Casablanca and the Past on Film

This essay on Casablanca and teaching Philosophy and the Movies appeared in last week’s issue of the Chronicle Review. I’ve been teaching this class in various configurations for more than 20 years — and some of what I describe here (like watching Now, Voyager) is based on my experiences several years ago. Each week, I watch the movies with my students, and this year I’ve been particularly gratified by the applause that follows every screening, and the good questions that arise for class the next day. The films are steeped on old conventions, but my Wesleyan students most of the time find ways to open themselves to their power as works of art. I don’t know how to show that the films themselves are “timeless,” but the questions to which they give rise seem to be. 


At Wesleyan I teach a course called “The Past on Film,” and one of the films screened is Casablanca, now celebrating its 75th anniversary. It’s the most iconic (and possibly also the most romantic and political) American film on the syllabus, and on my way to class to talk about it, I found myself even more curious than usual about students’ reactions.

In a media landscape in which each individual “chooses” only what algorithms predict he or she will like, would the status “iconic” even be meaningful to them? In a political landscape filled with ultra-jaded cynics, how would they react to a movie that meant to bolster a nation’s commitment to fight for its values?

Today, an almost endless stream of films is readily available. But most students have difficulty getting beyond their everyday habits — the ways they get pleasure from the screen. Not only do I have to forbid the distractions of competing devices in the classroom, I have to encourage students to open themselves to the pace, the acting styles, and the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. I push my smart, hip, and often progressive students to give up their condescending attitude toward the past.

It is easier to do this with literature and philosophy than with film — perhaps because movies are familiar to students in a visceral way. They are ready to vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on a movie more quickly than on a novel by Virginia Woolf. They don’t need a teacher to “get” a melodrama about an overbearing parent (we watch Now, Voyager, 1942) in the same way they might be willing to rely on a teacher when reading To the Lighthouse (1927). So, when something in an old movie strikes them as “cheesy” or violates their political sensibilities, they are quick to react — often, quick to close themselves off from further engagement. Most of my undergraduates believe it’s a great taboo to be intolerant of others, but intolerance of the past escapes the self-scrutiny of even the most eagle-eyed critics of “privilege.”

Casablanca is usually the movie on my syllabus with which students are most familiar. As Noah Isenberg details in his excellent new book We’ll Always Have Casablanca, the 1942 film is a case study of how history gets depicted for popular entertainment, but it is also a powerful example of how the Hollywood machine produced work that intersected with political commitment while still holding fast to its romantic conventions.

Like Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine, in 1941 many Americans embraced neutrality — tired of “foreign entanglements” and feeling deceived by participation in World War I. As Rick famously repeats in the first half of the film, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Gradually, however, with the help of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), he awakens to his responsibility to others and “who he really is.” That is someone prepared to sacrifice the happiness of “three little people” for the greater good. Not someone looking for a fight, and certainly not a bully, Rick is an American ideal — someone who accepts his duty to do good in a world gone crazy.

My students tend to be skeptical of this aspirational image of the American — though perhaps some feign skepticism in the face of a campus culture that often views loyalty to country as an oppressive force meant to preserve patterns of unjust domination. But when there are Nazis in the picture, it is harder to retreat into irony about all forms of political engagement, and this year I felt solidarity percolating in the screening room as the resistance fighter Victor Laszlo leads the band in singing the “Marseillaise” to drown out the voices of the German officers.

Students are especially interested to learn that the team that made Casablanca was dominated by immigrants, refugees in one way or another from Hitler. Michael Curtiz, the director, was Hungarian, and the crew was filled with actors and technicians who had fled to Hollywood from other countries. The evil Major Strasser was played by Conrad Veidt, who noted the irony of getting star treatment for portraying the kind of character who had forced him to leave his homeland.

This year, the immigrant story at the heart of Casablanca is more powerful than ever. Many of my students are sympathetic to refugees escaping brutal conditions, and in our current political atmosphere this is no small thing. But Casablanca’s themes go deeper than that, depicting a world in which people are willing to work together across differences for shared political goals. There can be no litmus test of political or moral purity when the threat is real and the task is to find common ground from which to take effective action.

On college campuses it is easy to stay locked in the bubble of one’s own friends and allies. A campus may, like Rick’s cafe, pride itself on diversity, but student groups (and faculty allies) often self-segregate, so they rarely put aside their differences to join forces, or increase mutual understanding through conversation and debate.

While administrators talk a lot about helping the world, colleges often seem content to prepare students to maximize personal gain after graduating, encouraging a retreat into a private life in which other people’s problems and political struggles don’t inspire concern — let alone commitment and action.

Despite the lofty rhetoric, colleges are reluctant to stick their necks out for anybody, except their own students, alumni, and faculty. Casablanca forces us to consider what it takes for good people to act in a corrupt world, not just turn their noses up at the corruption. What does it take to say “no” to abuses of power? How does one come to risk one’s life by publicly affirming basic human values?”

These are questions that Casablanca raised when it was released 75 years ago. Today’s undergrads may resist its earnestness and romanticism, and they can easily point out deficiencies in its portrayal of race and gender. But Casablanca’s story of how diversity and solidarity can be combined to fight tyranny still resonates, even if that combination remains more aspiration than reality on campuses. I suppose that’s one reason I continue to teach the film: When neutrality is no longer an option, aspiration counts for a lot.

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