The extraordinary behind-the-scenes friendship in Casablanca
Casablanca. At the time it was made, none of the actors knew that it was destined to be a classic, turning up in list after list of the greatest movies of all time. They didn't know that lines like "Here's looking at you, kid," "We'll always have Paris," and "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship" were going to enter popular culture. They couldn't predict that Casablanca's plot continues to be inspiring, with the studiously disinterested Rick Blaine and the corrupt Captain Renault shaking off their apathy when they realized the size of the Nazi threat and saw that people would willingly sacrifice themselves to fight back. Behind the scenes, though, another powerful story was playing out.
Because Casablanca was filmed in 1942, years before the Holocaust was common knowledge outside captive Europe, the American actors understood that the Nazis were horrible people but were unaware of the true scope of the Nazis' evil. Thus, nobody realized the terrible irony of Victor Lazlo's comment to Major Strasser that Nazis couldn't kill that fast.
Still, many of the actors in the movie were refugees from Europe. Peter Lorre and S.Z. Sakall were both Jews who fled the Nazis. Marcel Dalio (born Israel Moshe Blauschild), who played the dealer who handed Renault his winnings, escaped from Paris with his non-Jewish wife, Madeleine Lebeau (who played Rick's jilted lover). The tears during the singing of the Marseillaise were real. After the war, Dalio learned that his entire family had perished in the camps.
Paul Henreid and Conrad Veidt. Public domain images.
One of the most moving stories of the refugees working on the movie is that of Paul Henreid and Conrad Veidt. Conrad Veidt was a big star in Germany when the Nazis came to power. He was also married to Ilona Prager, a Jewish woman. Conrad hated the Nazis so much that, when Joseph Goebbels took over the film industry, Conrad claimed to be Jewish, both as an act of solidarity with his beloved wife and as a protest towards the Nazis. Refusing to renounce his wife or collaborate in any way with antisemitism made Conrad unemployable in Germany, so he left for Britain.
Here's where it gets really interesting. Paul Henreid was an anti-Nazi Austrian who escaped to Britain, where he was designated an enemy alien. Paul would have been interned, or even deported, but Conrad vouched for him. Paul safely remained in Britain.
Eventually, both Paul and Conrad ended up in Hollywood as actors in Casablanca. Paul played Victor Lazlo, the noble resistance fighter. Conrad was his mortal enemy, a vicious and ultimately incompetent Nazi officer. It was the sort of role Conrad enjoyed because he wanted to make Nazis look both dangerous and stupid. And it must have been an added pleasure to play Major Strasser opposite Paul, the man he had saved from the real Nazis.
Pandra Selivanov is the author of The Pardon, a story of forgiveness based on the thief on the cross in the Bible.