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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fighting with Pinpricks: A nod to the bandleader

Published: November 30, 2007
Section: Opinions

My political education began in earnest at the age of five when I watched Casablanca in the basement of my childhood home. This week marks the 65th anniversary of that film and so it is as good a time as any to declaim for the readers of The Hoot my enduring love for this brilliant piece of World War II propaganda.

When I saw the movie for the first time, I was unimpressed by the grand romantic gestures for which Casablanca is famous. What piqued my interest were the small gestures, the whispers and nods and oblique language of the myriad resistance fighters who came and went from Rick’s Café Américain. To a five year old, the political content of Casablanca is like a puzzle or a secret code, one that I wanted to solve so badly that, by the time I was 11 or 12, I had watched the movie so many times that the magnetic tape in the VHS cassette broke.

Most war movies, and most propaganda films for that matter, contain clunky political speeches meant to inspire but which usually result in an uneasy assessment in the viewer. Casablanca is devoid of this technique. The politics of Casablanca are always subaltern if not completely non-discursive as befits Casablanca’s main character Richard Blaine whom the pain of lost love has driven from political commitment and turned into an aloof cynic.

Take Peter Lorre’s character Signor Ugarte, a document forger whom Rick calls a cut-rate parasite, and who announces that he has killed two Nazi couriers with the understated line, “Oh, I’ve heard that rumor too. Poor devils.” Or Berger, a jeweler and member of the resistance who makes contact with the heroic anti-fascist Victor Laszlo by trying to sell him an unsightly ring which turns out to conceal the Cross of Lorraine underneath its ugliness.

Perhaps the best example of this is Rick himself who returns to the cause of anti-fascism with a moving and often overlooked gesture during one of the film’s most poignant scenes. The Nazi officers have hijacked the piano and are singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” In response, Laszlo goes up to the bandleader and tells him to play “La Marseillaise.” The bandleader looks over to Rick who gives him the most understated nod in the history of film. The saloon’s patrons go on to sing the anthem with tears in their eyes and shortly after the Vichy police prefect Renault closes the bar.

This whispering politics, this politics which need say nothing, underscores the lives of the characters. They have become very familiar with great brutality. The need not talk about this brutality any longer, the only question is how to resist. We too live in a time of great brutality, from Sudan to Iraq to Palestine to the streets of American cities. Far too many of us remain aloof to this suffering; those of us who are not spend too much time talking about this suffering and not enough time fighting it. Casablanca teaches us that in a world of great political cruelty, we must all nod to the bandleader sooner or later no matter what the Vichy prefect will do to our saloon.