There is a moment in “Casablanca” in which Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) – having escaped from a Nazi concentration camp – confronts a group of German officers in Rick’s Café Américain through music. The Germans are loudly, arrogantly singing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” an anthem that has its roots in French-German antagonism, when Victor orders the house band to strike up “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, to which club owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) acquiesces. One by one the club patrons rise and join in, all but Victor’s wife – and Rick’s former lover – Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). As the others sing lustily, she sits thinking and marveling at all that has been lost and yet still remains.
It is one of the most moving moments in the history of cinema, one I couldn’t help but flashing on as the City of Light was plunged into the heart of darkness. The fans leaving the Stade de France – where one in a series of coordinated ISIS attacks took place on Friday the 13th – burst into “La Marseillaise.” The exchange students in Manhattan’s Union Square held hands as they sang it that night. And Placido Domingo led The Metropolitan Opera Chorus in it at Lincoln Center Saturday afternoon. It, too, is a symbol of all that has been lost and yet still remains.
And it serves as a stirring reminder of just how great French culture – as sophisticated and nuanced as the French language – is. Everyone knows the Impressionists and Postimpressionists, Matisse and Picasso (OK, he was Spanish but he came to Paris to work). But what about the music – Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc? And the earlier culture? Ioften think if I could live in any era – with all the modern conveniences, mind you – I would choose neoclassical Paris. David, Ingres, Girodet – all those magnificent history paintings and male nudes of figures like Achilles and Alexander, all those Empire fashions.
To the terrorists, however, Paris is “the capital of adultery,” a place of prostitution. Yeah, right, this from a group that systematically rapes women and children. Where is their God in that? Where is God in them?
All these terrorists do is reconfirm my long-held belief that the reasons for their actions are not merely geopolitical or cultural-historical but also psychosexual. They don’t fight for God or country, not really. They’re fighting for their private parts. Is there anything more contemptible?
No wonder Parisians wept in the streets. The sheer madness. But don’t cry, Paris. Don’t let anyone rob you of your job.
Be joyful as you can. Be defiant as the world – the thinking, feeling world, at least – sings “La Marseillaise” with you.