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The famous La Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.

You know, this scene is so powerful to me that sometimes I forget that not everyone who watches it will understand its significance, or will have seen Casablanca. So, because this scene means so much to me, I hope it’s okay if I take a minute to explain what’s going on here for anyone who’s feeling left out.

Casablanca takes place in, well, Casablanca, the largest city in (neutral) Morocco in 1941, at Rick’s American Cafe (Rick is Humphrey Bogart’s character you see there). In 1941, America was also still neutral, and Rick’s establishment is open to everyone: Nazi German officials, officials from Vichy (occupied) France, and refugees from all across Europe desperate to escape the German war engine. A neutral cafe in a netural country is probably the only place you’d have seen a cross-section like this in 1941, only six months after the fall of France.

So, the scene opens with Rick arguing with Laszlo, who is a Czech Resistance fighter fleeing from the Nazis (if you’re wondering what they’re arguing about: Rick has illegal transit papers which would allow Laszlo and his wife, Ilsa, to escape to America, so he could continue raising support against the Germans. Rick refuses to sell because he’s in love with Laszlo’s wife). They’re interrupted by that cadre of German officers singing Die Wacht am Rhein: a German patriotic hymn which was adopted with great verve by the Nazi regime, and which is particularly steeped in anti-French history. This depresses the hell out of everybody at the club, and infuriates Laszlo, who storms downstairs and orders the house band to play La Marseillaise: the national anthem of France.

Wait, but when I say “it’s the national anthem of France,” I don’t want you to think of your national anthem, okay? Wherever you’re from. Because France’s anthem isn’t talking about some glorious long-ago battle, or France’s beautiful hills and countrysides. La Marseillaise is FUCKING BRUTAL. Here’s a translation of what they’re singing:

Arise, children of the Fatherland! The day of glory has arrived! Against us, tyranny raises its bloody banner. Do you hear, in the countryside, the roar of those ferocious soldiers? They’re coming to your land to cut the throats of your women and children!

To arms, citizens! Form your battalions! Let’s march, let’s march! Let their impure blood water our fields!

BRUTAL, like I said. DEFIANT, in these circumstances. And the entire cafe stands up and sings it passionately, drowning out the Germans. The Germans who are, in 1941, still terrifyingly ascendant, and seemingly invincible.

“Vive la France! Vive la France!” the crowd cries when it’s over. France has already been defeated, the German war machine roars on, and the people still refuse to give up hope.

But here’s the real kicker, for me: Casablanca came out in 1942. None of this was ‘history’ to the people who first saw it. Real refugees from the Nazis, afraid for their lives, watched this movie and took heart. These were current events when this aired. Victory over Germany was still far from certain. The hope it gave to people then was as desperately needed as it has been at any time in history.

God I love this scene.

not only did refugees see this movie, real refugees made this movie. most of the european cast members wound up in hollywood after fleeing the nazis and wound up. 

paul heinreid, who played laszlo the resistance leader, was a famous austrian actor; he was so anti-hitler that he was named an enemy of the reich. ugarte, the petty thief who stole the illegal transit papers laszlo and victor are arguing about? was played by peter lorre, a jewish refugee. carl, the head waiter? played by s.z. sakall, a hungarian-jew whose three sisters died in the holocaust

even the main nazi character was played by a german refugee: conrad veidt, who starred in one of the first sympathetic films about gay men and who fled the nazis with his jewish wife. 

there’s one person in this scene that deserves special mention. did you notice the woman at the bar, on the verge of tears as she belts out la marseillaise? she’s yvonne, rick’s ex-girlfriend in the film. in real life, the actress’s name is madeleine lebeau and she basically lived the plot of this film: she and her jewish husband fled paris ahead of the germans in 1940. her husband, macel dalio, is also in the film, playing the guy working the roulette table. after they occupied paris, the nazis used his face on posters to represent a “typical jew.” madeleine and  marcel managed to get to lisbon (the goal of all the characters in casablanca), and boarded a ship to the americas… but then they were stranded for two months when it turned out their visa papers were forgeries. they eventually entered the US after securing temporary canadian visas. marcel dalio’s entire family died in concentration camps. 

go back and rewatch the clip. watch madeleine lebeau’s face.

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casablanca is a classic, full of classic acting performances. but in this moment, madeleine lebeau isn’t acting. this isn’t yvonne the jilted lover onscreen. this is madeleine lebeau, singing “la marseillaise” after she and her husband fled france for their lives. this is a real-life refugee, her real agony and loss and hope and resilience, preserved in the midst of one of the greatest films of all time.