3.14.2017

Liberty, equality, fraternity, and "Casablanca"


Casablanca: Laszlo leads "La Marseillaise."

Is Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) in Casablanca supposed to be Jewish?  We know that he’s Czech, and that he has spent time in a concentration camp before escaping to Morocco with his Norwegian wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).  (Henreid was of Austrian heritage, born in Trieste.)  Laszlo is coded as Jewish in the screenplay but is characterized in such a way that his Jewishness is effaced; it acts as a signifier for his resistance to Nazism and little more.  That is to say that Laszlo’s Jewishness is implied but also ultimately irrelevant.  I got thinking about this question upon re-watching Casablanca this week, because it’s a film in which the figuration of nationality and ethnicity epitomizes classical Hollywood at its most ideologically left-of-center: it recognizes and smiles upon what today would be called “diversity of representation,” so long as everyone, whatever their racial or ethnic stripes, can get behind the values of liberal democracy.  Casablanca is a film both aware/respectful of cultural difference and invested in the idea that Western values can and should cut across cultural lines.      

Laszlo (note facial scar) with Rick (Humphrey Bogart).

Cosmopolitanism becomes a useful word when talking about this film, which takes place in a port city filled with transients from all corners of the globe.  Rick’s Café Americain is presented as a motley place of vagabonds and refugees where there is no official language, only a patois of German, French, English.  Typically, classical Hollywood films reflect America’s long-standing suspicion of cosmopolitanism, a fear of the outsider as other.  At first, then, it seems surprising to realize that Casablanca is relatively un-hysterical—if not necessarily “woke”—in its attitude toward a place where people of so many different cultures have been thrown together like discarded objects in a jumble sale.  Cosmopolitanism is romanticized at points in Casablanca, but more often than not the film adopts the same non-judgmental, matter-of-fact tone that Our Guy Rick (Humphrey Bogart) takes, or seems to take, toward everything and everyone around him.   
                
"Everybody comes to Rick's": the bar as cosmopolitan hub.

Eventually it becomes clear that Casablanca’s ideology doesn’t break down along the lines of domestic vs. foreign (in a place like Casablanca, everyone is a foreigner).  Rather, it’s about those who are fighting the good fight in the name of liberal democratic values, whether those people be white Americans or Czech Jews or liberal Germans and Russians like the minor characters Carl and Sascha, versus the fascists.  The film continually, and movingly, stages scenes of cross-cultural unity in the name of those liberal democratic values, as in the famous bit when Laszlo strikes up the house band to play an impromptu rendition of “La Marseillaise,” and virtually the whole bar joins in, regardless of their nationality.  (The French national anthem becomes a symbol for the whole Allied cause.)  In other words, the movie doesn’t seem to care who you are or where you come from, as long as you’re on the right side of the fight.  The Americanness of Rick’s Café Americain (which bears no resemblance to any real American nightclub of its time) may have to do with this particular type of of conditional inclusion.  Everyone can come to Rick’s if they agree to play by the house rules.

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