There are films that hold your attention at least until the credits roll, and there are films that leave a more lasting impression, and you decide to add them to your private collection. And then there are films that will forever be embedded in your psyche; and whether you own them personally or not, you will always name them on your list of favorites.
For me, dozens of movies fit in the first category, and I have built a DVD collection of some films I find worthy of owning. But I maintain a short list of films I treasure, I mean absolutely cherish, the kind of films you would pass onto your children as their birthright. “Casablanca” ranks at the top of that list, so I nearly hooted in public when I learned it will soon return to theaters for a one-night screening.
On March 21, Turner Classic Movies will host the event in theaters across the country in honor of the film’s 70th anniversary. If I haven’t already beaten you to the theater, save me a seat, because I’ll be just around the corner.
“Casablanca” has been described as a sentimental love story, and even one Warner Brothers script reader called it “sophisticated hokum.” But I see the film as so much more—it’s a triumphal statement for human perseverance and against the driving principles of the Third Reich. The romance between the main characters, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, is merely a device for telling the weightier story.
The playwrights chose Casablanca as the setting specifically because it was a major stop for refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Desperate Europeans gathered there in a holding pattern until they gained safe passage to the United States.
In the film, these very real stories from World War II play out as refugees congregate nightly at Rick’s Café Américain, a haven owned by Bogart’s character, because as they say, “Champagne takes the sting out of being occupied.”
The French are in charge, but in march the Germans to assert their dominance. Never are the rising tensions and fraying nerves more acute than one evening in the club when Nazi officers begin belting out a popular German song. In response, the café orchestra answers with a fierce French anthem, and everyone joins in to drown out the occupiers. “Tremble, tyrants and traitors, the shame of all good men,” goes their impassioned singing.
Characters like Peter Lorre’s Ugarte, his hair and forehead shining with the same greasy sheen, fight for scraps; S. Z. Sakall’s affable Carl works the room to provide some comic relief; and Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser elicits chilling hatred as the imposing Nazi authority.
On the surface, the setting is pure Hollywood, but if you look a little deeper, you see art imitating real life. Lorre and Sakall, both Hungarian born, left Germany in response to the rise of the Nazi party. Paul Henried, from Austria, left Europe in the 1930s to escape fascism as well. And those singing patrons in the café? They are actual refugees working as extras in the film, and their fervent tears are real.
Veidt’s story alone would make for a memorable film. He was an accomplished silent-film actor in Germany and starred in the nation’s first talking picture. He was known for anti-Nazi sentiments, however, and the Gestapo set out to assassinate him. But Veidt was able to escape ahead of the death squad, and he fled to England.
After becoming a British citizen, he reportedly gave much of his estate and a portion of his salary to the war effort. How ironic that he and other actors like him—upwards of 30 nationalities worked on this project— chose to represent the very people they were fleeing in order to create a film like “Casablanca.”
Yes, there is ample sentimental mush in this film, what with “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and the like. But the story isn’t about the lost love between Rick and Ilsa, parting ways in the rain and fog while plane engines roar. It’s about what happens afterward.
If any film deserves a revival on the big screen, it’s “Casablanca.” Plenty of films portray good versus evil or liberty versus aggression, but few do it well, and the staying power of this one makes it a national—and a personal—treasure.