"Casablanca": A Critique or Defence of Centrism?
How a movie from eighty years ago lives on today, and what it says about remaining "neutral".
Cinema was dead, to begin with. According to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, film is a “dead medium”. Live theatre allows for accidents and variations in performances that create different viewing experiences; film is recorded once and finally, freezing it in everlasting stasis. Kaufman’s method for mitigating this in his own movies is to build in so much information to his onscreen world that repeat viewings offer different experiences. What was overlooked at the start of the movie becomes salient once you know how the movie ends.
This is why it is in the re-watch – a second go around in which I know now what comes next – that I can really tell whether a movie has life. If it is alive, then each scene still sings with a voice I want to hear again, and the film surprises me with fresh wonder, in spite of my knowledge of how the scene and the larger plot will unfold. When a movie is alive, prescience does not impede awe.
By contrast, a movie with no life is crushed on second viewing by the weight of the life it has already lived. It has nothing left to say. The most obvious movie of this kind is the whodunnit that keeps you watching until the end only to have the answer to its initial mystery. Once you know who “dunnit”, there’s no need to ask again. But movies are dead for broader reasons than that. A dead movie fails to convince me that the world of its story expands beyond the frame of the shot, that the characters’ lives go on unseen when the camera turns away. When a film is dead, it has no secrets.
Casablanca, a movie from almost eighty years ago, is a movie still very much alive.
Let us go then, you and I, to a nightclub in 1940’s Casablanca, a trendy place called Rick’s, where the proprietor is tucked away in a corner of the private gambling room. From his secluded spot, Rick indicates to the doorman that he should deny entrance to a German from the Gestapo-loyal Duetsche Bank. Rick orders the banker to go drink at the bar. “Don’t you know who I am?” asks the German, to which Rick replies, “I do. You’re lucky the bar’s open to you.” In spite of this show of disdain for Nazi sympathisers, Rick spends the rest of the scene shooting down speculation that he might be more noble than his facade is designed to reveal.
Here is a living detail within Casablanca: In this early scene, Rick is playing chess alone. He is quite literally on both sides of the game. Knowing now how the movie unfolds, I see on my second viewing the subtext of this solo chess game. The fact that Rick is playing both sides of the board indicates that he feels himself to be somehow “outside” of the game – of chess, of global politics and war. He is not invested in either side, but he’s happy to move pieces and accept whatever outcome results.
But here is a detail within the detail: He has chosen to sit on the side of the underdog, playing black from his side of the table (disadvantaged by the white side’s getting to move first). Rick may ostensibly be loyal to either or neither side, but deep down he harbours a fondness for the “little guy”. This subtle fact of the chessboard supports what plays out more overtly in his turning away the banker from the private room.
A third viewing of Casablanca offers me a new reading of the film. The movie exhorts its contemporary audience to see Rick as the good ol’ USA, and his progress to selfless hero as an urging for the US to abandon its isolationist policy and do its part in the war metastasizing elsewhere in the world. But today, that war is over, and during the course of my lifetime, America has been significantly less isolationist regarding conflicts abroad. So what relevance does this analogy serve today? How might we read this metaphor differently?
In asking these questions, I was unexpectedly forced to ask myself: Is Rick, today, a metaphor for the centrist as imagined by critics of centrism? Is Rick what others accuse people like me of being for espousing a conversational tolerance of opposing ideas? Just like that, the film lives again, and I go to it as a method of guiding myself through this self-exploration.
Rick is a man willing to play both sides and is seemingly comfortable with his ability to hold equitable sympathy for (or equal distance from) both sides of a conflict. Insisting that the whereabouts of a resistance leader is little more than a “sporting” interest to him, Rick establishes his method of impartiality, which is to see the affairs of the world – here, the blood being shed far from his nightclub – as trivial. His sceptical interlocutor says, “In this case, you have no sympathy for the fox?” to which Rick replies, “I understand the point of view of the hound, too.” The hound in this case is the Nazi regime.
By these means, he keeps the world of people and their passions and problems at a safe distance, in order not to truly benefit himself but to allow himself a comfortable continued existence. He is as impassive towards the suffering of others (he would have us believe) as he is towards his own flourishing. Getting by is good enough.
This same passivity is presumed to lie in the weak-beating heart of the meek and mild centrist, which troubles those who (by definition more prone to speaking their minds and loudly) have firmly “picked a side”. These proud partisans see the failure to unequivocally condemn the other side as wrong (either factually and logically incorrect or else evil) as the main symptom of a degenerative disease afflicting the moral backbone. There is no “centre” position on matters of ultimate right and wrong; what truly ethical person could remain “moderate” in the face of an evil like, say, Nazism?
These questions lose the safe distance of abstraction for me by addressing directly a position I have (depending on your definitions) defended in my writing. If I am a centrist or a moderate, am I the ethically dubious Rick at the beginning of Casablanca, and is the heroic Rick, who spurns his indifference and takes a side in the global battle, the opposite of who I am now?
I am content with words as placeholders, shortcuts to indicate a direction in which conversation might travel to pull out the subtleties not captured by the initial term. Sometimes, though, the placeholder sticks, getting in the way of conversational exploration, and I think the word “centrist” has done that for me. I suspect that I have been arguing at cross-purposes with people assuming a specific definition of that term, theirs most likely correct in a technical sense, but not what I mean by it.
The thing that I have been describing as centrism is not the lazy belief that the truth of a matter lies directly between two opposing positions, and we can arrive at it by simply splitting the difference between two extremes. It is, instead, the understanding that truth might be found anywhere along a particular spectrum, and that we should be free to seek it wherever we might find it. This requires a commitment to having conversations with people who will disagree with me. The desire is to learn something new, not to affirm that what I believe is correct.
In Casablanca’s final scene, Rick has realised the virtue of Victor Lazlo’s commitment to the good fight. Not incidentally, Lazlo wears a white hat and Rick wears a black one – perhaps a subtle nod to that opening scene with the chess game, in which Rick played the black side. It is a result of the “game” he has been playing with Lazlo throughout the story that Rick is won over to the side of right. It was by engaging with the other man and his set of ethics that Rick was changed for the better.
Then there is Louis Renault, the paragon of weaselly appeasement, the shamelessly corrupt chief of police. Louis is precisely the sort of person the politically self-righteous on the left might describe as “Nazi-adjacent” and therefore not to be engaged with. But had Rick taken such a hard line on tolerating only the ideologically “pure”, he would not have established the relationship that leads to Louis defending him in the end from the real Nazi. This relationship then leads to rectifying that which those politically self-righteous types would condemn Louis for, namely his unwillingness to stand against evil. Conversation opens such doors.
Without the modelling of good civic behaviour from Lazlo; without the motivation to do better from his once-lover, Ilsa; without the surprise aid provided by Louis who, in spite of his desire to remain in good standing with the occupying Nazis, comes through in the end on the side of right; without these interactions, Rick would never have reached the heroic conclusion of his journey.
At the end of Casablanca, Rick stands selflessly against the Nazis in order to help Lazlo and Ilsa flee the country. And just as Rick is able to pick a side, nothing about my conversational tolerance necessitates an unwillingness or inability to take firm positions on matters of real importance. A willingness to converse with a member of the opposition party, or believer in a faith not one’s own, or even a white supremacist, does not preclude continued opposition to their worst beliefs, nor does it require assent to their harmful actions. In some cases, it may prevent those actions in the first place. Better to talk someone out of evil than fight them as the lesser evil, or punish them after evil has been done.
Another living detail to underscore this point: In the movie’s final moments, Louis opens a bottle of Vichy Water as he quips about Rick’s becoming a patriot. “It seemed like a good time to start,” Rick says. Louis looks at the bottle, says, “I think perhaps you’re right,” and bins the drink. The Vichy region in France was ostensibly neutral, and yet when the Germans whistled, they danced. This is also true of Louis. Throwing away the Vichy Water symbolises that Rick has convinced him to stand up for the good.
The point of this is simple yet profound – we model the people we want to live in this world with. To quote a television show I watched too much of as a teenager, “We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it could be.” Conversation necessarily involves more than one person, and so it is always possible for the transformations it makes on you to act on those others as well.
Of course, things don’t always end so well, and Major Strasser, the Nazi who remained ideologically poisoned to the end, finishes up with a bullet in the gut. But between violence and a compelling argument as methods of standing up for what is right, the latter must always come first.
Much has been made of the horseshoe theory that posits that the far-left and the far-right resemble each other in their propensity for authoritarianism, and too much has been made of that hypothesis, but it holds true in regard to the utopianism underpinning each extreme. The radically progressive think that if they can only rid the world of its current injustices, then a self-sustaining heaven of equality and peace will inevitably result. The regressively conservative believe that if they can rid the world of all that is alien to the sanctity and safety established within “traditional values”, then a restoration of an Edenic yesteryear will prevail. Both camps believe in perpetual motion machines of social bliss that would be up and running if only the other side would stop acting as gremlins in the machinery.
My so-called centrist view of things sees the good life more like a beautiful vintage car: In it, the handiwork of the past is preserved through the addition of new parts as the old ones become unfit for purpose. There is much to want to keep in tradition and history (and in the classic car), but we need not be in thrall to the past; without updating it, we will drive that thing into a state of disrepair. The maintenance of this balance, as with the classic car, is ongoing. It is the only perpetual thing about this vision.
Casablanca closes with one of its most famous lines of dialogue: “Louis,” Rick says, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” This is the beginning, not the end. This part of the journey is over, but there is always more to do.
There are those who will read my defence of this position as ridiculous for being outdated – quaint at best and regressive at worst. I do feel some embarrassment at expressing these sentiments, though not for the aforementioned cynicism, but because to my mind I am not suggesting anything exceptional. It is, in fact, almost banal in its obviousness to me. And yet our public politics are so predicated on oppositional, falsely-dichotomous antagonisms that people like myself are forced to repeat the boringly obvious – until, at least, it becomes as self-evident again to those who need to be reminded.
My discovery of a more precise understanding of my endorsement of open-minded, open-hearted conversation was reached through a dialogue with a classic movie, conducted over repeat viewings. So much is forfeited when we abandon a book or a movie to a single encounter, leaving untouched all those ideas and questions it wants to lay out on the table for us to browse through and engage with. Great art given only one pass is a conversation left to wither after barely passing the small talk.
In his latest book, Stories We Tell Ourselves, the always thoughtful Richard Holloway thinks deeply about some very old and very important stories he has returned to throughout his life. “Thinking,” he writes, “is a creative act that can disclose or discover new meanings in old stories ...” The fodder for thinking is conversation – conversation with those who agree and can refine our ideas, with those who disagree and can teach us something new, with art that challenges us, and with the books, movies, and music that remain alive to our interrogations.
• Casablanca, dir. Michael Curtiz, screenplay Julius J Epstein; Philip G Epstein; Howard Koch (1942)
• Charlie Kaufman on his latest film & why “movies are dead”, WGA West [YouTube] (2008)
• Angel, “Deep Down”, dir. Terrence O’Hara, screenplay Steven S DeKnight (2002)
• Stories We Tell Ourselves, Richard Holloway (2020)