Even more than the famous “Here’s Looking at You” scene, the “La Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca is the one scene in the film that evokes more emotion from audiences than any other, as it propels the narration in a new direction and reveals more about the characters than we previously knew.
It begins with Germans wrapped around a piano inside Rick’s Cafe Americain singing their patriotic anthem, “Die Wacht am Rhein”. Their singing draws the attention of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a member of the resistance, who has just been denied help to escape by Rick (Humphrey Bogart), the club’s owner. Laszlo rushes to the house musicians and instructs them to play the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”. He’s watched by his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who’s torn between the love of her husband and Rick, with whom she had an affair in Paris. At first she appears conflicted, but as she studies Laszlo, a look of admiration comes upon her face, as if she already knows “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans” and the fight against fascism is what’s important.
Even Rick, who only moments before refused to help and claimed his politics were neutral when questioned by the Germans, supports Laszlo as he nods in approval to the musicians that it’s okay to play the song. This is the first sign that Rick’s hard shell that formed after Ilsa abandoned him in Paris is starting to crack, leading him to redemption and “joining the fight” later in the film.
Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), a jilted lover of Rick’s, appears in an earlier scene with German soldiers. Her motive is to make Rick jealous, though she angers her fellow refugees in the process. Once the song begins, however, and everyone sings along, she is moved to tears. Upon the song’s completion, she passionately shouts, “Viva La France!” as a rebuke of the German presence in her native country. At this point, there are no more pleasantries amongst the two nationalities. The anthem has reminded the French of home and why they left.
It’s this excitement that causes Major Strasser of the Third Reich (Conrad Veidt) to insist Rick’s gets shut down. The threat of Laszlo’s influence is too great. From here on in, the film becomes much darker. Sam’s no longer singing and no one’s laughing at the bar. A curfew is instituted, and the escapism Rick’s provides comes to a halt. Inspired by Lazlo and his bold stance against the Nazis, refugees begin to organize, as political intrigue and love triangle complexities drive the picture home.
The ending scene to Casablanca will always be its most famous, as the audience waits to see if Ilsa ends up with Rick or Laszlo. Still, it’s on the “La Marseillaise” scene the entire narration pivots. In it, Rick starts to understand why Laszlo fights, Ilsa realizes why she loves her husband, and the refugees begin to feel emboldened. It’s an emotionally packed scene, one that is almost impossible to watch without getting choked up as the patrons of Rick’s take their first stand against the Germans, while Rick and Ilsa both begin to figure out what they’re looking for: the fight against fascism.
–Kevin Egan for Classic Movie Hub
Kevin Egan is a songwriter and musician who’s been performing in New York City for over thirty years. His past bands are 1.6 Band, the Last Crime and the New York hardcore band Beyond, which is also the subject of his documentary film What Awaits Us, a Beyond Story.