What Casablanca Taught Me About Resilience

What Casablanca Taught Me About Resilience

Movie lore says that, in the 1942 movie Casablanca, the actors singing La Marseillaise to drown out the Nazis in Rick’s Café are shedding real tears. Die Wacht am Rhein, sung by officers of the Reich, and the French national anthem, the response of refugees headed for America, were performed chiefly by Hollywood’s extras of the day–European émigrés. Many were German Jews. Some had been leaders in the resistance back home. Singing Die Wacht at that time in French Morocco provoked both the film characters and the actors who played them.

The European Jews and sympathizers who portrayed both Casablanca’s Nazis and refugees had made it to Hollywood because of work or family connections; some had followed others who’d gone before. All had to rebuild work lives and find new homes. Each was in America, as Austrian Paul Henreid (Czech freedom fighter Victor Laszlo) says in the film, to “carry on as best I can.”

Today one seventh of the world’s population are refugees, the largest number since World War II. The World Health Organization estimates that, of today’s 250 million international migrants, over 60 million have been forced from home by armed conflict, terrorism, or natural disaster. As was true in 1942, the numbers only hint at the hardship and loss behind each person’s dislocation.

Everybody Comes to Rick’s, the unproduced play about war and displacement that inspired Casablanca, hit Hollywood the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Americans were about to enter the conflict that Europeans had been fighting for years, as Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine) says, to rise from being “asleep all over America.” When the film premiered in November 1942, victory hung in the balance, with German troops advancing in Africa and Russia and keeping a death grip on central Europe.

Citizens persecuted by the Reich were no longer likely to get out alive. Those who’d already escaped had contended with great trauma: some had been held in prisons or concentration camps, and were only released because of influence or luck; some had been detained at borders and strip-searched on trains; some had fled Germany for adjoining countries for temporary asylum, only to be uprooted a second or third time–as Paul Henreid said in later interviews, to be “naked in four countries.” Most would lose the momentum of established careers. Many would never set foot on their native soil again.

Surviving trauma is something people are capable of; resilience is a human quality that allows recovery after great loss and duress. Surviving well is another matter–never guaranteed–but it can follow intense suffering. According to resilience expert David B. Feldman, author of Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link between Suffering and Success, trauma sometimes pushes survivors to, not only bounce back, but also bounce forward and thrive in the aftermath of adversity. Rather than viewing suffering through a Pollyanna lens, as a cloud with a silver lining, supersurvivors consider rebound to be possible through determination and hard work.

Among Casablanca’s actors and crew members were some with the resilience of supersurvivors. Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), a successful theater actor in his native Berlin, fled with his Jewish wife when his outspoken anti??’Nazi views and her ancestry made them both targets of Hitler’s machine. Veidt insisted on portraying evil Germans once he reached Hollywood, to support the Allied war effort. As Strasser, he was determined to root out “enemies of the Reich” and resistance fighters all over Europe. As Veidt, he was part of the resistance himself, donating earnings from his film work to the British War Relief and reaching back home to help others emigrate.

Hungarian-born S.K. Sakall (Carl), beloved for his comedy on both sides on the Atlantic, also flourished in Hollywood. In Casablanca, he assures other émigrés that they “should do very nicely in America.” In America, in real life, he did nicely himself, feeling at home for the first time, fortunate that his fractured English became a saleable hallmark.

Helmut Dantine (Jan, a Bulgarian refugee) thrived playing handsome Nazis. He’d led the anti-Hitler youth movement in Austria until he was rounded up with others and interned in a concentration camp outside Vienna. Fortunate to be released due to influential parents who then sent him to Hollywood, he “carried on” as best he could. Although he yearned to return to Austrian politics, his enemy status prevented it until much later, when his acting career had already eclipsed any opportunity remaining for him back home.

The majority of Casablanca’s other European-born cast, outside of the stars Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, and Claude Rains, did not reclaim or surpass the success of their former lives once they reached America. Some believed the language barrier kept them from getting credited roles. Some found that Americans did not embrace their German accents. Many who’d been great artists and leaders got by on bit parts, commercials, or television roles.

Still, they’d escaped with their lives when friends and relatives had not. S.K. Sakall’s three sisters died in concentration camps; his wife lost a sister, niece, brother, and brother-in-law. Lotte Palfi, a former European theater celebrity who spoke only one line in Casablanca, had tried to convince her mother to leave Germany. Palfi’s mother perished there, in a nation she believed could never devolve to a criminal state.

Marcel Dalio (the Croupier), a leading French actor of Jewish descent, fled Paris for Lisbon with his wife, Madeleine LeBeau (Yvonne), just ahead of the invading German army; his parents died in a concentration camp. Because of Dalio’s connections in Hollywood, he and LeBeau were given small but memorable parts in Casablanca. LeBeau’s tearful singing of La Marseillaise conveyed everything about loss and longing in a single shot.

Casablanca players who found even modest success gave back to the European Film Fund and war relief. Many lived humbly, working to become established enough in Hollywood to donate money, “for the next people who had to come,” those still facing persecution and death. If not supersurvivors on their own, as a group, they constituted a visible and enduring example of resilience.

Any time La Marseillaise rings out in Rick’s Café, as the refugees drown out the brutal, insolent Nazis, every voice is an authentic one, singing truth to power.


Rebecca Lawton

Rebecca Lawton is an author, fluvial geologist, and former Colorado River guide. She is finishing her second novel, 49 North, researched while she was a 2014-15 Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the University of Alberta.

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