Dangerous Times in Casablanca

Despite the heat and the sunlight and the hustle and bustle of the city of Casablanca itself, the distant slapping of the water against the docks and the sounds of the captive birds, the smells of exotic foods cooking, the Tower-of-Babel-like overflow of multiple languages, there is one overwhelming thing that Victor Laszlo notices: a hidden and unexpected secondary silence. It isn't the silence that comes from an absence of sounds but rather the silence that comes from a place overflowing with too much raw emotion. It seeps out of every crack in every door, through every open window, radiates off every person. This city is supposed to be their hope, his and Ilsa's, and like so many other cities it whispers its seductions. Just step over here, it says, and you will find Signor Ugarte. Right this way to your letters of transit. Another step forward in the bright white light and he hears another whisper: despite this upcoming audience with Major Strasser, Casablanca is the one place on your journey where things will go smoothly.

The presence of the Third Reich makes a liar out of that last promise. So does the sweat dropping off each face and the badly-disguised fear in every pair of eyes. Casablanca might be under French control, but it isn't really. Like most of the cities he's been to during the war, this one is on its knees. Faltering. Stumbling.

It's about to give. His only hope is to escape before it crumbles around him.

And so he listens to the secret silence, because that is how he survives. It's how he survived the concentration camp and how he's managed every flight from every city from Prague to the westernmost part of Morocco: by listening to what remains unspoken. The pieces left to the imagination speak volumes.

By his side as always, Ilsa is as cool and inscrutable as moonlight itself. The wide brim of her hat shades her face and her white gloves are impeccable as they finger lace tablecloths, exquisite pieces of pottery. The two of them could be just another couple converging on western Africa today if it wasn't for the fact that his own face is so recognizable; it's the scar above his right eye that attracts attention first. A souvenir, one might call it, from his extended stay under Nazi "protection:" if he could have taken more people with him when he escaped, he would have. He would have taken them all.

Signor Ugarte's arrest last night is a setback, but in a few minutes they will be at the prefecture with Major Strasser and he can ask to speak to Ugarte then. In the meantime he has refused the taxi the Major sent; steering Ilsa by the elbow, they walk together in the desert heat in the direction of Captain Renault's office.

There, behind the rug shop: somebody watching. And there, by the door to the Blue Parrot: somebody watching. And there again, behind the line of fuel-rationed taxis: another face pretending not to recognize him. Being shadowed is a matter of course; recognizing it is now second nature. Does he believe in the Resistance? With all his heart; he's been willing to die for it for years and has been rumored to have done so five times. Does he want to die for it? No, but he really will if need be. He'd just rather that not happen here in Casablanca, and not at the hands of the Nazis. If it does, who will take care of Ilsa?

Je tiens mes promesses, meme celles des autres. So says the poster of Marshal Philippe Petain. Yesterday, he's told, a man was shot right in front of this poster, just across the plaza from the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité inscription in front of the Palais de Justice. The irony of it -- I hold my promises, as well as those of others -- isn't lost on him but that's why they have to keep fighting. This is precisely why the Resistance is so critical. No Germans get to win on his watch.

At the sudden intrusion of an airplane overhead, every head turns: that sound is the Holy Grail for most of the visitors to Casablanca. It's the lure of being able to leave this continent once and for all. If he and Ilsa can make it to Lisbon where things are all arranged, then they can make it to America once and for all. He's confident that the Nazis will never be able to hold him back despite what they say they'll do. Major Strasser, especially -- despite his reserved politeness last night -- will surely do whatever he must to keep him here. Ilsa might be a different story but Strasser will see to it that he stays right here in Morocco. If it's up to Strasser... well...

When he finally made it to Paris and found his beloved Ilsa again, he quoted the American writer Mark Twain: the report of my death is an exaggeration. He had to make light of it: he himself read all those headlines. Victor Laszlo Dies Escaping Concentration Camp. Victor Laszlo Shot by Sniper in Prague. Victor Laszlo Arrested in Budapest, Dies During Scuffle with Authorities. Victor Laszlo Commits Suicide in Sofia. Laszlo Suffers Fatal Injury in Train Accident, Say Marseilles Prefects. Every time he's "died" he's learned to live all over again, but nothing was as good as seeing her that night when he was injured. He might be a figurehead -- not that he sees himself as anyone heroic -- but at heart he's only a common man who loves his wife. He loves her even when he sees a remote sadness in her eyes: he saw it first in Paris but it faded.

And now it's back, now that they're here in Casablanca. That haunted, paranoid look returned like a whisper in the dark the moment they walked into Rick's last night. It's a look that reports she's done something wrong and doesn't want to be found out, and really, who among them is innocent of things like that? He doesn't begrudge her a thing. Ilsa has had her own troubles and that she's stayed by his side is a testament to their mutual love... or at least their mutual respect. He thought he'd lost her in Paris.

As they open the door to the prefecture and are ushered inside, he takes Ilsa by the elbow. For the duration, he won't let go and one thing at a time: meet with Captain Renault and Major Strasser first, listen politely, refuse whatever it is they want, and then figure out the next order of business. It's been this way since Paris: one step at a time.

Always one step at a time.

***

The arguments they have, when they have them, are the arguments of a newlywed couple tempered by the heavy tenor of war. Victor, you can't go to the meeting. What if you are caught? Ilsa, please be careful. Remember always to go by Miss Lund. As if she would suddenly forget the name she's used since birth? But they look after one another and in his own way, he loves her greatly. It can't be easy for her to travel with him, but notoriety is a mixed blessing: it works in their favor half the time, just as it did with Berger at Rick's last night.

Perhaps they were lucky now with Captain Renault and Major Strasser -- thankfully they're still unaware that Ilsa is his wife -- or perhaps the name Victor Laszlo worked against them this time. The news on Signor Ugarte was certainly unsettling but the letters of transit were not mentioned. Only visas in a vague way intended to threaten without actually making any threats; he's so used to that technique and as he reminded Major Strasser, why would he give them anything now when he didn't in his year in their camp? If they've removed Ugarte from the picture, someone else will undoubtedly rise to take his place. This is the critical miscalculation the Germans repeatedly make: they underestimate the degree to which they're resented. They think people will lay down and be walked on, but they're wrong. If they don't have Ugarte's letters of transit somebody does, and he will find that somebody and take Ilsa with him to Lisbon. He'll do it right under Strasser's nose because that is what Resistance fighters do.

As they leave the prefecture, he nods to Ilsa. Public words are used sparingly when they travel; it's as much for her protection as his and they're used to this stilted formality. It's born of necessity, a valued and learned defensive skill. As he heads off to the Blue Parrot and Ilsa turns to examine the linens, he only looks back once with a moment's regret. If it wasn't for the weight of the Resistance on his shoulders, they could be any other young foreign couple today on the streets of Casablanca. Mixing, mingling, letting the sounds of many languages wash over them, taking in the sun, the smell of exotic foods cooking, the hustle and bustle, the excitement, the hopefulness. Instead -- as always -- the words look, isn't that Victor Laszlo? follow him as he moves through the bazaar, and every single face could be that of an enemy and every single step could be his last.

It's nothing personal. Just business as usual.