FILM THEORY & CRITICISM
Everybody Comes to Rick's
It's the 23rd of January 1943. The evening paper mentions that Sergei Eisenstein celebrates his 45th birthday today, The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts record is released, and allied forces led by General Montgomery capture Tripoli ("On This Day," "Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943," and "WWII Combat Chronology"). The movie Casablanca also opens throughout US theaters today; however, this film premiered in New York two months earlier on the 26th of November 1942. Casablanca was an allegory prophetically commenting upon the second World War (WWII) and the parties involved in it, even foretelling the US's official policy of neutrality not lasting and America's eventual choice to ally themselves against the Nazi threat. Eleven days after Casablanca's debut, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor...
The first players in Casablanca were the Japanese's allies the Germans. In this film these Germans are trying to take command of the world, follow orders, or get as far out of the way as possible. The militant German Nazis were embodied by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), going everywhere they desired and striving to subject everyone to their wishes, and those who would not comply were shipped away to concentration camps to die. Contrast this with the German populace who were either like Carl (S.Z. Sakall) obeying their superiors loyally or like the German couple fleeing to America and forgoing their language for English. What an indicting critique of the German people: They either followed blindly (possibly because they have seen too many movies like Caligari) or they flee to save themselves. As such, the commentary is that none are standing up against the tyrannical German military.
The second players portrayed are the ambivalent Italians who are the polar opposites of the Germans. The Italian military officers prostrate themselves at the arrival of the Nazi officials, but are cast aside, and Italian Officer Tonnelli (Charles La Torre) tries to get a word in against a French officer, but is mocked for his impotence. Contrast this powerless military with the juggernaut of business Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), who is the strongest business force in Casablanca running much of the city's legal and illicit businesses: "As the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man." So according to Casablanca, Italians are outstanding—if not perhaps immoral—business people, but ineffective militarily.
Compare the visiting German and Italian forces with those of the third players, the native French. Abandoned by the American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and kicked out of his haven, the French woman Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau) returns the next night on the arm of a German Officer (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) and is mocked by a French Officer (Alberto Morin) for crawling in to bed with the enemy. What a metaphor for the population of France during WWII, laying down with Germany, but hating itself for doing so. Captain Renault (Claude Rains) is this embodiment of France's government. He is corrupt and abusive of his position, officially acquiescing to the Nazi powers, while subverting their authority when he can get away with it. This ambivalence of the French characters is the very same as that of France at this chaotic time.
And then there is Rick. Our last player is the American who has a long history of supporting the underdog, but striving to stay out of this conflict. It is as if the American's heart has fought for everything it could, and now heartbroken, Rick officially advocates solely for his own self-interests. However, he makes subtle perhaps even subconscious decisions against the German powers such as when he refuses the second largest banker in Germany (Gregory Gaye) access to the gambling sections of his café saying, "You're lucky the bar's open to you." The American powers-that-be, like Rick, officially want to play neutral, but are already invested in the outcome.
Eventually Rick, like the US, is unable to remain disconnected. Rick loves Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) with his whole being and gives up his café, his prestige, and everything he has to protect her. He chooses what is right insisting Ilsa stay with her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and continue his work opposing the Nazis. The US too commits to WWII and sacrifices so much to do what is right, though not for such noble reasons. The US was pulled in to the war retaliating against the Japanese and, once committed to a side, goes on to fight the good fight against the evil Nazis.
Casablanca is an amazingly insightful film that comments not only on the political atmosphere of European counties during WWII, but also goes on to predict that the US will enter the war against the Axis forces. The nationalities portrayed in this brilliant work embody the best and worst of the nations at this time. Many passively accepted or ran away from the Nazi menace of world-domination, others clandestinely resisted against herculean odds, but there was one America(n) who actively turned the tide and saved the day. Casablanca is not the true story of WWII; it is the imaginative reality we all agree on.