Nov. 26, 1942, 75 years ago Casablanca premieres in New York City.
AFI’s top 100 list and similarly regarded by many other critics. You can quibble with its exact rank, but it’s at least undeniable how iconic Casablanca remains. Even now, more than 70 years after its 1942 release, few movies have ever produced.Casablanca is widely remembered as one of the greatest films of all time, coming in at #2 on the
But when I think of the film, the first thing that comes to my mind isn’t “Here’s looking at you, kid,” or “We’ll always have Paris,” or the song “As Time Goes By,” or any of the other often best-remembered parts. For me, it’s always “La Marseillaise” — the dueling anthems between French refugees and their German occupants singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” I’ve never found a movie scene yet that can match it. So now, at a time when people are once again turning to “La Marseillaise” for comfort in the face of adversity, I wanted to revisit what makes this scene so powerful.
The scene marks a major turning point in the film. Directly preceding this scene, the bar owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart) refuses to give or sell letters of transit to the war hero/revolutionary Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid). The letters of transit are the only hope of freedom for Victor, and his only chance at returning to his efforts at insurgency against the Nazis; Rick knows this, but is still too hurt and bitter that his lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) has chosen Victor over him. Rick’s refusal is essentially a Nazi victory, despite his careful attempts at framing his (in)actions as simple neutrality. The Germans, led by Major Strausser (Conrad Veidt), have established a de facto control over Casablanca, acting through the openly self-interested French Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains).
After “La Marseillaise,” everything changes. The uneasy stalemate between Victor Laszlo and Major Strausser can no longer continue in the face of such open defiance of German power. Strausser orders Renault to find a pretense to shut down Rick’s — leading to arguably the film’s best exchange of dialogue. Strausser uses Ilsa to increase the pressure on Victor. Everything kicks into gear, as now Rick, Ilsa, Victor, and Louis are all forced into unpleasant decisions that will push the film toward its climax.
And it all begins with the anthems. As Rick and Victor are ending their disagreement, they hear the German soldiers in the bar below, joyfully and triumphantly singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” The rest of the bar is made up largely of refugees from the German war machine, so the anthem feels almost like taunting, a callous display of German power over people seeking to escape their conquering. Even the ever-compliant Louis looks on at the singing with an expression that could be construed as disapproval, before glancing toward Rick to see what he’ll do. (Rick is a constant source of curiosity for Louis throughout the film.) This expression is the first and barest foreshadowing we receive of Louis’s eventual turn.
Victor spends only seconds taking in the scene in front of him before marching straight down to the bar’s band. As he passes, we see Ilsa watch him go by with a look of only partially contained dread. She knows this man and exactly what he’s about to do.
Victor reaches the band and immediately demands that they play “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. Here we see, for the first and perhaps only time, what has made Victor such an important figure. There’s such a fierceness to him, an intensity that comes bursting out as he repeats his demand — “Play it” — less than second after first making it.
The band leader looks first to Rick for approval; the film had already established previously the absolute loyalty that Rick receives from his employees, in a scene where the bartender cuts off a patron on Rick’s orders despite protests for one more drink. Nothing that follows can happen without Rick’s assent. Bogart’s nod is such a small gesture, but carries such enormous weight. This is the first moment of Rick choosing a side, of joining in resistance in some small way.
The band launches into “La Marseillaise” with Victor leading the singing, and within two seconds, the entire bar (except the Germans) has stood and joined him. Everyone was ready and waiting for this to happen, even if they didn’t know it: the kindling was already there, and Victor was the spark to light it. Major Strausser makes one attempt to rouse his soldiers into louder voices, but it’s no use. The Germans are but one small enclave, finding themselves within a community that’s filled with less traditional power but greater numbers and far superior zeal. Within moments, “La Marseillaise” has drowned out “Die Wacht am Rhein.”
Strausser is forced to give up and sit down in anger … (read more)