kept thinking that i must have seen it, everything was so familiar to me, but in fact i hadn’t – i’d just seen so many clips and so many references to it that it felt as if i’d seen it. On the other hand, i definitely have seen Woody Allen’s film Play It Again, Sam and images of Woody “doing” Bogart kept on rising up from my memory. This made some scenes unintentionally funny (especially the one at the airfield) although the melodrama and wonderfully ridiculous dialogue helped too: “The Germans were wearing grey, you were wearing blue”.
Stranger still was the fact that we were watching the film in Germany of all places. I found myself wondering what the Germans in the audience were feeling, especially during the scene in which the customers in the Café Americain drown out a German patriotic song with their rendition of the Marseillaise. My companions said they don’t think modern Germans feel any connection to the Germans of the 40s. It was a long time ago, they said. Seventy years is a long time i agree, but it’s hardly centuries. There are still people alive who fought in that war, even if they are elderly. My companions’ other comment rang true though: we always think if we’d been there we’d have behaved differently. We’d have been brave, we wouldn’t have been swept up in the madness. Sadly, unlikely to be true.
In any case, when it came to being stereotyped the Germans were hardly alone. Every character in the film is defined by their nationality – by its supposed characteristics or in terms of a general “European” stereotype (Interestingly, as far as i can remember, no-one is identified as Jewish). The Germans are merciless and boorish, the French are charming but unctuous and the Arabs, in so far as they come into the picture at all, are just unctuous. They’re also just blacked up white people, but hey this is the 1940s. As an American, Bogart’s character Rick stands apart from all of them (of course) in his refusal to be cowed or controlled. Then there’s the black pianist Sam: another American and another America.
Probably the thing that surprised me most was that i loved the film. Despite its corniness and its mass of clichés Casablanca is a great film. Much of that power comes from how tightly plotted it is: there’s never a moment when the story lags. It was odd then to read that the script was written on the hop by a constantly changing team of writers as the film was being made. Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Pia said in an interview that this may actually have given her mother’s performance an edge, as she never knew which man she was supposed to be in love with. It probably also helped that there was no on location filming so there is less time wasted with scene setting shots.
I think some of the film’s power may stem from the fact that so many of the actors and extras recruited for the movie had themselves fled the Nazis. I only discovered this when i started to look up the life stories of some of the main players in the film. Most poignant for me was finding that the actor who played Major Strasser (the main Nazi character) was a fervent anti-Nazi. Conrad Veidt fled Germany in the mid-30s after marrying a Jewish woman. He died of a heart attack just a year after making Casablanca, so never lived to see the War’s end and the Nazis’ defeat.
I suppose i ought not to overlook the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, which is remarkable, yet to me this is a film of character actors. Despite Umberto Eco’s claim that “two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us”, i think those hundred clichés would have sunk the film if it hadn’t been for actors such as Claude Rains (Captain Rénault) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte). I was startled to discover that the former had started life with a thick cockney accent and a speech impediment. His suave, unrufflable persona is what grounds the film and makes it believable. At the same time there is something rather feminine about him which highlights Bogart’s masculinity. The fact that he’s even shorter than Bogart helps too of course.
As for Peter Lorre, i was even more surprised to find out that he wasn’t German as i’d always thought, but from a part of central Europe that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was born, later became part of Hungary and is now part of Slovakia. Even now, on the discussion page for his entry in Wikipedia, people are fighting over which country he belongs to, which felt rather ironic to me after seeing Casablanca.
In the end, what is the film about? Well, it’s about a war which is always threatening to arrive but never quite does, an escape route which is tantalisingly close at hand but almost impossible to gain access to and a dilemma that is irresolvable without the loss of something fundamental. It’s a film about the poison that is limbo, the possibility of redemption, the power of sacrifice and, most of all, the painful, painful truth that nothing – not even the most perfect love – can escape reality:
You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by