Casablanca as Plato’s Symposium (Srsly!)

The first I saw or heard of Casablanca was at the beginning (and end) of Woody Allen’s “Play it again Sam”. It was many years later I saw the film. I loved it, but mainly because it’s such classic (Hollywood) movie making. The plot just rumbles along brilliantly with not a scene out or word of place. But that’s also true of “The Sound of Music”. It’s a great achievement just doing that, considering how rare it is.

But I’ve watched it many times since. If I’m ever on an international trip and it’s on the menu, I often make the 90 odd minutes necessary to watch it. I then love it all over again for how well-crafted it is. I just can’t believe it, given that its production was a shambles by all accounts. Ingrid Bergman watched it many years later and was surprised at how good it was.

But it’s so much more than a well crafted and exciting, involving human story. I took both my kids to it as a special right of passage when they turned 15 (nothing special about the age). In any event here are some of the reasons I thought it was worthy of such treatment — I haven’t given any other film or anything much that kind of treatment.

First I love it so much, so that gives them plenty to ponder as we all get older and then I disappear, enveloped by the great silence.

Second it shows a world before gender roles got politicised in the way they were in the late 60s. It’s fundamental to the ideas of my generation to know — or sense — a time before gender was politicised. (Obviously I’m aware of the larger point that gender is always political, so perhaps I need slightly different language to describe this, but I won’t worry about that for now — we both know what I mean.)

Third, it shows a world in which art is made for the hoi polloi with the artists and their audience both part of the same cultural project — one as a producer of art, the other not just as a consumer, but as an appreciator, someone who lives in the world depicted by that art. The contempt intellectuals (including many artists) have for the hoi polloi that the romantic movement brought marauding into our culture is nowhere to be seen in Casablanca. The commercialism of Hollywood helps. As does a world war!

Fourth and most important of course, Casablanca is a story about people who choose good over evil. And those people are ordinary people. People like you or me. There’s not a royal, or a priest or a tortured artist or even a conspicuously good person among the main characters. There are some Nazis who are conspicuously bad, but they’re really wallpaper and they’re pretty ordinary Nazis just doing their job. Everyone is caught up in the hubbub of the everyday.

So those are all the reasons I took my kids to see it.

But since even then I’ve seen so much more. At each point it’s not just seeing some other theme, but seeing it executed with such conviction and accomplishment.

The whole theme of the film is that no-one’s words can stand for the truth — and that their words are used to disguise the truth, including, often, from themselves.

Rick says he sticks his neck out for no-one. That’s pretty accurate at ‘low resolution’ as it were. He does nothing very risky, but he consoles himself with many gestures reminding himself and those who know him of his humanity. Indeed in Casablanca goodness can only survive esoterically — in disguise. The war hero Victor Laszlo is the only uncomplicatedly good person in the show. The only one who doesn’t hide his goodness and whose motives are always clear and pure. He isn’t much of a character for that reason — a cypher.

Another theme for me is the way the explicit (which can be rational and accountable) is built on the murky and impenetrable depths of the tacit (which can be neither). That means our access to ‘the truth’ is maddeningly indirect. We see the truth of the characters by listening to what they say and, instead of taking it at face value, triangulating it against what they do.

This is magnificently brought out in the scene between Rick and Ilsa in the marketplace which I put in my Substack the other weekend.

Here the words and the truth separate from each other in a different way — Rick guesses (ungenerously and manipulatively) at the truth and Ilsa uses her own possession of the actual truth in her power struggle with Rick. She uses it to wound and humiliate. He who is not in possession of the truth is humbled. But can he become humble?

This relationship began with a very earthly form of eros, and eros is still up to its tricks — using the truth, as Ilsa does, to conceal deeper truths. Here eros is alienated from (what one might imagine is) its ultimate source and telos — bringing people, perspectives and lives together and bringing them closer to reality. The good is lurking in the relationship, but currently each want it on their own terms — and it cannot be the truth on each of their terms. The truth can only emerge from reconciliation — emotional and (I hate this word) epistemological. They must both see the same thing for it to unite rather than divide and wound them.

And meanwhile until a few years ago I’d given no thought to Captain Renault. But his role is pivotal. He’s another Rick with a different history,  a different circumstance, a different temperament, a different culture. He sticks his neck out for no man — or so he suggests. He’s more obviously corrupt and cynical than Rick. More French too, though there’s no accent and it’s not played up. But he has a European sensibility. All along he’s been the one who knows Rick better than Rick knows himself. He floats about the action between Rick, Ilsa and Victor Laszlo — a seer (because he knows how much there is to see) and yet he’s also aware of how much he cannot see.

He is self-regarding, cynical, duplicitous and charming. One likes him but is, at the same time wary of him. And in my obliviousness, I never took proper notice of the very neat — and pretty heavily telegraphed choreography of the final scene. Renault may not have made it all the way to the other side of Rick’s heroism if Rick hadn’t railroaded him into it. Rick wouldn’t have known whether he would or not either. Indeed, the moment of turning is magnificently captured when Rick crosses the Rubicon, not just by threatening Renault but by then turning on the arch baddie — Major Strasser.

But the deed being done, Renault must choose whose side he’s on. Rick’s heroism turns out to have saved everyone. At the same time it amounts to little more than some clear thinking after sleeping on things having learned of the situation as others see it — particularly Ilsa who has risked all the night before. Rick’s final breakthrough into clear-headed heroism saves Laszlo, Ilsa and Renault (and the others in their wake  — the refugees in Rick’s Café, Sam and so on — because their lives will go on in some contact with the good).

At the moment of decision, there’s no Damascene conversion. Renault doesn’t forswear his devious ways. Rather, after the few long seconds of decision, he immediately deploys them in pursuit of the good. “Major Strasser’s been shot. .… Round up the usual suspects”. Renault, it turns out, is just like Rick, someone who at heart wants the good but is alienated from it and ailing for that reason. Rick is more in touch with this side of his character and so has been more prepared to take risks. But like Rick, Renault will fight for the good if he can find both a cause and a way to fight that suits his talents and temperament. The film is a modern morality tale. It’s saying that we can all do what Rick and Renault are doing. That we’re kind of sunk if we don’t — even considering our own interests, that our best way to save ourselves is to save others. To follow the path that eros put us on before leaving us to our own devices.

Renault and Rick walk off through the fog, now united in the struggle to restore the world to some sanity and decency. And so we’ve gone from the simplest form of eros in Paris — which predates the action in the movie — to that experience being lost and then won again. Rick says to Ilsa “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we’d lost it, until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”

How did they get it back? Via all that malarky that Hegel went on about — it got sublated, passed into its negative and then got transcended (not entirely unlike the ghost train at Luna Park!).

In any event at the end of the movie, lives restart. Those living those lives know no more about the future than they ever did, but eros has led Rick out of the makeshift world he’d created — the best he could manage carrying his particular wound in a crazy mixed up woild in which the lives of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans. And he has shown two others how they can get out of what Vaclav Havel calls the river of pseudolife, and instead turn their lives towards the good. Victor Laszlo would never have wavered, but the others — Ilsa and Captain Renault — were lost and now are found.

Like Hegel used to say, “Nothing like a good bit of aufgehoben when you’re in a tight spot”.

Further notes, apropos of nothing in particular.

1) The film also reminds me of this extract from something written at the same time in Australia. As I wrote in a speech a long time ago:

In those long days as the Dunera boys worked on Station Pier and slept in tents at Royal Park and wondered where they would end up after the war, one article summed up something of what they meant to Australians who thought about it. The article was in – of all things – the army journal Salt.

You will find them on the docks, in warehouses, depots, dumps – the men whom Hitler hated. . . . First victims of the Nazi madness, the men … wear the Australian uniform pridefully, voluntarily. . . . This Company wants combatant service. . . . So far they have not been accepted but to become diggers is their highest ambition. To these men their Australian uniform is a symbol of tolerance, and decency. Australia and Australians have revived their flagging faith in mankind. We can be proud of that.

2) Things I dislike

  • The singing of the Marseilles is heavy-handed and Hollywood dumb
  • When Rick says to Ilsa “someday you’ll understand that”. It’s patronising. Still after obtaining a script, I can see why they put it in in that form.
  • On the upside, it’s wonderful that Rick’s decency is colourblind. It’s also respectful to refugees — and virtually all Casablanca’s extras are European refugees. No wonder their accents are so good!

3) I found a website with character analyses which introduce some other things I’d not thought of. This is good on Ilsa.

Ilsa is fiercely loyal to her husband, Laszlo, and the political cause—resistance to the Nazis—he represents, but the truth of her sentiments is constantly suspect. She claims to love Laszlo, but she also claims to be in love with Rick, both in Paris and in Casablanca. We might suspect that Rick is her great passion and that only circumstance and political necessity prevent their union, but Ilsa never makes the distinction clear. She has good reason to tell Rick she loves him in Casablanca, since she needs the letters of transit he holds. Her motives are always shadowy because she always has possible, logical ulterior motives, and she maintains a cold detachment that prevents her from being understood. The letter she sent to Rick in Paris so many years ago, saying she could never see him again, is evidence of her ability to shield her true feelings from those who love her the most.

Ilsa clearly has suffered from the whims of fortune more than any other character in Casablanca. First, her husband is arrested and rumored to be dead. When he reappears, she must run with him throughout Europe with the Nazis always on their heels. She meets Rick and falls in love, only to have to leave him, then meets him and perhaps falls in love with him again, only to leave him once more. No matter whom she truly loves, she has not had an easy life, and her fate is the most tragic in the film. At the airport we can see that for Ilsa, the possibility of a happy ending does not exist. Ilsa herself may not even know what her own happiness would entail.

This is nicely put on Rick

From the opening scene, Rick shows himself to be a mysterious and complicated man—terse, solitary, and self-involved, but also generous, discriminating, and perhaps a political partisan.

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Antonios Sarhanis
1 year ago

I’ve seen you quote Brad DeLong. Now it’s like he quoted you!
Just heard the latest Conversation with Tyler that has Brad on. His favourite film: Casablanca!