Today is Bastille Day—happy Bastille Day!—and Bastille Day always makes me think of “La Marseillaise,” and “La Marseillaise” always makes me think of Casablanca, in which an impromptu mass singing of the gorgeous, inspiring French national anthem makes for one of the greatest scenes in movies. As hair-on-end-ing as it is by itself, though, what truly takes your breath away, even decades later, is knowing the subtext: That it was filmed during World War Two and released in 1942, when France was very much under occupation and the future of the war was still in doubt. One imagines audiences singing along; one wishes one could have been there to sing along with them.
But if the scene is an explicit show of solidarity with the occupied French (the film provides the careful, ahistorical Hollywood touch of having the Vichy officer ultimately turn out to be a good guy), then might it not also serve as an implicit show of solidarity with other peoples trampled underfoot by the Nazis? Perhaps with one people in particular? A closer look at who made Casablanca and who appears in the scene—both the actors and the characters—reveals this almost certainly to be the case, and retroactively has something to tell us about the values for which “La Marseillaise” and Bastille Day stood, and continue to stand.
First things first: The scene is an homage to a very similar one in the 1937 French film La Grande Illusion, in which French P.O.W.s during World War One burst into the tune upon hearing good news from the Western Front.
La Grande Illusion‘s main theme is how that earlier war destroyed what was left of the great civilization of Europe, particularly of its aristocracy, and set the stage for the second, worse war that everyone already saw was to come. Only five years later, in Casablanca, “La Marseillaise” is repurposed: No longer an anomalous outburst of nationalism whose message is almost elegaic, it is now angry, defiant, stirring.
Casablanca’s director, Michael Curtiz, was a Hungarian Jew who came to America from Vienna in the mid-twenties. Its three credited screenwriters are Julius and Philip Epstein (they were twins) and Howard Koch, who would later be blacklisted. Cinema historians hold Casablanca up as the ultimate realization of the studio system, in which films were cobbled together without (with few exceptions) an overwhelming artistic vision. (Casablanca’s famed script, for example, was a Frankenstein’s monster, based on a play [co-written by a Jew, Murray Bennett] and then rewritten and rewritten again, with scenes added even after filming had begun.) The studio system was, of course, almost entirely invented by Jews, among them Casablanca’s executive producer, Jack L. Warner, who founded one of the main studios with three of his brothers (guess what it’s called?).
Jewish actors are prominent in Casablanca. The catalyst of the story is the petty thief who steals the two letters of transit and hides them in Sam’s piano at Rick’s; he is played by the great Peter Lorre, born László Löwenstein in Hungary. Carl, Rick’s trusted head waiter, was played by S.Z. Sakall, also a Hungarian Jew who got out of Europe before the storm. Curt Bois, a source of comic relief as a pickpocket, was a German Jew who left in 1934. The croupier in Rick’s casino—yes, you may be shocked, shocked!, to find that gambling is going on in here—is played by Marcel Dalio, born Israel Moshe Blauschild. Even the German guy who plays Strasser, the chief Nazi, was married to a Jew! I could likely go on, but let’s get to the story itself.
The film’s most prominent refugee from Nazism, Victor, is not Jewish. And neither, of course, is Rick; and neither is Ilsa. But I have always read most of the rest of the outcasts surrounding Rick who quietly stand up against the Nazis as being Jewish (the one exception being Sam, the piano player, who proves the rule because he is black). It’s not an implausible reading: While many Jews of Vichy France (to say nothing of Occupied France) were, of course, deported, the Casablanca of Casablanca is clearly a place where nobody is trying to ruffle anyone’s feathers or go out of the way to do anything other than look after themselves—at least until Strasser’s crackdown. Carl, with his benign expression and mitteleuropa accent, easily reads as Jewish (it helps that he is played by Sakall). Ditto the croupier and the pickpocket. Rick’s bartender is a Russian named Sascha, and one has to wonder about a Russian who has somehow found himself in a lenient Casablanca in 1942, and who, Yvonne, Rick’s former lover, for flirting with one of the Germans. Then there is Yvonne, who cries as she sings along to “La Marseillaise,” who was played by a French woman who, in real life, was married to Dalio, the Jewish actor who plays the croupier.
Most of all, though, I have always read the young Bulgarian couple, the Brandels, as Jewish (“Things are very bad there, the devil has the people by the throat”). One of the most moving scenes comes when Mrs. Brandel tells Rick that Captain Renault, the wily Vichy gendarme played by Claude Rains, has offered to help them leave if she will give herself up to him. I always read them as Jewish because they are clearly in a hurry to leave Casablanca, which makes you ask why, and because, well, she looks it; and sure enough, Annina Brandel is played by Joy Page, daughter of a Mexican-American father and a Jewish mother. It was Page’s first role.
So what does this all mean? And why does it matter? Even in 1789 and the years after, “La Marseillaise” was not just about the French. Liberty, equality, and fraternity turned out to be values that helped the Jews of Europe as well (it was Napoleon, who modeled himself as the revolution’s realization, who freed most of them from the ghettos) and spurred the Haskalah, the 19th century Jewish Enlightenment. When it was a dark time for the French, it was a darker time for the Jews; and the French singing their song of defiance are also the Jews singing their song of defiance. At its best, the French Revolution claimed to speak for all humanity, and most of all for its most downtrodden. It is appropriate for Jews to feel that it spoke, and speaks, for them, too. A good thing to remember today. Vive la France!