Go ahead and love something an embarrassing amount, Volume I: the 'Marseillaise' scene in casablanca

I wrote earlier this week about ‘the classics’ and what makes them worth either reading for the first time despite their age or revisiting with new eyes. When I taught literature, the skill I wanted to teach my students more than any other was how to enjoy the books we were reading, and more importantly, how to enjoy being a diligent critic of those books. Doing a Ph.D. taught me to love the deep dive: the closer you look at something, the more work you do in pursuit of understanding it, the more you will enjoy it. In my mind, this is the quality that determines the richness of a piece of art: when you lean into it, press firmly upon it, analyze the hell out of it, how does it respond? Does it kind of fall apart, or does it reveal something unexpected that adds meaning to it?

At some point early in my middle school years, my dad proposed that we watch Casablanca and analyze the dramatic structure of the film as we went. I remember the lavender ruled notepad he held, the notes he took in pencil, and the places we paused the film to talk about what was going on. Having seen it several times already, I started to learn what it meant to watch a film for reasons other than its plot; i could see all the pieces being set up scene by scene to take us to the film's heart-stopping climax. I began to think this way about all our family-favorite films, and our conversations continued through Gone With The WindButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and It’s A Wonderful Life, these forming the backbone of our family’s recurring classic film repertoire. My feelings about most of these films have evolved since my early adolescence; I have aged, times are different, and I have also seen them all enough times to be bothered by what I think are their weak spots. There are things that bother me now about Casablanca that didn’t bother me when I was ten, but by god, I will sit through the entire movie just to feel the tears well up when Victor Laszlo stands up in front of the band and cries, “play La Marseillaise!  Play it!” I got the chills just typing that sentence and reliving that sequence in my head, in fact.

This clip probably will not make you cry like it just did me (no kidding) if you aren't familiar with the entire film and if you don't know all of the characters we just visited in that minute and fifty seconds. If you watch Casablanca from the beginning, though, it will teach you about the strange and unfriendly world of which this little scene is the perfect microcosm. Casablanca itself is a curious place to stage a drama that is very much about the European powers of World War II. We actually hear La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, woven into the film's overture over the opening titles as the voiceover introduces us to the city of Casablanca, in French Morocco: “there, the fortunate ones, through money or influence or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World, but the others wait in Casablanca, and wait, and wait...and wait.” Nowhere in this introduction do we hear mention of Nazism, the reason people are angling for a ticket to ‘scurry’ to the New World. As we hear the words “wait, and wait...and wait” the camera closes in on Casablanca's city streets, full of people and noise and, as one of the film's most famous lines proclaims, “vultures, vultures everywhere.”

This is what Casablanca is all about. Yes, per IMDb’s summary, “a cynical nightclub owner protects an old flame and her husband from Nazis in Morocco,” but we won't be introduced to the cynical nightclub owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), until well into the movie. It will be even longer before we meet the old flame and her husband, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and the aforementioned Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid). The love triangle and Rick's tortured choice - to help Ilsa and Victor, or to help Ilsa and himself - is  probably what compels me the least about this film. By itself, the love story is an ultimately unimportant drama in the context of a big, menacing reality, and I think even the film would agree: in its own words, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Casablanca itself, under Nazi supervision even if not officially occupied, is a scary place, “vultures everywhere” indeed. The desired outcome for every would-be refugee there is to get out, and their success is dependent in large part on how ‘fortunate’ they happen to be. Before we get to La Marseillaise, we will see people do, or contemplate doing, a number of desperate things in the name of getting the hell out of Casablanca, out of the reach of Nazi Germany. The brutality of the Nazis and the genocide they committed are neither explicitly invoked nor in any way absent from the fabric of the movie. Everyone has arrived in Casablanca because they are running away from the Nazis. Everyone is trying to get to the New World because only then will they know they are out of reach. In the meantime, Casablanca’s supposed neutrality feels far from certain in the long term and far from dependable in the near term. Mainland France became Occupied France within the space of a day, and the Nazis project only confidence that the rest of Europe will fall into line in no time. “Can you imagine us in London?” one Nazi officer asks Rick. “When you get there, ask me,” he replies. 

Rick’s cautiously cordial relationship the Nazi officers in the film is part of what keeps us on the edge of our seats; how wouldhe feel if they made it to London? He allows them to drink in his bar, after all, and he by extension allows them to think that he might not be their enemy. Rick’s whole aesthetic (his shtick?) is that he has no loyalties, that he sticks his neck out for no one, and this allows him to keep everyone equally at arm’s length, Nazis and refugees alike. We aren’t sure at the film’s midpoint whether we can accept that; we, the viewers, know what the Nazis wrought on the world, and we also know that they succeeded for as long as they did in part because of the neutrality of others.

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This is where we get "La Marseillaise." Rick and Victor are in the middle of a fraught exchange about whether Rick might give Victor and Ilsa the exit visas that he supposedly has, and Rick will only speak in cryptic non-commitments. As the conversation continues to go nowhere, we hear strains of a German patriotic anthem, “Die Wacht Am Rein.” We follow Victor and Rick back into the bar and we see that the Nazis have taken over the piano and the club itself. This is the first time we have seen anyone besides Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing that piano, and the mood of the club is unlike anything we have seen before. Where they were at arm’s length, the Nazi officers are now in our faces, and the camera pans across the other patrons uneasily shifting in their seats. We look at Rick and Victor again: what is Rick going to do about it? He is motionless, while Victor, stricken by what he sees, wastes no time. Ever the Resistance leader, he marches purposefully over to the deflated horn players, and when he commands they play La Marseillaise, they look over at their boss before acting. When Rick nods, the whole bar comes alive.

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They begin to play and everyone scrambles to their feet and joins in. We only hear Victor sing the first line, "allons enfants de la Patrie," before the whole crowd responds with "le jour de gloire est arrive." They sing the whole first verse of the anthem, by which point the Nazis have abandoned their initial attempt at holding their own and sat down in their seats. When the chorus swells, we get close-up shots first of Victor, his fist clenched, and then of Ilsa, watching her husband with tears in her eyes. He has done what no one else in Casablanca has been able to do: take a public stand against the Nazis, likely putting himself at risk even though the one reason he is here is because he, too, wants to get the hell out. He demonstrates his unwillingness to comply passively with the Nazis in this scene, when they make their move on the crowd in the club, and in doing so he shows them that he is still a danger to them. Ilsa knows this, and I have always read her gaze in this scene as proud, loving, and sad. She loves Victor because now as ever, he will put himself at risk for something bigger. I take back what i said earlier about not caring about the love story. I DO care about it - this scene makes me care about it. (I'm not even kidding, I just cried again as I watched it a second time.) 

Casablanca sure isn't my favorite movie - I doubt that it would crack the top 5 - but this scene is my favorite standalone scene in any movie, and I could sit here for hours longer analyzing the things about it that are masterful and moving on a second-by-second basis. I have kept myself to a modest 1500 words - admirable restraint, if you ask me. I quantify my love for this scene in my post title as "an embarrassing amount," but I think you know by now that I am using that word facetiously. My faux embarrassment is my self-awareness, which I show you in token recognition of the fact that yes, I am intense. That's grad school, the gift that keeps on giving. This is a post that I hope people will comment on - this weekend, love what you love an embarrassing amount, and let's talk about it!