Virgin Viewing: ‘Casablanca’

After several weeks of Virgin Viewings full of blood and guts (of the shark and mob shark varieties), I was happy to switch to a more romantic film this week. Like many classic movies I’d never seen, I knew many of the most famous lines from Casablanca before I saw it (“Here’s looking at you, kid”; “Play it, Sam”). However, what I didn’t realize was how urgent the film would be. I was surprised to learn that the film came out in 1942 – considering it dealt with the realities of World War II, I thought it would not have been made until 1945 or ’46. As a result, the movie felt a lot ballsier.

Addressing the war while the war was still happening was a risky thing to do. However, there’s one detail that felt clunky to me – the repeated mentions of concentration camps. The character Victor (Paul Henreid) was apparently in one camp for a year before escaping, and several times he or other characters mention that he could be sent back there again. We know that Victor is Czechoslovakian, but we don’t know if he’s Jewish – it seems more likely that he was sent to a camp because he was a dissident and political activist. Although there were many people around the world who were unaware of the atrocities being committed in concentration camps, for a man who had escaped from one Victor seems blase about the possibility of being sent back – sure, he’s concerned about getting safely out of the country and making sure his wife is okay, but no mention of the horrors he’d been through? It’s possible that as a political prisoner Victor would have been in a different, less horrible section of the camp than the Jewish prisoners, but his retelling of his experiences could have been a way to convince Rick to give him the letters of transit and an emotional way to get the audience on his side. That’s just the thing, though – the filmmakers clearly didn’t want the audience to be on Victor’s side. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is the star of this movie, and part of the reason he’s the hero is because he’s American, like many of the viewers of the film. A movie that came out in 1942 and addressed World War II would have been a huge misfire if there hadn’t been an American hero for the audience to connect with. Victor, with his generic accent and his wife who was in love with Rick, cannot be the star of the movie. As a result, Victor is somewhat of an enigma.

Probably because I’m Jewish, I couldn’t help but read the movie a bit differently. How likely was it for someone to just ‘escape’ from a concentration camp, much less escape from one and then gallivant around Europe and North Africa with your beautiful wife, while wearing impeccable suits? Yes, it must have been depressing to be stuck in Casablanca indefinitely, not knowing when the war would end and if it would be safe to leave the country, but being rounded up and put in a ghetto and then being shipped to a concentration camp would be way, way worse. It was hard for me, as a modern viewer who knew the outcomes of World War II when the characters did not, to feel too much sympathy for a bunch of people being louche and fabulous in the shadow of a conflict. Even the central love story, well-acted by Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, left me a little cold. During their flashbacks to occupied Paris, I only thought about how many Jewish residents of Paris didn’t survive the war. I know that I was bringing my own personal histories and prejudices along with me as a viewer, and once I put them aside I was able to truly enjoy Casablanca. Politics aside, it’s still a great film, and despite the black-and-white cinematography it holds up beautifully. Rick and Ilse still choked me up, and the tension surrounding Rick’s choices about the letters of transit was still compelling. It effectively captures a particular time and place and manages to evoke the essence of a lost era. But a postwar viewer, I don’t think I’ll ever watch it without dread in my heart.

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    • Stephanie

      The filming of Casablanca began only six months after the United States entered into WWII. During this time, the horrifying truths behind the death camps in Europe were not widely known.