“With the whole world crumbling, we pick this time to fall in love.”
So says Ingrid Bergman (“Gaslight”) as Ilsa in “Casablanca,” Michael Curtiz’s 1942 masterpiece of American cinema. Thanks to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater, I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the film at the theater’s Historic Auditorium twice during my time as a student here. It’s hard not to think about history when you step inside the venue, built in 1928. The decor makes you feel as though you’ve left the 21st century and entered the days of Old Hollywood, when everything cinema would one day become was ahead. For all I know, Ann Arborites in the 1940s probably saw “Casablanca” for the first time in the same exact place I did.
The world has undoubtedly gone through some major changes since 1942. Although we may not be in the middle of a major world war like our protagonists Rick (Humphrey Bogart, “The Maltese Falcon”) and Ilsa, humans in 2019 carry the weight of our own unique set of challenges — climate destruction, economic inequality, overpopulation, the list goes on. Our attitudes about social justice have also changed tremendously, admittedly making certain aspects of “Casablanca” difficult to stomach, particularly its treatment of women and Sam (Dooley Wilson, “Stormy Weather”), a black musician at Rick’s nightclub. In many respects, “Casablanca” is very much of its time, for better or for worse.
Yet, there’s something about the movie that separates it from the conventions of its era, accounting for its popularity worldwide, across all age groups. Its central story, that of Rick and Ilsa’s complicated, whirlwind romance, feels timeless and widely relevant, despite the World War II-specific politics and culture it’s steeped in. As Sam sings time and time again throughout the film, “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory.” “Casablanca” tells a universal tale, one of love and death and war and the things we sacrifice for what we know to be important. It poses genuinely thought-provoking questions about responsibility and patriotism that are as old as time itself. What do we owe to the greater good? What must we sacrifice for what’s right? Did Rick make the right decision in forcing Ilsa to get on that plane, even though it may have cost him his last chance at a great love? Or was this decision simply the best way he knew to express his love for her?
As I asked myself these questions while watching the movie, I found myself wondering about the people I was watching it with. How many had seen “Casablanca” before? Why did they decide to come tonight? What were their relationships to the movie? Was anyone here even alive during World War II?
That final question is the one that sticks with me the most. Before we know it, there will be no one left to remember what life was truly like then. Yet, it’s still a comfort to know that, in a world that’s constantly changing and where people are constantly dying, there are some things that will never die, like “Casablanca” itself, and the memory of the way Ingrid Bergman looks at Humphrey Bogart in that final scene. “Casablanca” has stood and will continue to stand the test of time, to serve as a testament to what we valued, how we loved and the things we were willing to do for each other. In that sense, “Casablanca” is immortal.