Sublime Superficiality:
An Interview with Ole Michelsen on Casablanca

Susanne Stranddorf and Line Aamand Hansen

Ole Michelsen, born in 1940, is Denmark's best known film reviewer. Since 1985, his TV program "Bogart" has played an important role in shaping Danish film culture, and keeping it open to outside influences. He has written three books: Film skal ses i biografen (1997), Den dansende demon (1999) and Natten har tusind øjne (2002). [RR]

What led you to choose Bogart as the icon and moniker for your TV program?

Well, the program originally started as a radio show. Back then I thought about what I was going to call it, and decided that Filmkrønike or Filmmagasinet were too boring. Two other possibilities came to mind and I was either going to call it Dr. Caligaris Kabinet or Bogart. And fortunately I chose Bogart - it was a shorter title and young people today don't know what Dr. Caligaris Kabinet is. That title would have been much too subtle. I chose Bogart because to me he is a genuine film symbol. You automatically associate him with American action movies and one of the greatest Hollywood periods, and everybody knows Bogart. To me he is the most authentic representative of all of that. After I came up with the title we found out that it is actually a very beautiful title, because it looks good in writing and if you split the words with a hyphen you get 'Bog-art' (Book-art) which is also quite interesting. There was a gift in the title, and it did catch people's attention, which of course you never know in advance.

So it is not so much Bogart as a person or as an actor, but the symbol or myth he has come to represent for American film?

Yes, in that connection I don't really care about him. It was just intended to signal film on an international level. I could have called it Ib Schønberg but that would have been too local... And since the market is very much dominated by American film, it seemed natural to pick an American actor, and also I like Bogart but I don't feel a particular connection with him. Actually I don't know if I really like him that much.

Well, this should be interesting then, but how about Casablanca. You also use that in your program - the title song and so on, do you have a special relationship with that movie?

Yes, well, obviously I regard it as a very important American mainstream movie, and it goes well with the idea of having a very broad audience. This is not an exclusive, closed academic film program - but a program that is supposed to address a broad audience and reflect the whole cinematic repertoire in Denmark. And Casablanca is probably one of the most outstanding movies from that period, and almost everybody knows it. Although today they don't... Times have changed. I have done this program for almost twenty years now, two on the radio and seventeen on television, and I am sure that the new generation hardly knows who Bogart is. But at that time everybody knew Casablanca and then it was obvious to pick As Time Goes By as a title song. It is a brilliant song, right? It invokes magic and nostalgia. But in the new form of the show, we only have a tiny bit of the song left in our jingle. We are actually moving away from Bogart more and more, as you will see. I don't use the hat anymore or have it with me in the studio. We are trying to renew the concept.

Does that also have something to do with the possibility that younger generations can't relate to Bogart?

No, not at all. I haven't even thought about that. It is simply because we want to try new things, and because I felt it was time to do something new.

There are four things that have often have been credited as the reasons for Casablanca's enduring success: Humphrey Bogart as an icon, the emotional melodrama, the many possibilities for reading meaning into the film, and not least its camp style or aesthetics. Which of these, if any, do you think are responsible for the film's success?

What I like about both Casablanca and the way it was released, is that it was presented without any pretensions. Back when they made it, it was a standard product from the "Warner" company and none of the people who made it, not even Michael Curtiz, imagined that it was going to become a cult phenomenon or even an incredibly popular film. It was simply an example of "This is what we know how to do: we know how to write dialogues like this, we know how to construct narratives like these, and we know how to implement contemporary themes." This is something that American film has always been able to do. In Casablanca it all comes together beautifully, and what makes it sublime is probably the unresolved love story. If you ask people, it is the story between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart that carries the film, that is its center. Though the film's introduction is a study in one of American film's strengths, that is telling a story clearly but briefly, the film manages to leave this story of politics and refugees in time, which is another American specialty, and instead focuses on telling us a tragic love story. And this is exactly what Hollywood has always been able to do. Here they do it as a matter of routine, but with the sublime love story that elevates the film into the realm of the unique.

In what way do you see Casablanca as a routine product? After all, they do use several of their best talents.

They made it exactly the same way as they always did. It was like a factory running with extremely talented personnel, who made many, many films, and who had no other ambitions than to produce the usual craftsmanship. There were no initial intentions or expectations of making something special or unique. If you compare it to contemporary productions, all productions are now launched as if the film were a miracle of wonders. For Casablanca they did what they always did, and they pulled in the great actors because they had them on contract. That was the background for the film. How it would be received, no one could predict, and in this case the reception was amazing. Of course the positive reception is connected to the fact that it was released in 1942, and coincided with the increased American involvement with the war, but I really believe the primary appeal of the film is its love story.

How do you feel that the love story of Casablanca differs from other love stories? Why is Casablanca different, more successful, than any other love story?

It must be because it is a tragic love story. It is untraditional in the sense that it has Rick walking away at the end and because no one dies as they often do in tragic love stories. The film probably would not have been as unique if Rick had been shot, as a more traditional denouement would have had it. I think that is what makes it special. That and the exceedingly cool and simultaneously very sensual interaction between the two main characters.

You mentioned previously the routine characteristic of the film. Casablanca did win an Academy Award for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay in 1943, and has been ranked as the second best film of the century by The American Film Institute. Yet many critics still question its artistic value, partly because they see it as inherently stereotypical. As a critic, where do you stand on this issue? Is it possible for a film to be so full of clichés and still constitute a work of art at the same time?

I think there is a clash between the European and the American mindset here because I think it is the Europeans who have called it a collection of clichés. This is typical for the European intellectual mindset. Great films often consist of clichés, and film is a popular art form that uses all forms of banalities and sentimentalities. The Americans do this without shame or restrictions. I think this is one of the great merits of American film; it has always dared to do what the Europeans have avoided, because they did not think it was artistic enough. I don't care about the clichés, I think it is fine if there are a lot of clichés. And I also dare people to bring forth arguments about the clichés, because you would be hard put to find a screenplay with more zest, and a more precise presentation of attitudes and points of view, than in this film. Is that banal or clichéd? I don't think so. Of course, it is not innovative stylistically because it resembles all other productions of its time. But it is just a little bit tighter than all the other films. It does not wallow in more sentimentality than is necessary. All the usual elements are there, as they almost always are in that type of film from that period. But I don't think it has ever bothered the Americans. You can say that it is not innovative, that it still uses the same film language, but in a way that is just a little bit tighter.

But do you think it is clichéd?

No, and I think that is irrelevant. If the film works, and the story is touching and is full of zest and gusto, then it is an intellectual exercise to begin debating whether it is clichéd or not. I don't agree with that, I do not support the allegations that it is clichéd. Of course it is not a film like those of Orson Welles, intended for an intellectual audience. It makes its points so clearly that anyone can understand them, and I think that is of great value in a film. That is enough for me to say that this is an amazing film, and I am not going to object to it for being clichéd.

Over the past 60 years many different interpretations have been read into the film. It has for example been interpreted as a political allegory concerning America's isolationistic foreign policy, and during the 1960s as concerned with homoeroticism. As a cultural mediator, what do you think Casablanca has to offer a contemporary audience, thematically or otherwise? Does the film even have anything to offer a contemporary audience?

It's hard to say, you would have to ask the younger audience what they think of it, and in this regard I am not sure the film hold up so well. I have for example sensed that Bogart as an emblematic icon is for people over 50. Younger people don't identify with him, they can't relate to him anymore. The posters that you used to find of him everywhere 20 years ago are gone. He is not on the walls of young people's rooms anymore. In that sense he is history. He had his time, and he has been used a lot, especially by the generation who had any connection to the Second World War. He was very important to them, and to the American films of his time, and so was Casablanca. But I think we are going to see the end of Casablanca now. It is going to be for people with a special interest in film history. I don't think a re-release would be a success. It is a thing of the past, though still very beautiful.

Don't you think its mythical importance will last, that it will continue to exist as a part or our collective awareness?

It does signal nostalgia, and it is a part of our collective awareness, obviously, but I don't think it will have any future importance. I think if you ask younger fans of for example Star Wars, they consider Casablanca a slightly ridiculous matter, strictly for old-timers. You have to be considerably sophisticated to accept and love what this film represents. That means that the opposite development has occurred: From having captured all hearts, and all nationalities, it has today become a bit old-fashioned, in that its themes and perhaps also its love story is somewhat antiquated. I don't think it plays a big part in young people's lives today, neither in Europe nor in America. But you're right, it is definitely a part of our collective awareness. Yet, you have to be fairly tuned into the topic of film history to cultivate the film. There is a big difference between recognizing a line from the film and buying the DVD.

How much significance do you attribute to the icon Humphrey Bogart as a reason for the film's cult status?

A lot. No doubt about it. You could hardly imagine any other actor in that part. He put into it all that he had, of mystery, of masculinity as it was defined back then, and also of ambiguity. Before this he had played many villains, and was often shot in films. He often played the choleric loner, the private eye, or the gold digger, of very questionable morality. And so he is in this film. His character is, with regard to morality, an asshole. He is an opportunist, a fugitive, he has been a gunrunner in Ethiopia for the wrong side, he is a petty criminal with a shady background. He is arrogant, rude and cynical. That setup in the screenplay is brilliant, gradually letting us in behind his shell, but it is never resolved - we know there is a heart beating behind his tough exterior, but he never really shows it, not even in the dubious finale. I have thought a lot about the ending, and I think particularly a lot of women have cried over the ending "Why don't those two lovely people end up together?" I'm not at all sure it would have suited Rick to get Ilsa. That's what you notice in the finale: He looks very pleased and satisfied when he walks away with Renault and says "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." You could also read something homoerotic into that, but I think that is reading too much into it. That's what I like about him; he remains the same shady character. That is interesting. It wouldn't have been interesting if he had become a dedicated freedom fighter, or a character of high morals. Then he probably would have been more of a cliché. He is the same guy, going out to do new business, and I could imagine that later on he would do business in narcotics. He is happy and not at all bothered by the tragic parting with Ilsa. He doesn't break down crying. I would have done that or gotten drunk or something. He doesn't do that, it is not part of his world.

So you experience Rick as a static character, you don't think he undergoes a transformation? Doesn't he take a political stand, and join the resistance?

I'm not sure he does that. Why would he? What indications are there that he does that? I think you idealize his character if you think that. He says "Where I go you can't follow." That is probably because he intends to continue his somewhat criminal life. That is what I like about it. I don't think he turns out to be a great freedom fighter. It's the two who leave who are freedom fighters, they continue, but Ricků He is to me the same character. So I wouldn't say that his character evolves very much. What happens to him is that he is attacked by vulnerability, which doesn't otherwise characterize him. He loses control. That was a typical theme for American films, and still is. If there is anything the Americans are afraid of, it's losing control. They are terrified of it, and so is Rick. The only thing that can make him lose control is Ilsa. I sense that he fears that. But he opens himself up because she has meant a lot to him, and still does. It is like ripping open an old wound. Yet, Rick is also the type who helps people if it isn't too dangerous, and if it isn't bad for business. I think that is the quality that moves the film onto another level. If he had gone out to join the resistance, then the film would have lost something in my eyes, because I don't believe in that development.[*]

The appeal of the Bogart icon also seems to be inextricably connected to the myth of his masculinity. As for example Woody Allen's Play it Again, Sam shows, Bogart is often considered the ultimate Male. What significance do you think this has for Casablanca's audience today? Is he still the ultimate Male, or is he rather ludicrous?

Yes, I would say that he has become ludicrous, though he wasn't so in his own time. They had that macho, trouble-shooter type as an ideal. Not only in America, but also in Europe. His viewpoints regarding women, his treatment of women, and his character in a broader sense is mostly comical today. If you look at a film like The African Queen, he reveals himself as a decrepit alcoholic, looking twenty years older than he is. Physically he is a weakling, he wouldn't pass muster today in American film. Perhaps he could have been in a Woody Allen film in his older days, with a lot of self-irony. In that way he doesn't compare to the characters Bruce Willis portrays today. The concept of masculinity has probably evolved greatly. For me that has much more to do with a recognition of your own feminine side. That was not exactly something that characterized Bogart or his image, and it was something that he denied systematically, both privately and in his films. He portrays some rather primitive characters, where love is present, but only on his terms. And if it is too difficult he flees it, just as he does in this film. He is slightly ridiculous as a symbol of masculinity, in that he has no lasting power. We have to reinterpret that masculine image as a part of the American frame of mind at that time. I don't think it can be of use to anyone today, except as a laughing matter.

Don't you think there is some sort of love or respect for him and his image, even if he is slightly ridiculous?

Yes, but I think that is within the discourse of film in general. Woody Allen works within that discourse. In Play it Again, Sam he examines the masculine image within the genre and tradition of film, and in that context it is clearly a symbol of undefeated masculinity and uncompromising strength. I see his masculine image in a broader context, not only as a film concept, and in that context it doesn't hold up. As a film person you can look fondly upon it, and within the frame of the film this is the perfect definition of a masculine actor. But if you go beyond that frame, and consider what men today might see in his masculine image, then we move into the slightly grotesque or ridiculous. Because we have left behind those ideals, he has lost his impact. I can hardly remember any films where you see him interacting with children. We never see that side of him. He is a childless creature, a creature of no procreation. And thus also in a weird sense not erotic, despite what you'd think. But exactly by being this closed-off character, limited and self-contained, he isn't generous. You cannot imagine him procreating. What would his heirs be like? I've met Bogart's son, and he didn't feel too good about his father. He lacks that side of his character; the family man.

Another aspect of the film which it is safe to say is outdated is its representation of women. Think of Ilsa leaning back and saying "You'll have to do the thinking for both of us." Where does that leave the feminine audience? Why do you think Casablanca has any appeal to a female audience?

Because most women don't get the man they want, and neither does Ingrid Bergman. And because of the great pain in the film. We have two people who were made for each other but who cannot have each other, and the fact that he makes a sacrifice when he gives up his chance for happiness with Ilsa. That is all part of the tragic aspect. I think that has an appeal, it does for me, and I think it has a lot of appeal for women. It can be a very beautiful, ethical idea, saying that the cause is more important and that she will do more good where she is. Or you can believe it really does suit Rick just fine to let her go. There is that possibility. I sense that it also has to do with the wonderful woman Ingrid Bergman portrays. She might at first seem a little quiet, yet she plays an important role. She stands behind a man who needs her very much, and she is a very moral person. Yet, at the same time she is divided between that morality and her affection for Laszlo, and her dangerous love for the psychopath. Most women would probably follow the reasonable freedom fighter into safety and not live a life-threatening life in North Africa with a petty criminal. But they might dream about it. And that is exactly what films can provide. She is also very beautiful, and carries herself with dignity. She is the nexus of power in the film. It is only with respect to her that Rick shows any vulnerability and humanity. There is a strength in her not to be underestimated. She doesn't just follow along. She comes to meet Rick at night, she does things, she transgresses some borders, and she shows her feelings. She might be the most honest of the film's characters. She is the fuel that drives the narrative forward, and she is worth it. She acts wonderfully, although she did have problems with Bogart, who was a rather cold person to be with. I think the female aspect of the film is very strong, although she is almost the only woman in the film. Otherwise, the film portrays a very masculine universe.

Are there any other aspects of the film you find outdated?

No, strangely enough, and I think that is due to the quality of the screenplay, and the actors' abilities. The dialogue is delivered perfectly. The scenes are of the right duration, you couldn't tighten it up anywhere. There are no embarrassing sequences, with bad acting or anything else that could be improved. It has been resolved simply, and it is wonderful evidence that black and white films age better than color film. If it had been produced in color it probably wouldn't have aged as well, but as black and white, it has retained a graphic beauty. As a film, I cannot find any mistakes in it. It is brilliant musically as well. The themes in it are wonderful. And the acting is the wonderful, stylized, Verfremdung-like method of acting. Peter Lorre has a few breakdowns, but otherwise, the film is carried by this sort of superficial acting. None of them overact, they just deliver their lines with nonchalance and a sense that "This is just something we do everyday." There is no sense that this is the culmination of either of their careers. But they act as an ensemble. And there is a visual density that makes us ignore the fact that it is actually a fairly unrealistic film. It is a far cry from social realism. It is an example of the typical Hollywood superficiality, that when delivered like this, is a great quality. That might be one of the reasons the film lasts as well as it does.


August 14, 2002

* The editor of this journal feels compelled to point out that he knows of no line of dialogue nor of any hint in Casablanca that might be cited in support of Ole Michelsen's characterization of Rick in these last two replies [RR].

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