The Lasting Power of Hollywood

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Screen shot 2015-01-18 at 10.45.01 AMLet’s get one thing perfectly clear.  It doesn’t matter what one’s nationality or patriotic leanings are, the most stirring moment for any national anthem, any place is in Casablanca.  Period.  The terror attacks in France have brought this back, time and again.  I was watching something on the news, Sunday morning, about the spontaneous outbursts of La Marseillaise this week, in France.  I am a fan of old movies.  I think, when I heard about the terror attacks, one of the first things I thought of was that scene from Casablanca.  Funny thing, evidently I’m not the only one.

One movie fan wrote what I think may be one of the best commentaries of the La Marseillaise scene.  Watching the movie, even nearly 75 years later, this is one of the most stunning and moving scenes in movie history.  If you had a father like mine, a World War II vet, who joined the Merchant Marines after seeing Bogey in Action on the North Atlantic, you understand the meaning of the moment.  The film was made in real time, during the part of World War II where the good guys were getting hammered.  When it was released, in 1942 then in wide release in January of 1943,  people in this country did not know if we were going to win the war or not.  At that point, we were losing, badly.  The tears in the eyes of the actors, during the scene were genuine.  It was not acting.  Many of the individuals who were uncredited actors in the film were refugees from Nazi Germany.  Those tears were real.  Today, we can’t even grasp what they were feeling.  I realize how how privileged I was to watch the film, with my father, a number of times.  He was not given outward displays of emotion or affection. This scene, though had a way of moving him.  He lived through it, graduating from high school in 1942, wanting to go to college, but realizing that he was going nowhere until he served his country, which he did.

“…So, the scene opens with Rick arguing with Laszlo, who is a Czech Resistance fighter fleeing from Screen shot 2015-01-18 at 10.17.40 AMthe Nazis (if you’re wondering what they’re arguing about: Rick has illegal transit papers which would allow Laszlo and his wife, Ilsa, to escape to America, so he could continue raising support against the Germans. Rick refuses to sell because he’s in love with Laszlo’s wife). They’re interrupted by that cadre of German officers singing Die Wacht am Rhein: a German patriotic hymn which was adopted with great verve by the Nazi regime, and which is particularly steeped in anti-French history. This depresses the hell out of everybody at the club, and infuriates Laszlo, who storms downstairs and orders the house band to play La Marseillaise: the national anthem of France.

Wait, but when I say “it’s the national anthem of France,” I don’t want you to think of your national anthem, okay? Wherever you’re from. Because France’s anthem isn’t talking about some glorious long-ago battle, or France’s beautiful hills and countrysides. La Marseillaise is FUCKING BRUTAL. Here’s a translation of what they’re singing:

Arise, children of the Fatherland! The day of glory has arrived! Against us, tyranny raises its bloody banner. Do you hear, in the countryside, the roar of those ferocious soldiers? They’re coming to your land to cut the throats of your women and children!

To arms, citizens! Form your battalions! Let’s march, let’s march! Let their impure blood water our fields!

Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

BRUTAL, like I said. DEFIANT, in these circumstances. And the entire cafe stands up and sings it passionately, drowning out the Germans. The Germans who are, in 1941, still terrifyingly ascendant, and seemingly invincible.

“Vive la France! Vive la France!” the crowd cries when it’s over. France has already been defeated, the German war machine roars on, and the people still refuse to give up hope.

But here’s the real kicker, for me: Casablanca came out in 1942. None of this was ‘history’ to the people who first saw it. Real refugees from the Nazis, afraid for their lives, watched this movie and took heart. These were current events when this aired. Victory over Germany was still far from certain. The hope it gave to people then was as desperately needed as it has been at any time in history…”

Chronicle.Com
Chronicle.Com

“…Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is upstairs chatting with Laszlo, notorious resistance leader and husband to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Some German patrons begin to annoy the other customers by rudely singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” (loose translation: “Stab the French with Our Rock-Hard German Penises”). To this point, Rick had stayed pretty neutral on the whole “Nazi” issue. But in this pivotal scene, Rick lends a single nod of support Laszlo’s way. Laszlo and the other bar patrons find the courage to drown out the Nazis with their own patriotic verse of “La Marseillaise” (loose translation: “The Marseillaise”), and the Nazis, thoroughly out-Glee-ed, leave in a huff.

The patrons celebrate their small victory, some clearly moved to tears. The thing is, nothing in the script actually called for crying. Unlike most of the entries on this list, this one has less to do with a sociopathic director and more to do with the time and place the film was made….

It’s easy to forget that part, now that hundreds of movies (and seemingly thousands of video games) have been based on the war in the decades since it ended. Casablanca was shot in 1941 during the German occupation of France, at a point where many questioned whether or not the United States would ever step in to help, and when nobody knew how the whole thing was going to turn out.

And the scene included actors who, in real life, had a lot at stake. To shoot Casablanca as a believable port town, producers brought together one of the most ethnically diverse casts in film history, and a lot of these extras turned out to be Europeans who had fled to America to escape the Nazis — that is, they were basically real-life refugees. They had left homes, friends and families behind, and at this point really didn’t know if things could ever return to normal. Which makes us wonder if the director didn’t stage the whole war just to get that scene…

DC Public Library
DC Public Library

It is ripe with meaning, haunting.  When you think about the attacks on the Kosher grocery, one thing about Casablanca stands out, not as trivia, but as a way that refugees were trying to score one for the good guys.

Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“...The people in the Grand Synagogue are proud to be French, and they want the prime minister of Israel to see and understand their pride in their country, just as they want France to live up to the inspiring words of La Marseillaise.

What has changed for the Jewish people over the past 75 years isn’t that we have ceased to love the countries where we live. It is that we are no longer compelled to bet—with our lives—that our love will be requited…”

There are some moments in time when film not only reflects culture and history, but provides a commentary for who we are, putting the world into perspective.  I don’t now any other movie more appropriate for this moment in time – in so many different ways.

This is a cautionary tale.  Even today, as we look back, and see the power of hate and the rise of the extreme right nationalism in Europe, and even in this country, our nation is taking the side of the bad guys, in Ukraine.  We are openly backing a regime which is for all intents and purposes a throw-back to the days of Nazi Europe.

“…As the winter progressed, the protests grew more violent. Neo-Nazi and other extremist elements from Lviv and western Ukrainian cities began arriving in well-organized brigades or “sotins” of 100 trained street fighters. Police were attacked with firebombs and other weapons as the violent protesters began seizing government buildings and unfurling Nazi banners and even a Confederate flag.

Though Yanukovych continued to order his police to show restraint, he was still depicted in the major U.S. news media as a brutal thug who was callously murdering his own people. The chaos reached a climax on Feb. 20 when mysterious snipers opened fire on police and some protesters, killing scores. As police retreated, the militants advanced brandishing firearms and other weapons. The confrontation led to significant loss of life, pushing the death toll to around 80 including more than a dozen police….

The mainstream U.S. media also sought to discredit anyone who observed the obvious fact that an unconstitutional coup had just occurred. A new theme emerged that portrayed Yanukovych as simply deciding to abandon his government because of the moral pressure from the noble and peaceful Maidan protests.

Any reference to a “coup” was dismissed as “Russian propaganda.” There was a parallel determination in the U.S. media to discredit or ignore evidence that neo-Nazi militias had played an important role in ousting Yanukovych and in the subsequent suppression of anti-coup resistance in eastern and southern Ukraine. That opposition among ethnic-Russian Ukrainians simply became “Russian aggression.”

This refusal to notice what was actually a remarkable story – the willful unleashing of Nazi storm troopers on a European population for the first time since World War II – reached absurd levels as the New York Times and the Washington Post buried references to the neo-Nazis at the end of stories, almost as afterthoughts.

The Washington Post went to the extreme of rationalizing Swastikas and other Nazi symbols by quoting one militia commander as calling them “romantic” gestures by impressionable young men. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s ‘Romantic’ Neo-Nazi Storm Troopers.”]…”

Consortium News
Consortium News

What is wrong with this country?  We’re going to be sending even more money to these neo-Nazi leaning thugs in the Ukraine, while turning Putin and Russia into monsters.  When did we start consorting with the really bad guys?

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