Sometimes love blindsides us.
We glance at a woman in a café and listen to her speaking with her friend, and she sweeps us away. We open a book by an unfamiliar author, and from the first few sentences we’re enthralled. We taste a cup of tea we’ve never tried, and we’re hooked.
So it happened when I first saw “Casablanca.”
Battered by an ongoing pandemic and a tumultuous election, many Americans, including me, feel as if we are in a storm at sea, without respite from fierce winds and driving rain.
Wit and VerveOur story is set in Casablanca in Morocco during World War II, which is under the thumb of the Vichy French government and Nazi Germany, in the days just before the United States enters the war. Refugees seeking to escape Nazi tyranny have flooded this city, seeking an escape first to Portugal and then to America.
Not all of those in Casablanca bend a knee to their oppressors. When a Nazi officer asks Rick, an American who owns a café in Casablanca, “What is your nationality?” Rick replies, “I’m a drunkard,” which brings chuckles even from the stiff-necked Germans. When the same officer asks Rick what he thinks would happen if the Nazis invaded New York City, Rick answers, “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
Throughout “Casablanca,” the scriptwriters insert other, sharp witticisms, many of them coming from Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), a policeman who exhibits that savoir-faire associated then with the French. At one point, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) says to Captain Renault of the café, “I advise that this place be shut up at once” to which Renault replies, “But everybody’s having such a good time.” Forced to find a reason to close the café, Captain Renault tells Rick, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” at which point a croupier emerges from the casino, holds out a fistful of cash to the policeman, and says, “Your winnings, sir.”
Near the end of the movie, when Rick finds himself forced to hold a revolver on Renault, he says, “Remember this gun is pointed right at your heart.” I smile every time I hear Renault’s cynical reply, “That is my least vulnerable spot.”
These people face times as dire and horrific as our own, yet they refuse to buckle to their oppressors or surrender their dignity or their sense of humor.
Be IntentionalThough Rick promises Ilsa that they will stay together after her husband and resistance war hero Victor gets safely away, he changes that plan and arranges safe passage for both Ilsa and Victor on the flight out of Casablanca. When Ilsa asks him for an explanation, Rick gives her the logical reasons why she must go and he must stay.
In making this decision, Rick reminds viewers of the need for analysis and rational thinking. He recognizes the importance of Laszlo’s work in carrying on the fight against the Nazis and knows that Laszlo needs Ilsa at his side. He also knows that if Ilsa were to remain with him in Casablanca, both of them would likely end up in a concentration camp, a point reinforced by Captain Renault.
The Inspiration of Others“Casablanca” is a classroom teaching the importance of emulation. If we are to improve ourselves, if we are to embrace the good, often we need the example of others to light our way down a path thick with shadows and obstacles.
When we first meet Rick, he is a cynic, crippled by love, aloof from all who know him, a man who has turned his back on the world. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick declares, and he means it.
Enter Ilsa and Victor. Once Ilsa finally has the chance to explain why, a few years before, she didn’t show up at the train yard to meet Rick and flee Paris ahead of the Nazis, Rick realizes that she has never stopped loving him, and his wounded heart is restored. That realization also gives him the courage to save both Victor and Ilsa from the Nazis.
Victor also helps bring Rick back from the despair with which he lives. When they first meet, Victor says, “One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanca,” to which Rick, clearly an admirer, responds, “And about Victor Laszlo everywhere.”
In one key scene that reveals Victor as a hero who inspires others, the Germans in the café begin singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Without hesitation, Victor marches across the room, stands before the café’s band, and commands them, “Play ‘La Marseillaise!’ Play it!” The bandleader looks to Rick for permission. When Rick, who is on a nearby staircase, nods, the band plays the French national anthem with Victor conducting. Immediately the entire café begins belting out the words and drowns out the Germans. Having witnessed firsthand how Victor inspires others to resist tyranny eventually leads Rick to reassess his own doubts and skepticism.
Like Rick, Louis Renault is a cynic who abuses his office as police chief to enrich himself and prey on women trying to escape Casablanca. By movie’s end, inspired by Rick, he also devotes himself to the cause of liberty, and the two men stride off into the foggy night to join the underground.
Lesson 3: Offer encouragement to the discouraged and the downcast. These days, we all need heartening words and deeds and to give the same to those around us.
Things Worth Fighting ForIf we give way to the totalitarianism found in fascism, communism, and socialism, “Casablanca” reminds us of what we will lose: our constitutional liberties, the right to raise and educate our children, and the right to live our lives as we deem fit.
In “Casablanca,” we see a “hard” totalitarianism at work. The Nazis use fear and intimidation, the threat of concentration camps, and even murder to force their will on this captive city and those trying to escape it. Such governments, as we all know, still exist around the world.
These days, especially in the West, a “soft” totalitarianism is at work, seeking control not with guns and physical brutality (at least for now) but with mandates, manufactured news, and forced political correctness. Those pushing this agenda work toward the same ends as all totalitarians—power and control—and with the belief that they are on the right side of history. Just like the Nazis in “Casablanca,” they regard themselves as superior beings and the rest of us as cattle to be manipulated as they see fit.
Through Rick, through Victor Laszlo, and even through such minor characters as the gentle maître d’ named Carl (S. Z. Sakall) we meet those who refuse to buckle and give way to oppression.
At one point, Rick asks Laszlo, “Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean, what you’re fighting for?”
“We might as well question why we breathe,” Laszlo responds. “If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.”
We can take strength from such words, just as the characters in the film take strength from one another. Each of us in our own way can promote liberty and resist those who try to steal it from us.
The Same Old StoryWritten by Herman Hupfeld, “As Time Goes By” was a modest hit until Dooley Wilson sang it in “Casablanca.” It is the song shared by Rick and Ilsa in Paris, and it acts as a motif throughout the movie.
“It’s still the same old story A fight for love and glory A case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers As time goes by.”If we expand lovers here to include all those who truly love this world, who are willing to fight for love and glory, who are ready to do or die, we find here the key message from “Casablanca.” Just as Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and others were fighting their oppressors because of their love of freedom, we can do the same today.
The actors and the scenery change from age to age, but one plot of the play remains unchanged: the quest by some for power, the struggle between good and evil, the battle between those who cherish liberty and those who seek to make themselves masters.
It’s “still the same old story.” And it always will be.
But “Casablanca” teaches us some ways to fight for the right and the good.