Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Casablanca as a Relic of World War II

There have been many films detailing World War II from a variety of different perspectives, but many of the best known films were made after the war ended. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Das Boot were even made decades after the war ended. Many of these films therefore have a very retroactive perspective on the war. A film like Saving Private Ryan, made in the 1990's, depicts the war as it is perceived by filmmakers looking back on what happened. This is what makes a film like Michael Curtiz's Casablanca stand out from the others.

Unlike many other iconic war films, Casablanca was released in 1943 while the war was still happening. Many have noted how the film is a thinly-veiled allegory for America's reluctance to join the war effort, but it is also an incredible historical document on the grounds that it offers insight into the war from a contemporary standpoint. In other words, to understand Casablanca is to understand how World War II would have been perceived while it was still happening. In some ways, the film is rather progressive for the era, presenting not only a strong female lead but also also providing work for a black actor in Sam, a character who is treated with respect throughout.

Casablanca's obvious dislike for the Nazis also makes it a very agreeable film today, largely because most people today would agree that the Nazis were horrible people who needed to be stopped. However, on some level the film's depictions of the Nazis has not aged so well. This is most notable through the fact that the film continues to mention "concentration camps" despite seemingly not knowing what the term actually means. Victor Lazlo claims to have been held in a "concentration camp" and the characters speak of the danger of being thrown into "concentration camps" but judging by the dialogue it sounds more like they are speaking of Nazi political prisons than actual concentration camps.

A Nazi political prison would not have been much better, but it is still very different from a concentration camp. The former would have been a place for political prisoners, i.e. anyone who defied the Nazis. The latter was a term used to describe multiple horrific camps designed specifically for killing entire groups of people in massive numbers at a time. To provide a more cinematic analogy, imagine a contrast between Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. The term "concentration camp" as used by the characters in Casablanca would today describe something one might expect to see in Schindler's List, a film about the Holocaust, but what is described sounds more like the type of prison depicted in A Man Escaped.

When seen today, the apparent misuse of the word "concentration camp" looks like a blatant oversight on the part of the filmmakers, but it does illustrate the mindset of a very different era. The actions of the Nazis are currently public knowledge. Thanks to the internet it is very easy to find photographs of concentration camps, and most people at some point in their lives get at the very least a general idea of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, an event now remembered as one of history's darkest moments. However, this was not always the case, and much of what may be common knowledge today was not so obvious in 1943.

While the war was still going on, the actions of the Nazi party were in large part kept secret. For obvious reasons Hitler did not want the public to know about the ethically questionable activities that were going on behind closed doors, and this included the Holocaust. Any contemporary information on it outside of what was known only to the Nazi party would have been vague at best. All anyone really knew was that Hitler had a list of people to be "relocated" and that there were serious consequences for anyone who tried to hide a person who fit the list. Nobody would have known for sure precisely what happened to those people once they were taken. It was only at the end of the war in 1945, when Allied forces invaded Germany and discovered the concentration camps, that the public became aware of the mass genocide that was really going on.

The reason a phrase like "concentration camp" is so heavily used in the wrong context in Casablanca is literally because the filmmakers obviously did not know what it meant and misunderstood its intended definition. Very few people in Nazi-controlled territory had even the slightest idea of what a concentration camp was, America would have known even less. All they would have had to go on at most would have been vague rumours of the Nazis putting people into "concentration camps" without much more information on what they were or how they worked. Michael Curtiz could have easily misunderstood and took this term to mean a political prison.

Today, one might argue that this little detail seems like a strange oversight in an otherwise finely-crafted movie, and something to be dismissed simply as a product of the era. However, it is because this detail is a product of the era that it is important to bring it to the forefront. This slight error in the dialogue serves as a very clear window into the past and allows a glimpse into the mind of people who lived at the height of World War II and how they perceived the conflict around them. Casablanca is therefore very much a relic of World War II.

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