Film is a form of propaganda. It’s designed to make you feel a certain way, stir you into action, teach you a moral lesson. That is not a bad thing, it’s still sincere, just most things are technically propaganda. Music is a truly effective form, especially national anthems. Everyone already knows the words, so its a quick way to unite a seemingly random crowd into one voice. However, anthems can just as easily divide and displace people if they are not familiar with the song. As such, national anthems are not simply a by-product of politics, they are a form of politics and warfare. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of this power is the “La Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca, which remains one of the most emotional and significant scenes in cinema history.
I only recently watched Casablanca, but I can now confidently say it is one of my favourites. I was initially reticent about the film, as I assumed it would be overrated, dated, and somewhat problematic. It is a bit, but I still had my extremely low expectations utterly blown away. The “La Marseillaise” scene is particularly moving, as the sequences is both extremely emotional and historically significant. The characters, the music, and the context, both in film and out, form the film’s most unapologetic call to arms. It also features what I consider the greatest close-up in cinema. I realize this is a monumental claim but hear me out.
“A Citizen of the World”: A Note About Context
Before unpacking the scene, I have to mention the film and sequence’s context. The scene begins right after a tense conversation between Rick and Victor, a resistance operative traveling with his wife, a woman Rick once fell deeply in love with. Rick has special documents (letters of transit) which would allow someone to escape Casablanca and travel without German’s interference, something Victor desperately needs. Prior to this, Rick has remained entirely neutral in the ongoing conflict between Germany and the rest of Europe, and his bar is a demonstration of this neutrality. The club welcomes both fleeing refugees and German officers, who are technically guests in Casablanca. The tension between these groups intensifies, leading to this memorable scene.
During Rick and Victor’s meeting, some German officers begin a loud rendition of “Die Wacht am Rhein”, or Watch of Rhine, a patriotic German song. When Rick and Victor discover this, Victor marches through the quiet and upset crowd to strike up “La Marseillaise”, the French national anthem. The band accompanies Victor after Rick gives them a firm nod, the first time he has actively rejected German rule in the film. Everyone at the club joins in, regardless of if they are French.
This group of outsiders and refugees may perform with different accents and tones, but they are united by a shared passion. Music is the only outright form of resistance they can hurl, and their only non-violent option. The scene proves that music can be just as powerful and symbolic, if not more so, than a physical confrontation. Eventually, the song becomes so loud that it drowns out the German officers, and they stop singing. The Germans might have power on a global stage, but they have no power on Rick’s stage.
It is important to note that the film was released in 1942, when WWII was still going on and France was still occupied. The film was created as a straightforward propaganda project, with the sole intention of inspiring Americans to go to war. To push individual needs aside for the betterment of the nation and world. To ensure that the idea of going to war was popular. Americans were meant to identify with Rick because he is suave and fast-talking businessman who, until this point, has remained neutral, just like the US until the very end of 1941.
What makes the scene even more remarkable is that many of the actors were either escaped French citizens or those who had fled other European warzones. Some accounts suggest that no one directed the crowd to cry during this scene, but just hearing the French anthem was enough to bring everyone to tears. The scene is so astonishing because its so genuine. It is a political statement about an ongoing war, something which surrounded these actors. The film had a purpose, one which we can still feel today.
“Here’s Looking at You”: The Monumental Shot
As we sweep across the crowd of singers, the camera closes in towards Ilsa as she watches her husband. At first, we get a shot of her looking down, almost fearful of the situation. It’s noteworthy that other than Rick, she is the only person not singing in the club. This is even more apparent in the juxtaposed shots of her and Yvonne, as Yvonne sings passionately, with tears in her eyes, while Ilsa is completely silent. The next frame we get is of her husband, and we see his arms swing with the beat and his determined look. The camera then turns back to Isla, and we get this iconic shot.
Unlike her husband, Ilsa is slightly off center, and the shot is just of her head. Her face transitions from intense pride, regret, fear, and love in the span of seconds. She is proud of her husband, but regrets that she still has feelings for Rick. She is also afraid that Victor is risking too much by singing, yet is completely in love with his strength in this moment. It is a decisive moment in the film, as Ilsa realizes that she is willing to do whatever it takes for her husband because he is a hero, regardless of her love for Rick. Her feelings about Rick are not as important as Victor’s work and role in the resistance.
Ilsa remains silent in the scene because she preoccupied with a different kind of pride. She is proud of her husband and his work, less so with the specifics of that work. In the moment where her mouth opens, just for a beat, she becomes as impassioned as Yvonne, just with a different understanding of her situation in the broader the political context.
This scene is a declaration, and this shot in particular embodies the film’s ongoing political message: the needs of the individual are nothing compared to the needs of the nation. Although Ilsa continues to struggle with this issue throughout the film, it is something both she and Rick ultimately bow to.
I love this shot of Ilsa because it is so weighted, representing not just the events in the film, but the wider social issues society was contending with. It is a political act, but also a personal kind. This frame is profound because it perfectly balances individuality and patriotism. So does the musical warfare in the scene, performed by those who didn’t know how the war would end, but chose to make a stand through music.