Belding: Political lessons from ‘Casablanca’

Michael Belding

Good movies have the power to inspire us, reveal our unconscious thoughts and capture the dearest and most controversial sentiments of our time. The magic and power of cinematographic art also goes with an escapist opportunity too.

It would be inconsistent of us, however, to take the appealing or therapeutic aspects of Hollywood and fail to consider the important lessons contained in the movies. One that comes to mind comes from the movie “Casablanca,” and it relates to our wholesale failure to recognize the difference between social work and political work. In addition to its high entertainment value, it highlights a difference in the kinds of impact people can make in the world.

The main character, Rick Blaine, undergoes a dynamic transformation. A jilted saloonkeeper who insists that he will “stick [his] neck out for nobody,” he had been a kind of freedom fighter before World War II began, running guns to Ethiopia and fighting in Spain on the Loyalist side. In 1940, in Paris, he met a woman named Ilsa Lund, fell in love with her and, as the Germans advanced through France, planned to flee with her.

At that point, she left him. She reappeared in his saloon — “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” — in Casablanca, Morocco, about a year later. The man accompanying her, however, turns out to be her husband, to whom she was married when she knew Blaine in Paris. He, a Czech resistance leader named Victor Laszlo, is trying to reach the United States with her.

Blaine’s first transformation makes him a social activist. The situation he resolved affected only the private lives of two people — a Bulgarian couple also on their way to the United States. Short of funds, the only way for them to procure an exit visa is for the wife — it is implied — to sleep with the French prefect of police. Blaine learns of this and, though he is disgusted with love and holds his ex-lover in contempt, allows the husband to win enough money at roulette to actually pay the French prefect.

That kind of change, which essentially is doing nice things for other people, often masquerades as part of politics when we talk about ensuring that everyone has access to health care or that abortion and same-sex marriage should be illegal. Those issues affect only the individuals experiencing them, yet daily we contend with the notion that we are supposed to solve them by using public energy, resources and time.

The transition into a social activist from a totally neutral individual paled in comparison to the change that was to come. Blaine’s change from an indifferent businessman to a man who was, as the same French prefect put it, “quite human,” was less important than his metamorphosis into a political actor.

Since Laszlo failed to buy from Blaine the letters of transit that Lund and Laszlo needed to leave Casablanca, Lund went to Blaine to do whatever she must to procure them. During that meeting, however, she realized she still loved him and confessed her love, saying that he must do the thinking for both of them. Presumably, Blaine and Lund were to leave without Laszlo.

Earlier that night, however, he commenced his return into a person interested in shaping the world’s course of events, as he had been in Ethiopia and Spain. At one point, the Germans in his saloon had begun singing a German anthem; in response, Laszlo ordered Blaine’s band to play the French anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Blaine gave the nod. During his meeting with Lund, he noted that Laszlo depended on Lund for his inspiration.

Blaine told her, “You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.” At that point, his proverbial emergence from his chrysalis into a life as a public actor was complete: “I’m no good at being noble,” he said, “but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

The authentic, genuine issues of politics consist of how we relate to one another, freedom and the ties that bind us into a society rather than problems that relate to one or a few people in their individual capacity. The biggest problem we face is making that hill of beans into an Everest.