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November 26, 2012
Seventy years ago today, Michael Curtiz released arguably the finest feature film of World War II. One of the defining features of Casablanca is its multiplicity of layers, weaving a series of propagandist messages around what is essentially a tale of a warped romance between Rick and Ilsa. The seedy and corrupt depiction of the North African port in the film is in steep contrast to the official cinematographic propaganda of the Vichy regime, which tended to portray the Empire as a whole as a place of honest hard work and earnest contribution to the motherland. Short documentaries and the official newsreel, France-Actualités Pathé-Gaumont were remarkably consistent in their treatment of the city–in one 1941 news item, local labourers are even shown constructing new quays for use by French ships, emphasising Vichy’s imperial might.
In Casablanca, though, Rick’s café functions as a hang-out for petty criminals, career opportunists and fugitive refugees. There is nothing hard-working or constructive about the city in the Hollywood film, which in itself undermines the carefully crafted image of Vichy’s newsreels. The spectre of resistance also looms large, not least through the presence of Victor Laszlow. The assassination of two German officers heralded at the start of the film provides a precedent for Rick’s later shooting of Major Strasser. Again, Vichy’s control over the city is challenged in the film, with the self-serving Captain Renault willing to turn a blind eye to the practise of gambling at Rick’s. Crucially, the French also appear to be subservient to Strasser and his men; Renault closes the bar down only on the instructions of Strasser.
The film does much to create an image of Pétain’s French State (‘État français’) lacking in autonomy in North Africa, quite the contrary to the message disseminated to the French–and indeed the North African–population. Vichy’s filmed propaganda was shown compulsorily in cinemas in both the Vichy (‘Unoccupied’) Zone and North Africa from mid-1941, obliging the audience to watch the newsreels and documentaries before they were able to enjoy the feature film. For many audience members in North Africa—especially the majority Muslim population amongst whom illiteracy rates were high (around 90%)–the moving images of the cinema were more powerful than the written word of the newspaper or a magazine. It was, therefore, all the more important for Vichy to impress upon North African audiences the regime’s economic and political autonomy in its cinematographic material. Yet the final scene of Casablanca, in which Renault instructs his subordinates to ‘round up the usual suspects’ rather than arrest Rick, after which a bottle of Vichy water is thrown into the waste bin, compounds the film’s message that the regime’s grip over its overseas territories is entirely fictitious.
The French Republican tradition is also harnessed in the film to undermine the perception of Vichy–and German–control in the Maghreb. In one memorable scene at the bar, while Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Laszlow (Paul Henreid) discuss whether or not Rick possesses two exit visas which were stolen from the murdered German officers, a group of Germans, led by Strasser, are pictured in the main bar performing a rendition of Die Wacht am Rhein. Laszlow is evidently infuriated by this–deliberately–obvious German cultural invasion of Rick’s apparently neutral café, in Vichy-controlled Morocco, and demands the house band to ‘play the Marseillaise.’ That the Germans are shown to be drowning out all other conversation in the bar is, of course, significant–they thus appear to be in overall control in the city, once again debunking Vichy’s claims of autonomy and powerful international status.
The choice of the Marseillaise is also not without reason. Banned by the Nazis in the Occupied Zone of France (along with the tricolore), the Marseillaise was nonetheless permitted by Vichy. With its revolutionary heritage–dating back to the Battle of Valmy in 1792, in which the French revolutionary army under the Convention headed off the Prussians–the Marseillaise instantly conjures up images of revolution and resistance. It was also harnessed during the war by de Gaulle and the Free French, played on the radio programmes destined for clandestine French listeners of the BBC. While the Vichy authorities created their own quasi-anthem in Charles Courtioux and André Montagard’s ‘Maréchal, nous voilà!’ and even went so far as to re-write the lyrics of the national anthem, de Gaulle maintained the Marseillaise as the only anthem for France. The rendition of the song in Casablanca acts as a unifying symbol between all of the guests gathered at Rick’s, with the exception of the typical résistant of the 11th hour, Renault, the Germans and Rick. Not only does the Marseillaise provide an outlet in which the customers can voice their resistance to the gathered Germans, but it also undermines any of Vichy’s attempts to appropriate the symbol for its own purposes. Rather, by placing the anthem firmly in a revolutionary-resistance setting, Casablanca encourages audiences to side with the Free French, and to a lesser extent de Gaulle, who, crucially, is not mentioned in the film. At a time when Roosevelt was doubtful of the likely contribution to the Allied war effort, the film appears to give Curtiz’s backing to any resistance against the Nazis and their allies–notably Pétain’s regime. Rick’s curt nod of the head permitting the band to play the Marseillaise perhaps echoes Curtiz’s own views on European resistance.
The history of the Marseillaise during the Occupation is far from clear-cut. Nevertheless, its presence in a Hollywood movie from November 1942–shortly after the Allied invasion of North Africa in ‘Operation Torch’–serves to counter Vichy’s repeated claims of political autonomy in its own cinematographic propaganda. The Marseillaise scene is also one of the most moving of the entire film, and seventy years on has lost none of its capacity to stir the emotions of the viewer.
Michael Curtiz, Casablanca (1942)
Centre National de la Cinématographie
Brett Bowles, ‘Newsreels, Ideology and Public Opinion under Vichy: The Case of La France en Marche’, French Historical Studies, 27.2 (2004)
Jean-Pierre Bertin-Maghit, Les documenteurs des années noires (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2004)