If you wanted to leave Casablanca, that inhospitable meeting place for exiles in Michael Curtiz's film, you could do so if you had a "letter of transit," an official paper that in reality never existed during the war but in the melodrama became a conveyance for such important wares as love, faithfulness and sacrifice. It might be pleasant news to all admirers of the surreal that these useful documents have survived the passing decades in the collection of Dr. Gary Milan in Beverly Hills - along with the "original" passport of Ilsa Lund.
When I saw these paper documents of that imaginary journey in a Berlin exhibition celebrating the centenary of the movies in 1995, these small props appeared much realer to me than the over-restored original of Dooley Wilson's piano, which could also be seen there. These papers which once had allowed their owner to enter a plane escaping the walls of an imaginary asylum, now serve quite well as a link between the realities of both the cinema and its reception.
The idea of transition is an issue most evident in the cinema between the world wars. Although the down to earth approach of director Michael Curtriz does not leave much space to the spiritual, the parallel between the limbo-like situation in this permanent exile, inhabited by numerous Jewish European actors in the minor parts who all had escaped Germany in their real lives and the offensively supernatural environments of a certain sub-genre of Hollywood cinema, are evident. I like to refer to these films as supernatural melodrama. In these pictures, death is not a given fact.
One of the earlier examples is Frank Borzage's immensely successful, Oscar-winning drama Seventh Heaven from 1927. Although the spectator is given every possible evidence that the hero of the film, played by George Farrell, has died in the war, Borzage simply ignores the factual world and lets him keep the appointment with his lover Janet Gaynor. Stunned by this unheard of ignorance, we see the dead man climbing the seven stairs to the couple's Parisian flat. Can love overcome reality? For Borzage it could. It is the sympathy towards the dead that helps to overcome the tragic reality of the war. Michael Powell and Emeric Presburger go a similar way in their World War II melodrama A Canterbury Tale. The borders between the world of the dead and the living are invisible in this romantic and quiet war film, unique in its tone but quite common concerning the plot. There are dozens of films which assure the spectator that life is not all that matters - even if a film called A Matter of Life and Death - speaking of Powell/Pressburger's supernatural romantic comedy. Borzage again was the first, along with Chaplin's Great Dictator, to focus on the sad reality of Germany in The Mortal Storm. But again: the rite de passage, the transition from one world to a better one, only worked when one was willing to pass the borderline between life and death.
The world of the dead was close to the living during the war years even in comedies like the Topper-films starring Cary Grant, or René Clair's American films like I Married a Witch and The Ghost Goes West. The living tried their best to keep the company of those long gone - as in Dieterle's Portrait of Jenny, Hathaway's Peter Ibbetson or Mankiewicz's post war romance The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Sadly, it did not take long for the ghosts to disappear from the screen for a while; noir existentialism left little room for their free-floating spirits. However, postmodernism saw a revival of those living dead. It is no coincidence that Wim Wenders placed Casablanca's Curt Bois among his angels in Wings of Desire. The whole idea of Rick's Café as a waiting room for transit travellers was revived by Man in Black, and around the millennium one could "see dead people" everywhere.
Is it too much of an interpretation to place Peter Lorre's treasured letters of transit within this context of transition in Hollywood's once favoured spiritual melodramas? Casablanca might be famous for its understatement. I think there is much evidence to show that Rick's Café is located at the borderline between the real and a dream world, the latter a place of hope for the living and an asylum for the dead. Or just the silent majority of drunks who just cannot make up their minds. And it is quite a place to make a living.
How unhappy E. T. was at his temporary stopover. Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black even gave us the world as a transfer station, where you wait, as you once had to in Casablanca, for your letters of transit.
to the top of the page