What makes Hollywood so much better than anything else in the world is not only the quality of certain directors, but also the vitality and, in a certain sense, the excellence of a tradition … The American cinema has been able, in an extraordinarily competent way, to show American society just as it wanted to see itself; but not at all passively, as a simple act of satisfaction and escape, but dynamically, i.e. by participating with the means at its disposal in the building of that society. What is so admirable in the American cinema is that it cannot help being spontaneous.
Andre Bazin, “La politique des auteurs,” 1957
Casablanca always brings to mind the phrase “the genius of the system,” coined by the great French film critic Andre Bazin. Bazin used the phrase as a corrective to his younger colleagues at the landmark film journal Cahiers du cinema, who championed what they called auteur filmmakers—directors who, like the “geniuses” of other art forms, crafted unique and distinctive works of serious art. While allowing that there were great artists of the cinema, Bazin argued that great art also arises from the interplay of forces in its historical and sociological context. The upshot was that the Hollywood system itself, and not just great directors, can produce great films.
No film illustrates Bazin’s argument better than Casablanca. Many great films were produced within the Hollywood system; Casablanca is one of the few great films produced by that system. Produced almost on a whim, written by committee, staffed by studio journeymen, filmed entirely in-studio, rushed into release, and thriving by virtue of its studios’ contracted character actors, Casablanca is the product of a highly functioning machine, not a genius artist. When the film encountered script problems—in that it basically finished production without a final script—the homeostatic Warner Brothers machine was able to adjust and compensate. In doing so, they pulled off the kind of miracle the same studio just abysmally failed to pull off with Justice League.
It’s always been incredible to me that, of all Hollywood films, Casablanca shot without a finalized script. Shooting a film without a script would become, years after Casablanca, a way for art filmmakers to retain the magical contingency of cinema—to capture unique, rather than manufactured, moments, and to let a story arise from them. But Casablanca seems so gloriously manufactured, from its innumerable, classic one-liners [“It would take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca, and the Germans have outlawed miracles”] to its use of repetition to familiarize us with the world and feel a part of its rhythms [“Everybody goes to Rick’s,” “Round up the usual suspects,” “Vultures everywhere”].
The structure and style of the film, too, seem too polished to have been accomplished during a breakdown of the usual studio operating procedure. The rapid-fire opening sequence that deftly balances a sense of chaos with exposition; the structuring trials of Rick’s conscience as he decides between the ethos of the corrupt Renault and the idealistic Laszlo; the swift low-angle dolly shots that pick up on characters’ paths through Rick’s club and lead us to the next plot point; the affecting track-ins to Rick and Ilsa as they painfully remember “Paris”; the use of lighting to convey emotional tone; the breathtaking, stylized close-ups of Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa. These aren’t the result of a brilliant artist’s divine inspiration, but of a system that knew well enough how to tell a story that it could do so almost on the fly.
Casablanca is also an example of precisely what Bazin pegs as making the American cinema great: it shows “American society just as it wanted to see itself.” The film crafts a seductive dream-image of the US as an inclusive melting pot, the safe haven for Europe’s persecuted masses. Rick’s Cafe Americain is a clear stand-in for this idealized United States in any number of ways: an island of tolerance and diversity amidst the moral corruption of Europe; a rough capitalist den where anyone can get ahead; an isolated place dominated by a cynicism that merely masks a heart of gold. It is a place where friendship—a hierarchical friendship, but a friendship nonetheless—between a black man and a white man can exist, a place where the owner can disdainfully proclaim, “I don’t buy or sell human beings.”
As we know, in 1942 all of this amounts to wishful, if not intentionally misleading, thinking. While refugees had been streaming out of central Europe for four years at that point, refugee quotas and homegrown anti-Semitism had kept many of them out of the United States. Few places in the actual United States would have stomached true mutual respect between a black man and a white man. Just a few decades before, the United States had indeed been one of the last “Western” nations that bought and sold human beings.
Any more evidence we need that Casablanca a rather hallucinatory allegory of the United States’s role in the world is delivered when Renault warns the German Captain Strasser that he “mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.” Such a blundering into Berlin in 1918, of course, never happened at all, from any side: WWI ended in the trenches near the French-Belgium border—and in the East, the Germans had won!
The nationalism inherent in a film like Casablanca is also a result of the web of forces that had created the Hollywood system: as Bazin points out, the function of this system was not only to represent, but also to help produce an ideal America. The “spontaneity” that Bazin detects in the American cinema is this energy that produces the new from a partial and imagined past, something in the system that retains the contingency of cinema even within a regulated system. Casablanca is a work of genius—but one who happens to not also be a person.