Everybody knows Casablanca is a great work of art (and a great work of art generated by a Cornellian, at that). Everybody knows, too, that Casablanca was embedded in a particular historical moment, too – it served to vindicate the recent, necessarily wrenching American volte-face1 on the subject of Europeans and their war.

History also bled through to the screen in the movie’s best scene – the singing of the “Marseillaise”:

Casablanca was shot in 1941 during the German occupation of France, at a point where many questioned whether or not the United States would ever step in to help, [UPDATED: Not true. Though the play was written before US involvement.] when nobody knew how the whole thing was going to turn out.

And the scene included actors who, in real life, had a lot at stake. To shoot Casablanca as a believable port town, producers brought together one of the most ethnically diverse casts in film history, and a lot of these extras turned out to be Europeans who had fled to America to escape the Nazis — that is, they were basically real-life refugees. They had left homes, friends and families behind, and at this point really didn’t know if things could ever return to normal. Which makes us wonder if the director didn’t stage the whole war just to get that scene.

It’s the scene that makes Laszlo believable as a resistance leader: in front of the singing Nazis he orders the band, “Play the ‘Marseillaise’. Play it.” It’s the scene that justifies Rick’s decision at the end, which is based in part on self-knowledge – when Rick snaps “Play it,” it’s so he can wallow in nostalgia; when Laszlo snaps “Play it,” it’s so people will kill Nazis.

Casablanca: one of those rare things that’s really as good as everyone says it is.

1If I can’t use French in a post about Casablanca when can I?