Photo: Breve Storia del Cinema
IT’S VALENTINE’S DAY, which means my wife and I will be watching the greatest romantic movie of all time, Casablanca. We also watch it on my birthday, July 14th (Bastille Day!), and at least once in the winter, just to keep our souls warm. If you haven’t seen Casablanca, you need to. Immediately. It is funny, exciting, heartbreaking, and still totally relevant: It’s the perfect Valentine’s movie for the Trump era.
(I will be spoiling some points in this article, but it shouldn’t matter if you haven’t seen it already — this is a movie from the pre-spoiler world, and knowing the ending hardly ruins the experience. I should know, I’ve watched it probably 50 times.)
If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s pretty simple — Rick Blaine is an American who owns a nightclub in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in the early years of World War II. Casablanca is where Europe’s refugees are all stuck, waiting for a plane to America and away from the Nazi’s. Rick is a jaded nihilist. When he throws a criminal who murdered Nazi couriers to the police, he says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
When a famous anti-Nazi Czech dissident named Victor Laszlo shows up to Rick’s bar asking for help, Rick is put into a bind — should he help Laszlo and his wife Ilsa Lund (whom Rick just so happens to have a romantic past with) escape, and undermine the Nazis he despises? Or should he seduce Ilsa away from Laszlo, and ingratiate himself to the authorities by turning the dissident over to the Nazis?
Love in hard times
The world, at the moment, is not at war. But things feel dark. 1930s dark. Donald Trump threatened both Mexico and Iran with invasions last week, seemingly on a whim. Racism and hatred are back on the rise. Refugees are fleeing violent psychopaths in the Middle East, and many nations are refusing to help them out of fear of terrorism. And the climate is slowly, inexorably heating up.
In the midst of all of this, I happen to be in love. I’m entering my second year of marriage to my wife, and my personal life has honestly never been quite this nice. Marriage is not half as lame as everyone says it is. We cook each other dinner and have drinks with friends. We travel to cool places and we talk about the world.
It would be quite easy for us to turn inward and not concern ourselves with the rest of the world. We’ve lived together in a 300 square foot studio, and we were able to be happy there (if a little smushed). We could be happy if we just ignored the nightmares beyond our doors.
Rick Blaine’s attitude at the beginning of Casablanca was pretty representative of a large chunk of the American public at the beginning of World War II. Many Americans, chanting “America First!” were saying we shouldn’t get involved in Europe’s troubles (America First, incidentally, was the theme of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech), that we should look out for ourselves and ourselves alone. We’d stick our neck out for nobody. Who cared what would happen in the rest of the world?
The good fight
At the end of Casablanca, Rick helps Laszlo escape, and sends Ilsa with him. When Ilsa asks why Rick doesn’t want her to stay with him, he says, in one of the movie’s dozen immortal lines, “Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
She gets on the plane with Laszlo to escape to America, where he can lead the propaganda resistance against the Nazis. Rick, along with his ex-Vichy friend Louis, leaves Casablanca to fight for the French Resistance.
The movie is set in December 1941 — within days, the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor, and the United States would do the same as Rick and enter the war.
Nowadays, most romantic movies don’t end with the characters sacrificing their personal happiness for a greater cause (there’s one notable exception nominated for a Best Picture this year which name-checks Casablanca, but I don’t want to spoil two movies in one article). Normally, it’s all about personal happiness and happily ever after’s. But the future for all of the characters in Casablanca is totally uncertain. The movie was released in 1942, long before the Allied win was a sure thing.
And that’s where we are now. There does not seem to be a light at the end of this tunnel. It would be easy to fall back on a sort of selfish nihilism and say, “Well, the world’s crashing down, let’s just take care of ourselves and enjoy being in love.”
We want there to be a better world on the other side of this, though. A world where people like us can watch whatever the 2017 version of Casablanca ends up being. So tonight, we’ll get some gin (Rick Blaine’s favorite drink), make ourselves some crusty bread and maybe a pasta, and we’ll snuggle up and watch the French resistance drown out the singing of the Nazi’s with “La Marseillaise.”
Tomorrow, we’ll shrug off our hangovers and rejoin the fight.