With a film as layered and rich as Casablanca, viewers are left with plenty of lessons and narratives to ponder. There’s the personal sacrifice for the greater good. There’s the way difficult circumstances push people to do desperate things. There’s the helplessness of being a refugee caught in the middle of a terrible war. All these have made deep impressions on me after seeing Casablanca for the first time as part of our Never Seen series. And after discussing it in our episode “Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca,” my mind continues to mull them over—so much so that I intend to watch Casablanca again in an attempt to sort it out.
But there’s one narrative in particular that is whispering persistently to my soul that’s seems especially applicable in today’s cultural moment.
We are again in Rick’s nightclub, Café Américain. It’s full of the usual clientele: military officers (Nazi German and Vichy French), European refugees of varying means (and power), and a variety of locals. At this point in the story, Laszlo is confronting Rick about providing the travel papers he and Isla will need to escape to safety. The exchange is tense, because their aims are in direct opposition: Laszlo is desperate to get to America with Isla; Rick is desperately to not lose Isla again. And in Casablanca itself, the balance of power is tilting toward the Nazis—their presence seemingly grows before our eyes, with more officers who have less patience with refugees.
We watch this film today knowing the outcome; we know who wins. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like to watch this story unfold upon its release in 1943, when Nazi power was growing week by week. The desperation Laszlo and Ilsa felt would have uniquely connected viewers to their plight. Viewers in 1943 did not have the luxury of knowing the war’s outcome.
Imagine the anxiety viewers must have felt when the Nazi officers took over Sam’s piano and began belting out a German patriotic song (“Die Wacht am Rhein” / “The Watch on the Rhine”). Their voices filled the air, confident of their place and position and power as German soldiers. And imagine how viewers in 1943 felt when a single man—Laszlo, a Resistance leader—refused to succumb to this new reality by signaling the house band to play “La Marseillaise” in honor of occupied France. His lone voice is hardly audible at first, but is soon supported by the crowd. Together, the have courage to sing and drown out the Germans.
Such courage is needed in the world today. Now, as then, power structures throw their proverbial weight about by being the loudest in the room. But being loud isn’t the same as being life-giving. That power is found only in the gospel, which opens the way to true and full human flourishing.
The gospel’s sweet refrain grows and spreads in the same way that Laszlo’s song spread: by appealing to the heart’s desire for all that’s good and true and beautiful. We cannot stop the opposition from singing, but we can sing a song so lovely that it subverts the power structures, infiltrating them, rendering them void. As Madeleine L’Engle famously wrote in her book Walking on Water:
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Who among us will sing of all that’s lovely? Who will sing of all that’s true and good and beautiful? The world needs more Laszlos. And the gospel gives us the song.