A classic Renault belonging to our friend Gerdt Sundstrom.
The translation of the bumper sticker is "Old but vital."
My college friend, Anne Lefkovitz, recently sent me a copy of We’ll Always Have Casablanca, Noah Isenberg’s book about the making of the movie Casablanca and its enduring popularity. When we were students at the University Michigan in the mid-1960s, we regularly went to the makeshift theater in the Architecture building where we were introduced to classic films. Movies with Humphrey Bogart were a particular favorite, perhaps because as Isenberg writes Bogie captured what we were feeling—suspicious of authority but ultimately idealistic and wanting to take a stand.
It is pleasant to indulge in nostalgia as we grow older, but nostalgia can be a trap that leaves us looking backward. We’ll Always Have Casablanca evokes nostalgia, but also something relevant and important for today. Most people remember Casablanca just as a love story. It is also about refugees seeking to escape the terrible events sweeping Europe at that time. As Isenberg points out, European refugees had a major part in making the film. The director of Casablanca, Michael Curtiz and almost all of the 75 actors in the film had fled the Nazis in Europe, including 11 of the 14 actors who received a screen credit. Just like the characters in the movie, many of the actors in the film escaped just ahead of roundups that would have landed them in concentration camps, and some even had experiences of waiting for papers to be able to travel on to the United States.
The door was open for these refugees. Their presence in the US did not generate hysterical fears that we might be letting in saboteurs or terrorists, though after the war there were demagogues braying about communists in our midst. And while some refugees were let in, too many others were turned away. The refusal by the Roosevelt administration to admit more Jews trying to flee Europe was a terrible act, as was the internment of Japanese Americans.
The recent use of chemical weapons in Syria brought home to many Americans the horrific conditions in the Middle East that have led to the current refugee crisis. Rather than opening the door to more refugees, we bombed an airfield instead. Sweden, a country of 10 million people, took in 270,000 refugees in the past 3 years, but we have frozen immigration from countries where people face the gravest danger. Our current government’s xenophobia represents one of the foulest strains in American culture.
So watch Casablanca, not for the nostalgia or for the romance that, as Bogie says, doesn’t matter a hill of beans. Rather, watch Casablanca because it reminds us of our best qualities, the willingness to stand up for what is right and the generosity to take in refugees and make them part of our country.