A pivotal moment in the film “Casablanca” (1942) occurs when Major Strasser and the other Nazis are drowned out in their singing of “Die Wacht am Rhein” by everybody else in the café singing “La Marseillaise.” It is a stirring scene, and one that never fails to bring some of us to tears. It has been reported that the much of cast in that scene were brought to tears as well. In one of those almost supernatural moments when art really does reflect life, the desperate European refugees in the café were actually played by European refugees. It is a spine-tingling moment of reality in an otherwise not very realistic film.
“Casablanca” has become larger than life for us, a film whose reputation has grown with the decades. It will likely always be a favorite for its witty dialogue, its charismatic actors, and its fast-paced plot. It has the irresistible veneer of glamour in an otherwise dark and frightening time.
But, even those of us who love the film cannot overlook the fact that Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund would not have played a cat and mouse game of hidden threats over cocktails with Nazi officers in French-occupied Africa. The Nazis would have taken both of them into custody the moment they arrived in Casablanca, tortured them, and filmed their corpses with newsreel cameras. The movie would have been over in ten minutes. No cocktails, no white dinner jackets, no game of hide and seek with omnipotent “papers” that will set them free.
In this respect, “Casablanca” could be called an escapist film, because it gives us heroism and hope, redemption, a fairy tale of intrigue. The most fanciful scene in the movie, carrying this fairy tale along, is the scene with “La Marseillaise” trumping “Die Wacht am Rhein.”
And in that same scene, ironically, we see the real truth of the film, not always recognized, but there. S.Z. Sakall, who plays Carl, fled Hungary in 1939. His three sisters didn’t make it, and died in a concentration camp, along with other relatives.
Madeleine LeBeau, who played Yvonne, who pines for Rick and who is fought over by the Nazi soldier and the French soldier, and her then real-life husband Marcel Dalio, who played Emil, the gambling room croupier, both escaped from Nazi-occupied France through Lisbon, as in the film. Reportedly, the visas they obtained for Chile were forgeries, but they managed to arrive in the US through hastily arranged temporary Canadian passports.
Curt Bois, who played the pickpocket, fled Germany in the early 1930s. Helmut Dantine, who played the young Bulgarian man losing at the gambling tables, whose wife beseeches Rick to help them, fled Austria. Dantine was an Austrian who was put into a concentration camp after the Anschluss. He was arrested for leading an anti-Nazi youth movement. He was then 19 years old.
Mr. Leuchtag, who practices his English by asking his wife the time, “What watch?” was played by Ludwig Stössel, was another Austrian who fled after the Anschluss.
Ilka Grünig, who played Mrs. Leuchtag and replies “Ten watch”, escaped Germany in the early 1930s after the Nazis came to power.
Even the Nazis, ironically, were played by actors who escaped real Nazis. Richard Ryen, who played Colonel Heinze, was a Hungarian-born actor who was actually expelled by the Nazis from Germany. Hans Twardowski, who played the Nazi officer who fights with the French soldier over Yvonne, fled Germany in the early 1930s.
Even Major Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt (see blog entry March 5, 2007) escaped the SS, who pursued him for anti-Nazi activities, and he fled to England where he became a British citizen and supported Britain’s war effort with his salary.
There were actually very few American-born actors in the cast of “Casablanca” and not all of the rest were refugees, but a good many of them were. This gives the film a legitimacy that certain fanciful elements of the script did not.
Here is a link to the “La Marseillaise” scene. When you watch it, think of the refugee actors with tears in their eyes, and remember that the Nazi regime had not yet been defeated at the time this film was made. It was not known then if they would be.
Casablanca (Special Edition) [DVD](1942) DVD