Casablanca is widely remembered as one of the greatest films of all time, coming in at #2 on the 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 as many enduring quotes.
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.
Image: Warner Bros.