The speed with which the American political conversation has shifted from sympathy for the victims of the Paris attacks into hostility toward Syrian refugees might lead one to wish for a work of popular culture to stir public sympathy, to engender a sense of obligation to help victims of unspeakable violence. Thankfully, such a work already exists, and it just happens to be one of the most famous movies ever made.
Casablanca might seem an unlikely fit for the role. A tale of unrequited love played out in dinner jackets and evening gowns over champagne cocktails, it may not at first appear applicable to a humanitarian disaster. But beneath the classic Hollywood glamor, Casablanca is a movie about a refugee crisis that insists on the humanity and individuality of refugees, rather than seeing them as a threatening undifferentiated mass. As the number of people displaced by war around the world hits its highest level since World War II, it’s worth revisiting an iconic film from the last global era of refugees. It might even be a good idea to screen it for members of Congress.
Released in 1942, Casablanca is set in a time when, in a reversal of current trends, Europeans crossed the Mediterranean to take refuge in Arab countries. As the opening narration recounts, “a tortuous roundabout refugee trail sprang up: Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then, by train or auto or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca.” In reality, thousands of Europeans did pass through French Morocco during the war. Some of these arrivals are shown in this 1943 newsreel:
The movie refers to some of the worst abuses of this period only vaguely. Several references are made to “concentration camps” in the colony—this was years before the term would have taken on a much different meaning to American audiences as the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust were made public. In fact, the Vichy regime had constructed several such camps in Morocco where Jewish refugees and political prisoners built railroads and other public works projects in brutal conditions. Discussion of religion is conspicuously absent from Casablanca, though many of the patrons at Rick’s Café Américain would likely have been Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
But even if the situation is sanitized for popular consumption, the movie dramatizes and highlights the frustrations of people stuck in limbo in a place where they “hear very little and understand even less,” as one puts it. There is no lack of places in the current refugee crisis where, just as the Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser puts it about Casablanca, “human life is cheap.”
“Waiting, waiting, waiting, I’ll never get out of here. I’ll die in Casablanca,” one of the patrons at Rick’s laments early in the film. “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on the plane,” hopes the young Bulgarian refugee Annina Brandel, who has fled her country because she doesn’t want her children to grow up in a country where “the devil has the people by the throat.” Some of those fleeing are political activists like the saintly Victor Laszlo, husband of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, but most are ordinary people whose lives have been shattered by geopolitical circumstances beyond their control. The opening narration notes that obtaining the paperwork to make it to sanctuary is often a matter of “money, of influence, or luck,” but even those with means face situations they never could have predicted. A woman tries to pawn her diamonds only to be told that the market price is low because everyone is selling them.* The former head of the “second largest banking house in Amsterdam” is told dismissively by head waiter Carl that “the leading banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef in our kitchen.”
In the current crisis, the possession of false passports has often been treated as evidence of guilt, but Casablanca attempts to show that the black market is often the last resort for otherwise honest people in desperate straits. Just as as they still are today, the people in this situation are easy prey for criminals and grifters like the reptilian Ugarte or the unctuous Senor Ferrari, who tells Humphrey Bogart’s Rick that he could make a fortune in refugees, “Casablanca’s leading commodity.” It’s even worse for women, one area where Casablanca whiffs. Police Prefect Louis Renault may be portrayed as a charming rogue, thanks in large part to a scene-stealing performance by Claude Rains, but he’s essentially a predator who extorts sex from “pretty young girls” like Annina in exchange for exit visas. After reading the widespread reports of the sexual exploitation of Syrian women in refugee camps, Louis’ “little romances” seem a lot less charming.
As my colleague Jamelle Bouie recently wrote, the demonization of refugees was as common in Casablanca’s day as it is today, but the movie significantly puts a Trumpian warning about the “scum of Europe” flowing to Casablanca in the mouth of a man in the process of stealing someone else’s wallet. More importantly, it depicts the victims of war as sympathetic individuals. Many critics have suggested that it was especially effective in doing this because many of the cast members were refugees themselves. Paul Henreid (Laszlo), Peter Lorre (Ugarte), and Conrad Veidt (Strasser) had all fled Europe after Hitler came to power, as had many of the actors playing minor roles around Rick’s. “If you think of Casablanca and think of all those small roles being played by Hollywood actors faking the accents, the picture wouldn’t have had anything like the color and tone it had,” wrote the critic Pauline Kael.
Casablanca insists on the individuality of these characters. “I am also a human being,” Laszlo insists. The problems of any one person may not “amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” but any one of us could find ourselves in his shoes.
The politics of Casablanca, greenlit by Warner Brothers in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks, are usually interpreted as a morality tale about American isolationism. Rick, the war-weary American who sticks his neck out for nobody, is forced to overcome his cynicism, choose sides, and rejoin the fight against fascism. But it’s worth noting that he does this not by committing an act of violence—though he has to shoot Strasser in the process—but one of compassion, helping Laszlo, and the love of his life Ilsa, escape to America. Watching the movie today, it suggests that even when it’s not convenient or self-serving, America can’t ignore its obligation to help those in need. The fundamental things still apply, as time goes by.
*Correction, Nov. 24, 2015: This post originally misquoted a character in Casablanca as saying that diamonds are a “drag on the market.” His line, now deleted, is that they are a “drug on the market.”