Play it again, this time in German
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
DURINGsummer in Berlin, bridges all over the city turn into outdoor living rooms. Groups of bushy-bearded, triangle- tattooed, singlet- wearing demi-mondes lounge on bicycles or sit with their legs swinging over the water, watching kayaks float past.
Aside from the canals, the chief feature of the city’s sunny summer face is the re-emergence of its parks as social hubs, many of which contain outdoor cinemas. The range of films screened at these venues changes each year, but one holdfast is Michael Curtiz’s 1942 Casablanca, and watching it with locals is an illuminating experience.
Germans must be inured to the portrayal of their race in English and American movies, given that more often than not German characters appear in Hollywood films set in the 1940s and featuring Nazis. And some of the lines in Casablanca would surely be considered offensive were its characters inhabitants of any other era.
Take this exchange, between Claude Rains’s Captain Renault and Carl, the rotund, big-hearted (and German) maitre-d’ of Rick’s . . .
Renault: ‘‘Carl, see that Major Stras- ser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.’’
Carl: ‘‘I have already given him the best. Knowing he is German, he would take it anyway.’’
Or this, after Humphrey Bogart complains to Renault about the ransacking of his place . . .
Renault: ‘ ‘ Well, I told Strasser he wouldn’t find the letters here, but I told my men to be especially destructive. You know how that impresses Germans.’’
The Germans at the screening I attended found it uproariously funny, especially a scene that barely registers with an English- speaking viewer, where Carl is invited to sit down and share a glass of brandy with the Leuchtags, before they leave for the US.
Mr Leuchtag: ‘‘Frau Leuchtag and I are speaking nothing but English now.’’
Mrs Leuchtag: ‘‘So we should feel at home ven ve get to America.’’ Carl: ‘‘A very nice idea.’’ Mr Leuchtag (raising his glass): ‘‘To America.’’
Carl and Mrs Leuchtag (in unison): ‘‘To America.’’
Mr Leuchtag: ‘‘Liebchen, uh, sweetness heart, what watch?’’
Mrs Leuchtag (glancing at her wristwatch): ‘‘Ten watch.’’
Mr Leuchtag (surprised): much?’’
Carl: ‘‘You will get along beautifully in America.’’
This scene brought the house down. The flub, for the bilingual Berliners, was easily explicable as the German
‘ ‘ Such Uhr translates as watch or clock as well as o’clock, so 10 o’clock is zehn Uhr.
It’s remarkable it didn’t hit the cutting-room floor. But it’s a neat trick — mocking ‘‘the Germans’’ while making three of the film’s most endearing characters German and having them enact a joke purely for the benefit of their fellow European exiles, such as Curtiz himself.
Made within the studio system and at the height of the war, Curtiz manages to affirm the good-naturedness of ordinary Germans and the heroism of the German refugees portraying them, qualities especially stark next to the cynical (if basically decent) pragmatism of Bogey and Rains.
As Hollywood movies about World War II go, few are so easily digestible.