There’s a reason certain works of art are called classics. The word implies a sense of worth—an established importance that maintains relevance well beyond its debut. Classics are re-readable, re-watchable, re-listenable. It’s not just that they hold up; upon each revisit, you discover something new.
I’ve seen the film Casablanca three times now. I remembered it the first two times as a love story; upon my third watch recently, I found that it does much more than that. In fact, despite the flashbacks to the pre-war Parisian gaiety Ilsa and Rick enjoy, despite the tearful looks exchanged over a slightly schmaltzy “As Time Goes By,” and despite the quiet debonair of Bogart and the beautiful gaze of Bergman, Casablanca is first and foremost a commentary. It’s been called an anti-Nazi propaganda movie—certainly it is, released in 1942 during the thick of World War II, at a time when the outcome was wildly uncertain.
More than its righteousness, and more than its romanticism, Casablanca is a mimeograph of its environment. It’s a film that could never be of any other time or place. And despite its definite political leanings, the film is not as schlocky or as clear-cut it could be. Bogart’s Rick reflects the reluctance, cynicism, and isolationism that plagued the U.S. at the start of the war. Claude Rains’ Renault is a wonderfully witty but morally gray occupied France, finding it easier to cooperate than to rebel against a force that seemed poised for victory. And Bergman’s Ilsa struggles with staying true to her husband Victor Laszlo, the revolutionary who managed to elude Nazi powers—the personified spark of hope in an otherwise bleak reality.
The characters struggle with the circumstances they’re dealt, and they don’t always emerge admirably. The moments of heroism are brief but strong; when Victor drums up the French national anthem in opposition to the Third Reich officers’ boozy rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein”—when the camera cuts to Bogart, and he nods, quickly, consenting to this small but powerful act of defiance, finally throwing his hat into the fight—it’s hard not to feel warmth.
The film is full of wonderful scenes like this one, and its cool, 1940s dignity makes you long for the era of cinema where Humphrey Bogart looked wryly into the camera and chain smoking, ever-suave without even trying. Funny, dark, heartbreaking and inspiring, Casablanca is the definition of a classic—one worth watching every few years, each time hoping to unearth something new.