"I stick my neck out for nobody." What Casablanca can teach us about the refugee crisis

Casablanca marks its 75th anniversary this year, in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since its 1942 premiere. Film historian Noah Isenberg says the film is even more relevant today as a commentary on the experiences of refugees during war.
Actors Humphrey Bogart and Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman in a scene from the 1943 classic film "Casablanca." ((AP Photo))

Far-right French politician, Marine Le Pen, stepped up her anti-immigrant rhetoric this week, pledging to suspend all immigration if she wins in Sunday's election.

Le Pen's comments echo a wave of isolationist and populist sentiments that have swept recent political campaigns in Europe and the United States — and they come in the midst of a refugee crisis that's unprecedented since World War Two.

Supporters of far-right politician Marine Le Pen wave flags in Marseille, southern France. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

World leaders have yet to develop an effective, coordinated response to the crisis. But the refugees continue to arrive. UNHCR estimates that more than 30,000 refugees have already attempted the Mediterranean crossing into Europe this year alone.

Author and film historian Noah Isenberg.
According to film historian
Noah Isenberg, the classic 1942 Hollywood film Casablanca could teach us all a thing or two about how to respond.

Isenberg is the author of We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie.

He says the film, which marks its 75th anniversary this year, is as much a refugee saga as it is a Hollywood romance. He believes it's equally relevant today as a commentary on the experiences of refugees during war.

The refugee trail

According to Isenberg, the film was inspired by playwright Murray Burnett's own experience helping to smuggle his relatives' possessions out of Nazi-annexed Austria.

"He saw what came to be known as the 'refugee trail', mainly Jews and politically persecuted Austrians who were waiting on visas, affidavits, permission to leave ... Nazi-annexed Austria and make their way to Lisbon, generally, and then [from Lisbon] to the Americas."

That migration route, and the Moroccan port city of Casablanca, became the backdrop for Everybody Comes to Rick's, the stage play that inspired the film.

Actors Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from the classic 1942 film "Casablanca." ((AP Photo/Warner Bros., File))

That three-act stage play arrived in Burbank, California, just one day after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

"From the very, very beginning, this was a production that was made against the backdrop of America's … entry into the Second World War," says Isenberg.

Noah Isenberg is the author of "We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie."
Many of the cast and crew members behind 
Casablanca were themselves refugees, including Madeleine Lebeau, who plays Rick's jilted lover Yvonne in the film.

"Percolating beneath the surface is this … story of those stranded refugees languishing in Europe — and in fact, that's the experience that I think resonates so powerfully with the refugee situation today."

'The only studio with any guts'

For Isenberg, one of the film's most resonant scenes takes place in Rick's Café Américain.

In the scene, Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine helps Bulgarian refugee Jan Brandel a tip at the roulette table, helping him secure the money he needs to purchase exit visas for his family.

"In many ways, Rick Blaine really enacts the political arc of American foreign policy, that move from isolationism — you know, 'I stick my neck out for nobody' — to committed and principled engagement."

Actor Humphrey Bogart is shown in a scene from "Casablanca." ((AP Photo/Warner Brothers))

Even before Casablanca's premiere in 1942, the Warner Brothers studio was well-known for its efforts to bring the rise of fascism in Europe to the attention of the American public.

In 1939, the studio produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy, one of the first openly anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood.

"They were accused by the very vocal nativist, isolationist faction in Congress of being premature 'anti-fascists'," Isenberg says.

"I think it was in 1938 … that Groucho Marx made the claim that Warner Bros. is 'the only studio with any guts' in Hollywood."

Isenberg sees clear echoes of the isolationism that prevailed in the late 1930s and early 1940s in the current U.S. political climate.

"We're dealing with a moment in time that I think really calls to mind this period when we were being called upon … by a film like Casablanca to think about what it is that we can do to help the cause."