Casablanca - Cultural Context
Some aspects of cultural context
War/Politics: The main backdrop to this story is that of war and politics. There are many war stories but Curtiz chooses the unusual setting of Casablanca – it’s a cultural and political melting pot that provides a richly textured cultural context in which the characters can interact. Much of this is explained in the opening scene (see section on Key Scenes below). Several cultures co-exist or are represented – the locals in Casablanca (the traders especially), the Americans, like Rick (America seen as the desirable culture to escape to); the Vichy French (those like Renault co-operating with the Germans), the resistance fighters (e.g. the man shot in the streets at the start and the Norwegian man who meets Laszlo in Rick’s); the Germans, not quite in full control here but very powerful; the Italian soldier ignored at the airport when the Nazis arrive; other Europeans (like Laszlo, Ilsa, the pickpocket, the “usual suspects”). We see all the usual intrigues of war – shooting in the street, escaped prisoners, people on the run, murder, bribery, fraternising with the enemy (Yvonne), narrow escapes, black market, secret meetings (Laszlo and the waiter from Rick’s go to one). There’s also the cultural context of Paris in the flashback – focus on the invasion/occupation. Laszlo’s political work is seen as important by all – even the German’s, who fear his influence. This is demonstrated in Rick’s with the battle of the songs. Some of the war context is conveyed by stock footage of refugees and the Germany army heading for Paris.
Power: Who has power in this cultural context? The Germans have military power and wield it. The French officials have some power (e.g. arresting people, like Ugarte, shutting Rick’s) but it seems dependent on German good will; Renault uses his power for personal gain. Laszlo has the power of conviction confidence and idealism, seen when he leads the singing of the French anthem in Rick’s. Those who have permits, exit visas have power as these are much sought after. Ugarte wields this power but it leads to his downfall. Money is power, people can buy their way out of trouble – e.g. the Bulgarian couple. Those with guns have the power of force. However it doesn’t work for Ilsa as she’s not prepared to shoot Rick, it does for Rick with Renault, because Renault believes Rick would shoot (and he’s not that committed to any cause at this stage) and for Rick against Strasser as he is a better shot.
Gender: Ilsa is seen as a fairly strong woman, e.g. standing up to Major Strasser, refusing to go on without Laszlo when they can only get one permit from Ferrari. Yet she can be passive - when it comes to deciding whether to be with Rick or Laszlo she wants Rick to make up her mind for her, making her seem weak. Yvonne is also weak – inclined to drink too much, not too choosy who she goes with (e.g the German soldier), yet she recovers some dignity singing the anthem. For the most part it’s the men that are seen to have the power – this may just be the way it was then, rather than the director Michael Curtiz making any particular point.
Social issues: We see a lot of the characters smoking, typical of the time - in reality and in film. The clothes are also typical of their time – the hats, trench coats, uniforms etc
Music: Music is prominent in the film, adding to the rich texture e.g. the jazz at Rick’s Café Américain; the song As Time Goes By used in various ways , eg creating a romantic mood in Paris, suggesting lost love in Casablanca; the French anthem reminding us of the political background.
Values: What are the values in this cultural context? Depending on who’s involved the values include patriotism and loyalty (Laszlo), money, self-interest (Renault, Ugarte), generosity (Rick with the Bulgarian couple), democracy and freedom (so many trying to get to the USA).
Rituals: The way people have to grease each other’s...
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