I have one hard and fast rule when it comes to the treatment of Nazis in film: The fact that they are Nazis is reason enough for them to be the villains. They don’t also need to be mean to animals or cheat at poker to make us hate them any more than we normally would due only to their fascism.
Sure, Nazis are convenient bad guys, but the more a movie layers on the despicability of the bad guy, the cheaper and more unearned the hero’s goodness feels. For example, in The Sound of Music, the Von Trapps escape Austria not only to flee Nazi annexation and dominance, but because the Nazis hate music and cute families, as though the choice wasn’t clear before. Or take the worst offender, Pan’s Labyrinth, where the fascist stepfather hates kids and doesn’t believe in magic while the Republicans in hiding are nice to their families, just in case you were unclear on which side is the bad one.
“Good” people exist on the wrong side of a fight just like “bad” people exist on the right side. Making every Nazi villain in every movie a nasty person implies that there are character attributes that are more specific to one political tendency than to others. But the nicest Nazi in the world is still a Nazi, while the most jaded antifascist is still an antifascist. What else do you need?
The only question I care about in any political or ethical dilemma isn’t whether someone is moral, it’s whether they’re right. Which is one of many reasons why I love the shit out of Casablanca.
Casablanca takes place at the exact moment it was filmed: in 1942, in one of the heaviest refugee staging areas that arose during the early days of World War II. Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, the well-connected and respected owner of Rick’s Cafe. He maintains a cynical exterior and makes it a point to maintain a good relationship with corrupt officials, Vichy collaborationist or not, but he has a habit of letting his sentimental side show when it comes to helping people who have no way to help themselves.
One day, a figure from his past arrives, causing him to act even more unpredictably than usual. The truth about his history as a gunrunner for underdogs in Ethiopia and Spain begins to emerge, as well as the ultimate heartbreak on the eve of the German occupation of France that caused him to abandon both politics and romance. He then began his life in Casablanca to escape his old one, but as his personal troubles become intertwined with those of the world, there are some questions and emotions that he can’t just dismiss with the rest of them.
That may sound like a great love story, which is an enormous part of Casablanca‘s reputation. I think it’s exactly the opposite, to greater effect.
The great love story between Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) happened years before the events of the film, and that part of their lives is long over. This story isn’t about finding love, it’s about contextualizing your emotions in order to see your place in the world and the events around you. That’s the whole point of the “hill of beans” speech; it’s not about romance, it’s about how the world keeps turning no matter how heartbroken you are, and self-pity should never stop you from doing the right thing.
Casablanca was one of three (!) films directed by Michael Curtiz in 1942, the others being flagrant bits of war propaganda Captains of the Clouds and Yankee Doodle Dandy. So how did Curtiz, a director infamous for giving less than two shits about story and dialogue, create one of the richest political romances of all time? Curtiz was no visionary (he would be the first to admit it); but because of this, he was exactly the right man to stay out of the way when true greatness and catharsis is about to strike.
Though it was filmed a year after the US entered World War II, the setting is an area that has been deeply affected by the war but is not an actual war zone. The cast consists of many, many speaking parts, only three of which are played by Americans. Many of the actors portraying Germans and Frenchmen were actual exiles, which helps the fear and tension of the circumstances take on a realism that films of the 1940s were not generally known for. On top of all of that is a sophisticated romance that isn’t just a framing device or a subplot, but is itself the motivation for change, and a flawless script that leaves no tangential theme unexplored. The last thing this perfect equation needs is tampering from someone with big ideas of their own getting in the way.
This may be the one instance in which a director’s apathy helped a film’s intelligence. The complex characters are allowed to be themselves, and nobody represents anything beyond the sum of their decisions.
After now rewatching Casablanca for the fourth time and enjoying it every bit as much as the first, I think I may have to retire the phrase, even the very idea, that an old movie can “hold up” to modern standards. We say it whenever a movie does something that’s either outdated or quaint, which we voluntarily overlook for the greater good of the film. An old movie “holds up” despite its hammy acting, old-fashioned treatment of violence, outdated political or social views if there’s something at its heart that counteracts or works in spite of how dated it is. If a movie manages to reach a modern audience despite stylistic differences that would have been treated differently today, that’s a mark in its favor.
But to say such a thing about Casablanca would feel like a backhanded compliment. Nothing about it ”holds up” in some quaint way. There are no dated references or artistic decision that we willingly forgive for our own enjoyment. It just is, by every metric, still great.
Comments: Casablanca doesn’t just work in spite of its age. If the film were made today with every line of dialogue and camera movement intact, it would still be just as terrific.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Definitely.
Inspired: I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my first exposure to the characters Ugarte and Ferrari was from Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, though I’m positive I’m not alone.
Next Week: #1 Citizen Kane
Last Week: #3 The Godfather
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