Essays · Movies

Here’s Looking at Casablanca’s Refugee Story, 75 Years On

How the Golden Age classic bears remarkable similarity to a forgotten film about child refugees.
Casablanca Marseillaise Tears
By  · Published on January 24th, 2018

How the Golden Age classic bears remarkable similarity to a forgotten film about child refugees.

The 75 years that have passed since Casablanca‘s wide release have gilded Michael Curtiz‘s movie as a gleaming paradigm of Golden Age Hollywood in our memory, but re-watching it in the 21st century, we’re reminded of its unabashedly political heart: this is, above all, a film about refugees. Casablanca never shies away from its contemporary geopolitics; in fact, the political climate in which it was made informs every aspect of plot, setting, period, and characterization. Its core focus is on the ethical quandary of its protagonist, Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a man who initially proudly proclaims his self-interest — “I stick my neck out for nobody!” — before undergoing a moral metamorphosis that sees him stick everything out to help two refugees; a neat analogy of America’s own isolationist position towards refugees at the time.

Watching Casablanca now, it’s striking to be reminded of just how relevant its refugee focus remains to modern audiences. Its opening scene is particularly eerily familiar: as Lou Marcelle narrates the “torturous, roundabout refugee trail” the movie’s characters take — “Paris to Marseilles across the Mediterranean to Oran…” — we glimpse families making grim marches down barren roads, clutching their worldly belongings as they attempt the long journey to freedom. It’s an image that we are, sadly, well-acquainted with: news broadcasts have been repeating variations of it for years and nearly everyday since the global refugee crisis of 2015. While it’s true that Casablanca’s characters are primarily Europeans making the reverse passage from contemporary routes, recent documentaries like Fire at Sea, Those Who Jump, the BBC’s Exodus series and Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow remind us of the persisting importance of Morocco and the Mediterranean in refugee routes, proving there isn’t much revision required for Marcelle’s opening narration to remain pertinent.

So many more moments in Casablanca bear uncanny resemblance to the stories we’ve grown accustomed to in the last few years, too. There are families selling jewelry and other valuables to try and pay for tickets to freedom; women being raped or pressured into sex for the same; and, above all, a pervading sense that vulnerable communities are unjustly being trapped in limbo in one transitional location, totally at the mercy of the whims of governments and black-market forgers and smugglers.

Released at a time when the plight of European refugees was relatively unknown to most people in the US — aptly, while the Casablanca Conference was taking place in January 1943 — the film is so applicable to the reality of refugees because it was conceived by someone who witnessed, first-hand, the plight of people fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Originally written as a play by high school teacher Murray Burnett and his writing partner Joan AlisonCasablanca‘s story was devised after a trip Burnett made to Austria in the late 1930s. His wife had Jewish relatives in Vienna who were keen to leave the country as soon as possible; Austria had just been annexed into Nazi Germany, and persecution of the country’s Jews was already in full effect. Burnett helped his in-laws resolve the practical complications of leaving Austria (arranging for their belongings and money to be shipped out of the country), before returning to the US and writing a drama inspired by the dire conditions faced by would-be refugees in Europe.

Many members of Casablanca’s largely international cast and crew were, sadly, deeply familiar with the above. Working behind the scenes on the film was Polish-French technical consultant Robert Aisner, who had spent time in a concentration camp before taking the very route to escape Nazi persecution mapped out in the opening scene. Curtiz (originally Hungarian) had lost relatives at Auschwitz, and was a generous supporter of the European Film Fund, a non-profit that worked to help European actors fleeing from the Nazis find work in the US (several of the Fund’s recipients worked on Casablanca). And Curtiz personally cast each of the many refugee actors seen in the film. Peter Lorre (as the doomed visa dealer Ugarte) and S. Z. Sakall (the waiter Carl) were two such actors. Like the director, they were from Hungarian-Jewish backgrounds, and had both been forced to abandon healthy stage and screen careers when the Nazis came to power. Sakall is reported to have lost three sisters, one niece, and several in-laws in the concentration camps.

Conrad Veidt, who in real life was a passionate anti-Nazi protestor, ironically played the part of Major Strasser, the movie’s pompous Nazi villain. A staunch opponent of the Nazis throughout his life, Veidt voluntarily made the decision to abandon the security of a successful career in Germany for the uncertainty of exile. Unlike his wife, Veidt wasn’t Jewish, but when Hitler’s government required him to fill in a questionnaire stating his “race,” he declared himself Jewish in solidarity with her and Germany’s increasingly persecuted communities. Veidt then made a quick exit to the UK, where he appeared in several anti-Nazi films, and after war broke out he loaned his estate to the British government to be used in their efforts. After trying to drum up stateside support for a British anti-Nazi film titled Contraband (marketed as Blackout in the US), Veidt eventually made the move to the US, where his accent made him a prime candidate for the growing number of Nazi roles. Conscious of being typecast in this way, Veidt had a clause inserted into his contract to ensure that these parts were to be written as antagonists.

Throughout his wartime career, Veidt, as with Curtiz and Lorre, was a generous financial supporter of the European Film Fund. He even came to the aid of one of his co-stars, the Austrian actor Paul Henreid, who played Czechoslovakian Resistance leader (and husband to Ingrid Bergman‘s character) Victor Laszlo. Because of his nationality, Henreid was in danger of being interned as an enemy in Britain, but Veidt, well-known for his anti-Nazi efforts, apparently vouched for him. If the British government initially suspected Henreid of being a Nazi sympathizer, his part in Casablanca — and particularly his role in its famous Marseillaise scene — ought to have alleviated any niggling suspicions.

These actors enjoyed considerable roles in the film, but many of Casablanca’s most memorable small parts were also played by displaced actors. It’s worth expanding on their stories to fully appreciate the grim reality of their juxtaposed lives: eminent and thriving on stages and screens in Europe, but destitute, relatively unknown and relegated to small or un-credited roles in the US. Emblematic of this are the experiences of famous German-Jewish cabaret performer and actor Trude Berliner, who plays the woman who asks if Rick would drink with her, and successful German-Jewish silent film actors Ilka Grüning and Ludwig Stössel, who play the elderly couple who have a conversation about the time in broken English. A rising star of the stage in Germany, Lotte Palfi plays the woman forced to sell her diamonds; around the time of filming, Palfi’s own mother died in the Litzmannstadt ghetto. Her real-life husband, successful German-Jewish actor Wolfgang Zilzer, also fled Europe and secured himself a small role in the film (as the man with the expired papers). Curt Bois, who had enjoyed a long, fruitful career in Germany, had only a small role in Casablanca as the chatty pickpocket.

Another such actor was 19-year-old Madeleine Lebeau, who plays the French woman chastised for drinking with a Nazi soldier at Rick’s. She features prominently in the Marseillaise scene, the film’s most memorable and affecting sequence. When Major Strasser requests the playing of Nazi Germany’s national anthem in Rick’s, the camera pans over a melancholy crowd of patrons, all of whom have been identified as being displaced by the Nazis by this point in the film. Henreid’s character quickly orchestrates a counter anthem — the Marseillaise — and the room erupts into a singing battle decisively won by the refugees. A close-up frames Lebeau’s tear-streaked face as she joins in the defiant chorus, and we hear her shout “Vive la France! Vive la démocratie!”

In reality, Lebeau was a French refugee herself, having fled France with her husband, Marcel Dalio, who was Jewish. Dalio also appears in the film, as the croupier who is coaxed by Rick to rig a game of roulette for the Bulgarian couple desperate for visa money. (Incidentally, the actor who played the Bulgarian husband, Helmut Dantine, had spent time in a concentration camp in Austria as punishment for his anti-Nazi protests.) When interviewed by film historian Aljean Harmetz, Dan Seymour (who played Rick’s doorman Abdul) spoke of his suddenly becoming aware, during the scene’s filming, that many of the cast members were really crying: “I suddenly realized that they were all real refugees.” Critic Pauline Kael thought the emotion that Seymour witnessed bore through in the final cut, and it’s hard to disagree: watching the scene knowing how momentous it must have been to the cast, there is a palpable sense of authentic feeling.

In many ways, Casablanca’s parallel on- and off-screen stories are comparable to that of another director, Fred Zinnemann, and the casts and plots of his films The Search and The Seventh Cross. Like Curtiz, Zinnemann, the acclaimed director of High NoonOklahoma!, and The Day of the Jackal, had lost family to Nazi persecution: his father was murdered in Poland, his mother at Auschwitz. Zinnemann was, however, tragically unaware of their fate until the end of the war, by which time he had already directed The Seventh Cross, one of the first Hollywood movies to directly address concentration camps during the period. Like Casablanca, the 1944 film featured several refugee actors who had enjoyed eminent careers in Europe before having to flee from the Nazis: amongst them were Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Kurt Katch, Kaaren Verne and John Wengraf.

Zinnemann’s studio contract required him to churn out unremarkable Hollywood products like Kid Glove Killer and My Brother Talks to Horses (the plot of which is exactly what it says on the tin), but after the war, personal knowledge of its atrocities brought on a moral conviction to direct more social issue films. Just as Casablanca had enlightened much of its first, largely oblivious American audiences to the plight of those seeking passage to the US, Zinnemann wanted to educate America’s public on the dire postwar situation faced by Europe’s most vulnerable people. To this end, Zinnemann directed The Search, an extraordinary, tragically neglected film about the children left orphaned and abandoned in post-war Germany.

The Search Kids

The product of over a year of emotionally draining interviews with child survivors of the Holocaust and first-hand observation of the work done by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), The Search is rich cinematic documentation (albeit dramatized) of much of what Zinnemann experienced. For instance: after hearing that many of the children in UNRRA’s care couldn’t be properly identified because they could no longer remember their pre-war lives, names, and mother tongues, Zinnemann made The Search’s protagonist, Karel (Ivan Jandl), initially mute and ignorant of his own name. Zinnemann had also learnt of displaced children refusing to enter ambulances because they were unable to forget the memories of Nazis using the vehicles as ruses with which to murder other children. The Search features an almost identical scene, in which children being transported to a UNRRA camp in an ambulance force their way out of the vehicle, panic-stricken and suspicious on account of the horrors they had witnessed in the camps.

Unlike Casablanca, which was almost entirely shot on the Warner Bros. sound stages, The Search was filmed, remarkably, on location in the actual rubble of postwar Germany, making it a potent portrait of the ravages of war. As with Casablanca, Zinnemann’s film was made accessible to audiences with several Hollywood touches: a starring turn from American actor Montgomery Clift, and appearances from Aline MacMahon and Wendell Corey.

Equally similarly, many of its smaller roles were filled by people who were, at the time, personally experiencing the plight they were giving voice to in the film. Zinnemann cast over 600 displaced children in speaking roles and as extras after finding professional child actors who were unaffected by the war unable to convey the complex emotional paralysis required for the film. Watching the aforementioned ambulance scene with this in mind, the children’s “acting” is disquieting to watch. The overall result of Zinnemann’s commitment to realism makes for a movie that feels almost like a documentary (an impression aided in part by the film’s cinematographer, Emil Berna) and inspires even modern viewers into a sense of moral indignation at the neglect experienced by the children.

This is exactly what Zinnemann intended. Just as Rick’s moral isolationism worked as an analogy for America’s reluctance to help refugees fleeing Europe, Clift’s American character undergoes a slow metamorphosis from indifferent observer of the plight of displaced children to the foster father of one. Casablanca had been made during a time when America was unsure of its moral imperative; so was The Search. Just before the film was released in 1948, the UN reported that 30 million children were at risk in Europe. Zinnemann, deeply affected by what he had seen in Germany, worked with the UN to drum up support for the film, and, mirroring the actions of some of Casablanca‘s cast, donated a portion of its takings to charitable appeals supporting people displaced by the war.

Like CasablancaThe Search featured real refugees playing themselves, a plot that dealt directly with issues faced by displaced people, and provided moral direction for American audiences on the fence. Both films were released during moments of heightened urgency and brought much public awareness (and financial support) to those whose lives had been thrown into turmoil by the war. Just a day shy of a full year since Casablanca‘s wide release, America officially opened up its arms to European refugees with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s establishment of the War Refugee Board. That Zinnemann felt the world needed The Search a full four years later is a sad illustration of our need to be regularly reminded of the necessity of compassion and supportive action, if we are to help ease the difficulties faced by those displaced by violence, poverty, and persecution.

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here @AttractionF and reviewing Columbo episodes here.