Reflections on Casablanca

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Last night, I was sitting with my mother and sister watching Casablanca on Turner Classic Movies. Richard Osborne, as he usually does, stood amidst a set of a living room, introducing the film, in this case being a retrospective of Ingrid Bergman. His usual tendency is to bring to light some meaningful anecdote about a film--and for well-known films, they are often tidbits which many of us who love old movies may know, but in this case, it was one I didn't. Of all the films Ingrid Bergman had made, she did not understand why Casablanca had been one of the most beloved. Was it the love story? Was it a love story set amidst war? Was it the characters--the beauty of Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart sparring with Claude Raines, the quips coming fast and deeply, cutting through to certain ironies and tendencies of human beings that transcend whatever age and make commentary on our very nature?

As with any film, and any work which exists to communicate on multiple levels, there is no one answer, and yet there is a resonance to the great ones which exists regardless of time period. Human truth is human truth no matter in what historical context one chooses to put it. Human truths move us for reasons we cannot adequately describe, and so they should. There needs to be something in this world which is transcendent, reminding us that no matter what, we are indeed human beings living in the midst of an ever changeable experience--subject to chaos, disappointment, the turning on a dime of fortune, to success, happiness, and the knowledge that there are deeper truths that exist, and despite the trappings or nuances of experience, they rise to the surface when we need them most.

One of the things that moves me most these days is that even when needing to escape--as I sometimes do in dealing with issues in the world sphere which most often have no answers, and if there are answers, they are never easy ones--that even in my escape--such as reading old classic books or seeing old films--there is a continuity that continues to exist among themes which are as relevant today as they were in the past, the past always being a constant reminder of the present, either knowing that we indeed repeat history from which we do not learn, or understanding that human nature is at its core a continuum from the greatest horrors to the most profound moments of illumination.

Watching Casablanca, and prepared just to sit and watch a good old movie with the intent of turning off my mind for a while, there were several things which immediately struck me as deeply moving--not just the story of a man and woman who are in love, and it is a love that in the end, despite the turns of fate, and a separation of time and distance, the remembrance of which requires sacrifice--or that such a sacrifice is for the benefit of the many as opposed to the desires of a single man. In this day and age, I would suggest that the majority of us sees this as a quaint or old fashioned notion--something not even worth thinking about, as we move in this fast-paced world, often thinking only of ourselves and to that which we feel most entitled, believing that too much difficulty only slows us down or is a burden, and that there are multiple justifications for doing what is best for us alone, or that our happiness somehow justifies the means it took to bring us to some amorphous notion of contentment--however that may be defined.

Recently, this thought has crossed my mind more than once, and seeing Casablanca last night only solidified the notions that have been brewing for some time, leading to a kind of purity of disdain for what may be considered the modern mentality: to the winner of whatever knock-down drag out conflict go the spoils. Never mind right or wrong. Never mind character or integrity. Never mind the time it takes to do something correctly and with conviction. Mercenary tendencies always win, and so should they, apparently--for we live in a brutal world where justice can be sold for the highest price, and human endeavor is reduced to that which can be done most quickly, whether or not it ever lasts, and whether or not we have to worry about it in the future. Now is all that matters--and we will buy or sell even ourselves--and others--if given the right motivations that satisfy some momentary need, pressing or not.

In Casablanca, we are met with a literal point of departure--the proverbial cantina scene in a place where fate is bought or sold for the right price. Fate, in this case, means life and death. Taking place during WWII in French Morocco, Casablanca is where one goes to get transit visas to Lisbon, Portugal, where one can eventually make his or her way to freedom in the States, having taken one hell of a journey to get even there, in the middle of the desert of northern Africa--the proverbial Wasteland. 

In Europe, Nazi Germany has occupied France, and the stakes are inordinately high even in the colonies, where the iron grip of Facism is felt, and even subtle rebellion does not go unnoticed. The choices one makes here determine the future, and, appropriately, Rick's Café Américain is a place where one gambles--the proverbial roll of the dice, the spin of a roulette wheel, even the nod of the proprietor--or his subtle interference or lack thereof--will determine someone's fate because of the unusual and almost absurd power he holds in such a world. He can let the young, unknowing husband of a newlywed win at roulette to keep her from having to sleep with the legal authority to gain a transit visa--if he so chooses. He may or may not, influenced by the power of his memories of a better time when life made sense--by the events now, and by his own conscience. The bottom line: we do not know what we are capable of--in our best or worst moments--until we are tested. It is only then that we will ever know our true character, and we will know whether we have the humanity to do what is right when it matters. Until then, we can believe whatever we choose to believe about ourselves--or even about others. But it takes such a test to truly know, and whether we dread it or welcome it, fate will inevitably see that we find out who we most are when it matters most.

My reason for writing this article is because of this very tenet; what notions of humanity do we hold most dear in this world where stakes continue to be inordinately high? Are we up for these kinds of tests, and what notions of right and wrong remain indelible, despite the years that pass and the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves? Could we, as these "modern" generations, face the kind of war previous generations fought if it meant stopping the kind of threat that Nazism leveled at those who came before us? Do we have the strength, the fortitude, the very mettle to dig deeply within ourselves and find the common core of humanity it would require to make a stand against any true evil? We have failed in past decades again and again--believing a number of fallacies: that certain atrocities will never happen again; that what happens in other parts of the world are not our problem; that right and wrong are arcane notions disproved by the very nature of modernity, and a sense that one can deconstruct both the greatest evil or the greatest virtue down to nothing. In such a world, relative to our own notions of morality, we lead with our own values, and a conscience that increasingly that demands we live for ourselves and what is, if one will forgive me, convenient for us to believe.

I return to Casablanca--again, the stakes in this film--and in the reality we know historically the film represents--are almost unimaginable. Life and death are realities at any given moment. Yet we assuage our fears, watching, as we do other films about this or any other war, content to know we are home, safe in our living rooms with the television turned on, most of us thankfully immune to the kinds of dangers we see on screen.

However, we, if we would care to remember, now are involved in war--our own troops are in Afghanistan, along with the forces of other coalition states--and while we are at war, we at home barely act like it. Try to contradict me though you may, regardless of the incessant punditry and words bandied around the press regarding war, unless one is the family member of our armed forces, directly supporting armed forces or recovery efforts, or a member of the military ourselves, we are at a distance from the war, content to let it remain a nagging shadow blighting our peripheral vision, perhaps, at most--the subject of vitriolic commentary because we perhaps love to hear the sound of our own voices, but little more than that unless it strikes us personally because of the danger to a loved one, or the impact of his or her injury or death while overseas. Otherwise, we go on with our lives--impacted only according to our own frame of reference--not a collective one such as that which immersed most all Americans and most others during WWII, and indeed other wars of the past. We are individuals to the core--and so we should be, we think--heaven forbid we change our lives for others, for we need to take care of ourselves and leave others' lives to their own devices. None of us is responsible to the other--we can sing "Kumbaya," but what actions would lead us to believe that we should worry about more than just ourselves, especially for a war that involves our soldiers, but about which we could otherwise seem to care less except for the safety and comfort of offhand, sometimes ignorant, editorial commentary, claiming that it is for their benefit as well as ours?

WWII was a different time--and we lull ourselves into feeling content because of it. We watch old films, or listen, rolling our eyes at, for some, long-winded, and we think, irrelevant, perhaps nearly ancient parents or grand-relatives who recount what it was like to live under rationing, dutifully growing vegetables in Victory gardens, or becoming misty with remembrance when thinking about some moment when a friend or relative died, and the only announcement was by virtue of a telegram. Arcane, we think--poignant, perhaps, but that was the past. Again, it was a different time. There is no relevance now, because things have invariably changed since then.

And so we watch movies like Casablanca with some degree of distant poignancy, thinking what it must have been like back then. However, being involved in the international sphere, and finding myself unable to escape because I'm reminded--constantly--of what is happening in this world even now as this is being written--what strikes me most, at this moment, is the knowledge that right now, while watching Casablanca, in many far-flung places in the world that act as international ports for illicit, high-stakes pacts, fates are still being bargained for a price. Life and death can be a moment away, given a simple twist of fate, or a payoff falling into the right or wrong hands. Wars are decided on agreements made or broken--or information elevated or bastardized according to need. Lives are being lost. "The usual suspects" are being gathered to placate some authority, or to distract some power away from the truth, should that truth be important enough to obscure. Moments of rebellion--such as in Casablanca singing the "Marseillaise" to drown out Nazis singing "Die Wacht am Rhein," (for the scene, click here, one of the most poignant scenes of citizens' wartime rebellion on film)--to in modern Iran wearing green, protesting in the streets--are either withstood or met with swift, fierce retribution. In some places, when livelihoods are won or lost by powers and control believed to transcend common humanity, entire communities are devastated or given a reprieve--if it is in the interests of the one who strikes the best deal. None of this has changed--and it becomes an even more deeply disturbing notion when we realize that in some form, among humanity, this is something of which we as a race have always been capable--and continue to be--if it serves some need, or the majority of us are lulled into believing that none of it has anything to do with us.

It is in these moments, that we are asked: if it does not affect us directly, in what interest is it for us to give a damn? At what point do we involve ourselves in questions of right or wrong, or as we have come to be most used to doing, do we turn a blind eye, believing that such issues are indeed so relative to not even require an answer. Silence and inaction are enough to make our intentions known. Either that, or we're willing to speak loudly but do nothing. After all, talk is cheap, and it costs us little to have an opinion but do nothing about it. We may as well be talking in our sleep--for chances, are, few are listening, or else we don't even really care ourselves. It just placates our notions of importance to believe we have something to say.

Something--something--has to strike us. Something has to awaken us. Something has to move us or scare us so profoundly that we have to realize we are not indeed immune to the realities that we would otherwise choose to ignore. It is only when we--ourselves--are threatened by reality that we choose to act. It is only then that given the threat to ourselves--our notions of right and wrong are suddenly also awakened. It is only then that, whether in time or too late, we choose to make a stand. Often we find in those moments, we may even make a stand for others, because all of a sudden there is a commonality that we deign to remember. It is then, perhaps, that we remember we are indeed human, and the indignation of a lack of justice suddenly burns within us, because all of a sudden, the effects are personal. Perhaps such indignation was latent all along. Perhaps it wasn't. We then convince ourselves--rightly or wrongly--that coming to the fight now will forgive those moments of apathy--even if the damage has already been done. But we choose not to think about it. The past is the past. But truly, it is too much to take on when we only now are taking responsibility for the present.

Many in the thick of the trenches, amidst landscapes immersed in blood and irrefutable physical evidence of suffering, look at what is happening in the world and wonder what will it take for each of us to awaken. Will it take our own life or death? Will it take the threat to a loved one? Will it take something being taken from us which suddenly jars us out of our collective disinterest?

It may seem an odd notion that watching Casablanca would have inspired such thoughts--but indeed, the filmmakers were doing their job. It is the job of anything truly resonant to awaken us--to cause us to feel, even when we least expect it. To ask questions, even, at first, cautiously, with even halting knowledge of the possibility that the implications of those questions will take root in some unknown moment. To compare our lives to that of others being depicted.

Last night, with my mother, who watches even old movies she has seen several times, she with warm curiosity will turn to others of us watching, and with the light of true interest in her eyes will ask us, who would I have been then? What would any of us have done given those circumstances? Would I have given my life for someone else I loved--or someone I didn't even know, really, at all? Would I have been brave enough to stand up to others?

But then my mother was alive during the Depression, and in school during WWII--and she was one who grew a Victory garden, taking her ration stamps to the grocery to pick up rare meat or other food for the family. I had to wonder, was that the reason she was somehow willing to even ask those kinds of questions out loud for us to hear?

In my mind, knowing what I have also seen of the world, I could feel myself asking, if we--those of us among these modern generations--had been in Rick's Cafe, would we have been the embodiment of bravery, apathy, or cowardice? Would we have sold our souls to the highest bidder, or would we have sacrificed ourselves and our happiness for the greater good--or for the love of one whom we knew we were going to lose. Would we choose to do the right thing, even in the worst of circumstances? Would we have laughed at fate, or given it a knowing wink, as some of the more irreverently brave among us might do--and then done what was most within us to do, knowing that the outcome might indeed put us in jeopardy, knowing on some level it was for the greater good?

These are questions we may or may not ask ourselves. But one thing is certain--as has been proved throughout human history--complacency, apathy, and ignorance will at some point face a crisis that will shatter it, and we will be faced with the kinds of tests we, at this moment, do not even want to think about. Perhaps it will not happen now, or a year from now, but it will indeed happen, as it has in the past, and it is something for which we need to be prepared. Now, more than ever, with the vast amounts of information being readily accessible about what is going on in the world, we no longer have the excuse of unfettered ignorance. Whether we like it or not, we are making a conscious choice to learn or to turn away--to act, or to ignore. And based on those choices, we can and will be judged. For we no longer can say we didn't know, for even burying our heads in the sand is a choice we can choose to make--about any number of issues currently at large in the world--but it will be to our detriment. And it will also be to the detriment of those we love--if we indeed know what it means to love anyone at all and understand the nature of even the most basic human compassion.

Whether ignored now, or faced then--when such tests come, we will have to ask ourselves who we will choose to be--for that will indeed determine the world as we would choose to make it. Believing in humanity, even when we fall to the deepest depths of depravity or ignorance, we also have the capacity to do just the opposite. We have the choice as to whether or not to stand in the light, steel ourselves toward bravery, and remember there is such a thing as conscience, if not even transcendence, when it matters most. All we have to do is make the choice.

K.J. Wetherholt is Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation, Co-Principal of Humanitas-ThinkWorks, Co-Editor of the International Journal of Media and Information Policy (upcoming in late 2010), and the author of an upcoming book on WWI titled The Illumination.