Casablanca in Morocco - Morocco in Casablanca

Bodil Marie Thomsen

The intro to Casablanca shows a revolving globe and focuses on Northern Africa as we hear Arabic music mixed with horns playing the French national anthem. The narrator explains (war-newsreel style) the escape route from occupied France and Europe via Paris, Marseilles, the Mediterranean, Oran and then Casablanca, where the lucky and the wealthy could fly to America. Immediately after a shot of the sign "Rick's Café," we see a plane framed by an Arabic gate in the same shape as the cupola of a mosque. The mixture of European, Arabic and American culture is fully underlined.

But there is another reference in the intro, an intertextual reference to Morocco (1930), by Josef von Sternberg. In this film, the Arabic context is more obvious and more clearly related to passion and death. Morocco has the exact same ingredients in its opening scene: the globe turning as the camera zooms in to the map of Africa and then Morocco. However, the Arabic music has no French undertones and the Western idea of an Arab world as "Other" remains central, with the film showing a mule that refuses to move, the harsh heat of the sun and Muslims praying to Allah, as well as erotic encounters between Western soldiers and Arab women. The silhouette of the gate in the shape of a mosque cupola is there as well.

In both films, Islamic culture is presented to us by way of a musical and visual arabesque, where the pattern of the cupola is central.

Why Morocco?
Casablanca is outstanding in every sense of the word. So why bother to think of Casablanca in connection with other movies? Its status as a classic has been well proven over the years. The characters, the acting, the story, the music and above all the rhythm of it all are worth it for every new moviegoer to experience. I do not challenge these more or less self-evident truths. Although I agree that Casablanca has the status of a classic, I shall nevertheless relate its "scenic architecture" to Morocco, as this might explain some of its remarkable abilities to "move" an audience.

Morocco was originally launched in America in order to present the cool image of an indifferent but visually superior femme fatale - the subject of Sternberg's seven films with Dietrich. He made her icon empty and luminous in order to produce a feeling for the material surface of the screen: the composition rather than the story was his main interest. He treated the film medium as a painter would use light and shadow on a canvas to highlight his intentions, and as a poet would use grammar to create a visible rhetorical pattern (Sternberg 1965: 54).

In my view, Sternberg was right in choosing not to let Der Blaue Engel (filmed in 1929 in Berlin, where it had its world première on April 1, 1930) be the first presentation of Dietrich in America. He thus rushed to Hollywood, where Jules Furthman (who worked with Sternberg at Paramount) had already written a film script based on the novel Amy Jolly, by the Berlin journalist Benno Vigny. According to Dietrich, the novel was her gift to Sternberg when he left before she did on the boat to America.

The atmosphere of Morocco was far more modern (in an American sense) than the expressionistically styled Der Blaue Engel, whose leading character, Professor Rath (played by Emil Jannings) had more in common with theatrical film forms and the turn-of-the-century novel by Heinrich Mann, Professor Unrat (1905), than it had with the glamorous Hollywood style. The English version, The Blue Angel, was not shown in America until 1931. With Morocco, Sternberg created an image of a modern European femme fatale in an exotic environment - something that had often been done during the silent era whenever a new European star was to be introduced in America. Dietrich was on a diet that suited the standards of Hollywood, and Travis Banton created the costumes, which were far more glamorous than the ones seen in The Blue Angel. By these means, Sternberg succeeded in transforming the rhetoric of the silent movies to suit the talkies. The metaphoric style of the silent movie is more obvious in their next movie together, Dishonored (1931), where Dietrich plays a spy in Austria during World War I, but it is also clearly evident in Morocco. As I will try to show, some of the figures of Casablanca that condense the meaning of European, Arabian or American types and their interrelations are based on some of the rhetorical devices for transforming silent aesthetics to talkies that Sternberg created in Morocco.

The story and the characters
The storyline of Morocco is more daring, more European, more philosophical than that of Casablanca. Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) is a prostitute fleeing from Europe to Morocco, where she is going to earn her living as a singer in a cafe owned by Lo Tinto, who is half European and half Arab. His rather fat and calculating figure is mimed in Casablanca by the character of Ferrari, who owns a café next to Rick's.

When the spectator is first presented to Amy Jolly, she looks shabby - a pitiful figure, who has turned her back on the future. The captain of the ship refers to her as another "suicide passenger" with no return ticket. The rich art lover La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) immediately takes an interest in her on the boat to French Morocco. She turns him down several times during the film yet ends up becoming engaged to him, as he can offer her protection and constant admiration. But she doesn't marry him; instead, she falls in love with Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), the American macho type who is a soldier in the Foreign Legion. Like Amy Jolly, he has a hidden past and no future. He is disillusioned and treats no one - including himself - with respect, rather almost with contempt. He wants to be independent and prefers to pay for a woman's erotic services rather than getting involved emotionally. In the Foreign Legion no one asks personal questions. In their first conversation, Amy Jolly responds to this "life philosophy" of his by relating it to her (former) profession as a prostitute: "There is a Foreign Legion for women, too, but we have no uniform, no flag and no medals, when we are brave. No wound stripes, when we are hurt..." Tom offers his help, but she replies that there is no hope, unless he can restore her faith in men. He responds by saying that she has found the wrong man for this - and that anyone who trusts him is naive.

The setting of the main characters is quite parallel to the setting in Casablanca, where Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is described in no less cynical terms than Tom Brown. Neither of them "sticks his neck out" for anyone. Rick at last places his faith in a political cause - nothing less than the European resistance movement, personified by Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) - and hands over the precious tickets to America to Laszlo and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Meanwhile, we have learned that Rick had been a volunteer in Ethiopia (1935) as well as in Spain (1936). The credibility of his decision - as he shoots the German officer, forces Ilsa to leave him behind, and escapes punishment in the end - is clear-cut. It is not muddy and unexplained as was Tom Brown's decision to leave his love, Amy Jolly, behind.

Rick lets his head win over his heart just as Amy Jolly does when she rediscovers Tom Brown (who had been presumed dead) in a bar, where he - as another sailor - has just carved her name on the table (which she doesn't see until later). When he asks her whether she is married, she wants to know why he didn't return to town with his regiment, and he proceeds to ask if she is going to marry La Bessiere. She answers yes. When he asks if she is sure of this decision, she answers, "I do not change my mind," referring to his writing in lipstick on her make-up mirror earlier, when they had agreed on fleeing together like true lovers. He had second thoughts when he saw the expensive bracelet Amy Jolly had just received from La Bessiere, knowing that he would never be able to offer her that kind of luxury.

In Morocco it is money and the arrogance that comes from hurt feelings that serve as an obstacle to love being declared and the reunion of Amy and Tom. In Casablanca it is the political situation and the very striking "song contest" between German and French national tunes that serve as an obstacle to the reunion of Rick and Ilsa, not to forget the fact that she (unlike Amy Jolly) is married. As we all know, the Hollywood film codex - dictated by the Hays Office - allowed nobody to get away with breaking up a marriage and then living happily ever after. Rick and Ilsa are able to declare their love, but Rick allows himself to publicly misinterpret her intentions so that Laszlo and Ilsa can go on as if Rick and his café had never existed.

Rick chooses against his heart just as Tom Brown does in Morocco, but unlike Tom, he is provided with a higher political purpose. Amy Jolly, who lets Tom get away with it at first finally (unlike Ilsa, whose destiny is determined when she catches the plane) finds a "way out" of choosing between a happy and an unhappy ending. The famous last part of Morocco shows Amy Jolly pursuing the barely visible paths of the Foreign Legion out into the desert. She undoes her high-heeled shoes, as they are an obstacle to her in her new social position as a member of the outcasts, the true "Foreign Legion of women" she had referred to earlier: a group of women whose only ambition is to follow their men into the desert.

The desert, where the sun burns without mercy, is clearly seen as the end of culture, the story's end. It is from the point of view of La Bessiere, the aesthetically sovereign, masochistic male, that the image of the disappearing Amy Jolly is seen. It is brilliant of Sternberg to let her step out of her shoes and leave them behind as a relic of fetishism offered to the spectator, who would feel better if she were able to perform the role of the demanding goddess that La Bessiere had given her in the story. Her disappearance into the desert (framed by an Arabic gate in the shape of a mosque cupola) makes it clear that the only possible role for (fallen) women in culture is fetishistic - and that the only way out is by leaving behind culture and visuality and entering the desolation of nature, identified here as Arabic passion and death.

However, the opposite interpretation is also possible, since it was also La Bessiere who explained to Amy Jolly that those women were living according to their love and that this was true love. It is in other words La Bessiere who formulates both parts of the masochistic interpellation - between Apollonian control and Dionysian passion - creating at the same time pain and joy. It is a question of not reaching the very end: the never-ending foreplay and admiration of the woman, who has to be superior as the ultimate oral or phallic figure. La Bessiere is acting as a stand-in for Sternberg's position as the author of the story in the same way as the little boy Johnny does in Blonde Venus (1932) (Thomsen 1997: 275). Sternberg's aesthetic is masochistic in the way Gaylyn Studlar has described it (Studlar 1988) on the basis of Gilles Deleuze's theory of masochism (Deleuze 1967). La Bessiere is clearly marked as part of the visual triangle between the spectator, the woman and the fetish. Through La Bessiere, Sternberg offers the spectator a special understanding of woman (Amy Jolly) as someone who could only possess the qualities of care and love outside paternalistic law. This quality is "Das Ewig Weibliche." It is offered to us as an image, a view of the desert already emptied of soldiers, horns and rifles, and women seen from behind, following and not knowing if they will ever see their loved ones or return to civilization. This is the empty space into which Dietrich is put- to perform as an icon of desire that can never be fulfilled.

In Casablanca Rick is the one who gets the last words and images. He clearly stands for action, for the right American attitude - away from neutrality. Ilsa disappears out of the story as Rick is able to control his passion for her. He doesn't follow her as Amy Jolly follows Tom - to the end of the world. And this is the whole, rather simple point of the story: in war the hero has to give up love in order to win. Tears may fall. The ending has all the melodramatic qualities of Hollywood - and there is a higher political purpose to it all! No wonder this film had a great impact on the American attitude towards involvement in the war. Ilsa certainly has the qualities of "Das Ewig Weibliche," but she is only able to perform them as a luminous beauty that every man would die for. She is not allowed to "give herself up" for her love as Amy Jolly did in Casablanca. Instead, Rick ›gives up love‹ for his political faith. He believes her and yet betrays her (and his own) heart. But - as is clearly demonstrated - she had once done the same to him. She has to stay faithful to her marriage just as he has to remain faithful to his political beliefs. The outcome is Bergman's remarkable beauty being offered to the spectator - "Here's looking at you, kid!" - and a man whose words you can trust. The rest is longing and memory - "We'll always have Paris" - as played again and again by Sam: "You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss..."

Morocco had the purpose of presenting a coming star in a highly visual style and thus renewing some of the metaphoric qualities of silent divas. Casablanca had no such purpose, but as it turned out it became a film about longing and unfulfilled desires, suggested by the beautiful face of Ingrid Bergman. The interval in time (from the '30s to the '40s) and our collective "remembrance" of an unlived past during wartime are held together by the tune "As time goes by," played by Sam. The tune and her face structure the entire film and the way we remember it, bringing meaning to the film by evoking the authentic desires that remain unfulfilled, like statues left untouched "as time goes by."


Deleuze, Gilles. Présentation de Sacher-Masoch - le froid et le cruel. Paris: Editions de minuit, 1967.

Sternberg, Josef von. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Studlar, Gaylyn. In the Realm of Pleasure. Von Sternberg, Dietrich and the Masochistic Aesthetic. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Thomsen, Bodil Marie. Filmdivaer. Stjernens figur i Hollywoods melodrama 1920-40. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 1997.

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