10 November 2004 | kdryan
A masterwork for all time...
There is a scene about halfway through the movie Casablanca that has become commonly known as 'The Battle of the Anthems' throughout the film's long history. A group of German soldiers has come into Rick's Café American and are drunkenly singing the German National Anthem at the top of their voice. Victor Lazlo, the leader of the French Resistance, cannot stand this act and while the rest of the club stares appalled at the Germans, Lazlo orders the band to play 'Le Marseilles (sic?)' the French National Anthem. With a nod from Rick, the band begins playing, with Victor singing at the top of HIS voice. This in turn, inspires the whole club to begin singing and the Germans are forced to surrender and sit down at their table, humbled by the crowd's dedication. This scene is a turning point in the movie, for reasons that I leave to you to discover.
As I watched this movie again tonight for what must be the 100th time, I noticed there was a much smaller scene wrapped inside the bigger scene that, unless you look for it, you may never notice. Yvonne, a minor character who is hurt by Rick emotionally, falls into the company of a German soldier. In a land occupied by the Germans, but populated by the French, this is an unforgivable sin. She comes into the bar desperately seeking happiness in the club's wine, song, and gambling. Later, as the Germans begin singing we catch a glimpse of Yvonne sitting dejectedly at a table alone and in this brief glimpse, it is conveyed that she has discovered that this is not her path to fulfillment and she has no idea where to go from there. As the singing progresses, we see Yvonne slowly become inspired by Lazlo's act of defiance and by the end of the song, tears streaming down her face, she is singing at the top of her voice too. She has found her redemption. She has found something that will make her life never the same again from that point on.
Basically, this is Casablanca in a nutshell. On the surface, you may see it as a romance, or as a story of intrigue, but that is only partially correct.
The thing that makes Casablanca great is that it speaks to that place in each of us that seeks some kind of inspiration or redemption. On some level, every character in the story receives the same kind of catharsis and their lives are irrevocably changed. Rick's is the most obvious in that he learns to live again, instead of hiding from a lost love. He is reminded that there are things in the world more noble and important than he is and he wants to be a part of them. Louis, the scoundrel, gets his redemption by seeing the sacrifice Rick makes and is inspired to choose a side, where he had maintained careful neutrality. The stoic Lazlo gets his redemption by being shown that while thousands may need him to be a hero, there is someone he can rely upon when he needs inspiration in the form of his wife, who was ready to sacrifice her happiness for the chance that he would go on living. Even Ferrai, the local organized crime leader gets a measure of redemption by pointing Ilsa and Lazlo to Rick as a source of escape even though there is nothing in it for him.
This is the beauty of this movie. Every time I see it (and I have seen it a lot) it never fails that I see some subtle nuance that I have never seen before. Considering that the director would put that much meaning into what is basically a throw away moment (not the entire scene, but Yvonne's portion) speaks bundles about the quality of the film. My wife and I watched this movie on our first date, and since that first time over 12 years ago, it has grown to be, in my mind, the greatest movie ever made.