Friday Film (71)

catteblackFor Black Catte

— If you think I’m good, just wait till you’ve read her! 

*     *     *

When I was teaching my film music classes — all those years ago! — part of the course was organised in terms of the use and creative re-use of certain specific musical and musico-dramatic techniques. Entire sessions, in fact, would be spent exploring a series of applications and extensions of, say, the ‘leitmotif’ principle, or the instinctively understood difference between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ music (‘diegetic’ and ‘non-diegetic’ in the affected language of ‘film studies’). Week after week, I would bring with me several boxes of cued-up videotapes (yes, this really was the 1990s…), and we would work through them in some kind of order that reflected whatever questions and reactions came from the class members…

What I always found particularly gratifying was the way the students would soon begin to supply (and, in a few cases, to compose) further examples along the lines of those we examined. In one session, for example, a class member pointed out to me that the Gerry Rafferty song used in the film Reservoir Dogs (1992) is manifestly intrinsic (i.e. part of the depicted action) when it begins, but is treated in a way that pays no regard to its established intrinsic identity (and source!) once it is no longer required — thereby abandoning its ‘intrinsic’ status and taking on a fundamental characteristic of extrinsic music. (The scene itself is somewhat horrific; but if you really want to see what that observant student had noticed, you’ll find the relevant clip here.)

Not every topic brought forth such additional instances from the students, however. In the case of one technique — just the one, if I remember correctly — I knew of only a pair of examples; and that’s how things have stayed: no-one in any iteration of the course ever came up with any more; and to this day I haven’t noticed any others. Let’s use this posting and next week’s to have a gander at what this apparently seldom-used technique is: perhaps you will be able to let us all know of another example — or more than one! — which we can go through afterwards.

Here’s the first of my two examples. We can discuss it once every reader has watched the clip and has the scene fresh in their mind…

The clip is, of course, from Casablanca (1942); and I doubt that anyone who is seeing it here for the first time will have difficulty working out most of what’s going on in the scene. (A useful historical note, however, might be to clarify that during the time in which the film is set — after the fall of France but before Pearl Harbour — the port city of Casablanca was within the ‘French Protectorate in Morocco’, and thus a colonial possession of the collaborationist Vichy government rather than a Nazi-held territory per se.)

The famous juncture shown in the clip is sometimes referred to as the ‘Duel of the Anthems’ sequence; but in my view this is a misleading title. While La Marseillaise was (and remains) the French ‘national anthem’, the tune that the Germans are singing is Die Wacht am Rhein (‘The Guard on the Rhine‘) — a patriotic song from the nineteenth century which, though popular during the Hitler era, and even used in Nazi radio broadcasts, was never an official anthem of Nazi Germany. Intriguingly enough, it appears that the screenplay’s original intention was for the Germans to be singing the Horst Wessel Lied (1929) — which of course was one of the Nazis’ two officIal anthems. The idea circulates that this song ultimately couldn’t be used because of copyright restrictions that would have complicated the film’s screening in non-combatant countries; I suppose this is plausible, in view of Hollywood’s utterly amoral dedication to ‘the bottom line’. (For comparison, recall that the Horst Wessel Lied is actually quoted by William Walton at the start of The First of the Few, which was released in September 1942, just a couple of months before Casablanca: I’m guessing no-one at the British end gave a damn about Jerry’s copyrights…)

As it happens, Die Wacht am Rhein had cropped up in at least one war-related film before Casablanca: here is its appearance in the the original All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 ; dir. Lewis Milestone), at the point where the schoolboys — worked up into a patriotic frenzy by their old and trusted teacher — abandon their education in favour of a chance to fight and die for the interests of the German ruling class… [[You’ll need to increase the speed of this clip to ‘1.25’ using the little wheel at the bottom…]]

Now, since Horst Wessel didn’t end up in Casablanca and so didn’t feature in what must surely be one of the most famous of all cinema scenes, you might like to have a bit of fun creating an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of that never-heard musical conflict — by superimposing the two clips provided below. Be forewarned, though: the Horst Wessel Lied is not only a revolting piece of Nazi tat, but also a pretty mindless item all round — right from its opening decision to evoke ‘a banner raised high’ (‘Die Fahne hoch!‘) by way of a musical line that descends

Anyhow, all you have to do is start the Nazi tune first, and then squash it with La Marseillaise when your inner Victor Laszlo tells you to. I’ll even lend you Edith Piaf for the purpose… (And no, this isn’t simply ‘for fun’: you’ll see why in a few paragraphs’ time…)

After all of which I’d like to make the suggestion that not letting the Horst Wessel Lied into the movie was actually an excellent decision artistically as well as (perhaps) commercially and legally. Obviously, I can’t be sure how strongly 1942’s non-Nazi cinema audiences felt about that plodding tune and its dumb-ass lyrics; but to me, in my own time and place, the whole thing is so redolent of regressive barbarism that I would actually resent being made to sit through it in a fictional filmic setting: its horrific real-world connotations would tend to overwhelm the aesthetic purpose — and if the scene didn’t end with the Nazis being beaten to death and their bodies fed to pigs, I’d feel cheated

But if the sequence we know and love isn’t quite a ‘Duel of the Anthems’, there is another interesting respect in which the two tunes are fairly exact equivalents of each other — and this is in regard to the River Rhine, which has loomed as large within what we may consider ‘the French psyche’ as within the German, and has figured in a great deal of Franco-German enmity. I’ve never seen the following coincidence remarked upon anywhere; but it so happens that both of our ‘duelling’ songs are connected with the conquest and possession of the same area of land — one that has been defended, occupied, annexed and ceded so often that I refuse even to attempt an accurate summary. Suffice it to say that La Marseillaise was originally written as ‘Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin’ — that ‘Army of the Rhine’ being the force that in 1792 was attempting to resist the invasion of Revolutionary France by a counter-revolutionary coalition that included Prussia and Austria… … while our song ‘Die Wacht am Rhein‘ had its origin in early nineteenth-century German determination to prevent the left bank of the Rhine being again taken over by France…

It might also be worth noting, given the historical-political-geographical context, that while the customers of ‘Rick’s Café Américain were singing La Marseillaise out of patriotic defiance and anti-Nazi sentiment, Vichy France — styling itself the ‘French State’ (État français) had actually retained the song as its ‘national anthem’; the song’s possible significance as a display of ‘civil disobedience’, therefore, should not be exaggerated — however much it succeeded in irritating Major Strasser and his goons. And if anyone wants to know what kind of stuff was being produced specifically to celebrate Marshal Pétain, Vichy France’s ‘Chief of State’, here is the strictly contemporaneous ‘Maréchal nous voilà‘ (‘Marshal, here we are!‘), which appears to have been something of an unofficial ‘national anthem’ to the Vichy puppet-nation…


Well, we’ve now heard a fair amount of music and its opposite; but as yet I’ve not said much about the specific musico-dramatic achievements of our famous clip. So here we go; here are ten points that we might consider as we think about the scene…

1) We have a ‘fixed element’ in the form of a complete statement of the (long) tune that is La Marseillaise: if it doesn’t go to completion, we’ll lose the triumphant ending — and with it the possibility of a sudden and intense contrast, in as many dimensions as possible, with Major Strasser’s firm and dramatically significant response.

2) It has to be the Germans who start things off: we don’t have time to spread out over a ‘three tune’ (French — German — French) conflict; and in any case it would weaken the ‘moral clarity’ of our dramatic situation if the initiating act was the French side goading the Germans with a song — especially if the resulting contest was then won by the French in extra time.

3) Die Wacht am Rhein is a clever choice of ‘initiating’ tune in terms of its historical baggage: it is a song that would have been pretty well guaranteed to annoy and provoke a specifically French audience — even one whose members include agents of the collaborationist Vichy regime, some of whom we see depicted in the clip.

4) The tune is also a clever choice in terms of its rhythmic profile. While almost every one of its bars and phrases starts with an anacrusis — an upbeat

Es ¦ braust ein Ruf wie ¦ Donnerhall,  wie ¦ Schwertgeklirr und ¦ Wogenprall […]’ [etc]

— it so happens that there is no upbeat at all before the last two (identical) lines of the refrain:

[x] ¦ Fest steht und ¦ treu die Wacht, die ¦ Wacht am ¦ Rhein!

— and it is in that small but significant silence (see my [x]!) that the highly characteristic upbeat of La Marseilleise can make its unambiguously clear entrance: the point is made to the viewer without any risk of aural confusion. (By contrast, our Horst Wessel Lied has upbeats all the way through: there’s no comparable rhythmic-melodic gap through which an ‘upbeating’ second tune can naturally enter…)

Maximilian Raoul Steiner (1888-1971)

5) While a sense of jumbled chaos is of course desired and created, the fact is that chaos and disorder are actually kept to an artistically responsible minimum — thanks to both songs not merely being played in the same tempo but also in the same key: when the band enters (with Rick’s permission: he pays their wages, after all!), it is in the same A flat major as the Germans’ song. This musical nod in the direction of tonal unity actually allows the first chord of La Marseillaise to be the same harmony that the Germans are then singing and playing; and all through the remaining 14 seconds of the ‘musical clash’ the actual musical clash is nowhere near as severe, constant, or multi-dimensional as it might be. For comparison, recollect the exceedingly boring effect of any random 14-second slice of your earlier, two tempi pile-up of Horst Wessel in B flat major and Edith Piaf in C major: that amount of ‘centrifugal’ chaos would simply be too great for our film’s structure to bear. As the indescribably great Joseph Haydn might have put it, what is needed is a representation of chaos, rather than an outbreak of chaos itself…

6) Note that in order for the cinema audience to both hear the Germans’ song entire and hear it drowned out, the actual structure has to be extended: the final 12-bar strain of this 20-bar tune is in fact played twice; and it is in the middle of this second appearance that La Marseillaise enters over the top — and at its end (after 32 bars have been sung!) that the Germans give up and sit down. It’s a jolly neat extension: if you aren’t paying careful attention to what Max Steiner and his assistants are doing, its seeming naturalness — and its success in allowing what it needs to allow — would make you overlook it altogether. (And, after all, in the 76 years of this film’s existence and of critical comment upon it, who has ever noticed any of this, apart from me?) If you want a fairly close non-musical equivalent of this technique, consider Hamlet: the reason that an ostensibly baffling ‘dumb-show’ is presented at the onset of the ‘play within the play’ is that the latter is interrupted before it reaches its end: we need to be allowed to see what it is that, eventually, we won’t be allowed to see.

7) Note also that the Germans’ song starts off-camera: it comes at a point of maximum tension as well as maximal separation (Laszlo hasn’t got a clue what’s going on!) in the men’s upstairs conversation . Thus the eruption of (‘intrinsic’) music allows that confrontation to be broken off unresolved — left hanging! — and enables it to be followed by another confrontation that, itself, ends with an increase in dramatic tension. The scene really is a minor masterpiece of filmic construction: don’t anyone try to tell me that Michael Curtiz wasn’t a great director!

8) Speaking of Michael Curtiz (who, thanks to some odd mental tangle, I always manage to call ‘Richard Curtiz’ — as if he was the creator of Four Weddings and a Sword-Fight and Nottingham Hill, both starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland…), I want to draw attention to that intense eye-flash that Bogart does during the conversation in his office: I suspect that Curtiz — famously sensitive to lighting as he was! — used that ‘widen the eye so the whites suddenly flash with reflected light’ gesture as a conscious technique. (Claude Rains did an identical eye-flash at one point in the Curtiz-Dieterle Robin Hood [1938].)

9) Once the so-miscalled ‘Duel of the Anthems’ is over, we hear more than one menacing reference to the start of the Deutschlandlied, the tune which — with its ‘Deutschland über alles‘ lyrics — was the other ‘national anthem’ of Nazi Germany. (To judge from a recording I once heard, they used to play the Deutschlandlied first [one verse; tune by Haydn], and then immediately switch to Horst Wessel [one verse; tune by … oh, who cares?] in the key of the dominant: yes, it still sounded like crap.) The point to be made here is that this allusion to the ‘ultimate’ Nazi anthem only works as an intensification if that tune is not the one that you’ve just heard losing a fight with La Marseillaise: once again we discern that the choice, withholding and deployment of pre-existing materials displays a seemingly effortless mastery — for this, after all, is the point where Strasser ‘puts his foot down’, and Captain Renault has no choice but to obey this representative of his ultimate superior.

10) When it comes to the individual shots used during the musical part of the scene, consider the dramatic richness of what is presented: the contrasting reactions of the men as they watch from the banister help to further define and refine individual character; Rick’s nod to the band is the first hint we see of the radical change of mind that he is to undergo before the end of the film; Ilse’s inner confusion and turmoil register on her face as she struggles with her feelings for two men, one of them devoted to struggle — but her expression then changes to a look of admiring devotion as she sees once again a manifestation of Victor’s indomitable spirit…

… And, most magnificently of all, within this succession there is the tearful singing (and final ‘Vive la France!‘) of the girl who has consorted with a German soldier, and whose actions here allow her a measure of purification. We see and hear her as the music first slips into the subdominant — and then digs itself out again by way of the tonic minor: how sensitive, how perceptive, how absolutely bloody brilliant is that…? (For extra credit — theirs, not yours — translate the lines that we actually see her singing: ‘[Entendez-vous dans les campagnes] / Mugir ces feroces soldats? / Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras / Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes!’ They’ve thought of everything, haven’t they?)

Why not watch it all again…?

Scriptwriting that’s as polished, efficient and layered as any that I’ve encountered; ensemble and star acting that never, ever puts a foot wrong; filming, lighting and editing that could fill a textbook with flawless demonstrations; a score that always knows what it’s doing, and why…

What a masterpiece!

One final clip in celebration of this film. No, it doesn’t take any courage at all to stick up for a classic movie of this quality. But from time to time, it is perhaps as well to remind those who love it that it didn’t make itself

And now a final note, just to bring us all back to earth.

A controlling assumption within the film’s structure — and the viewer’s rightful reading of same — is that Nazi Germany and its servants represent an evil enemy to be circumvented or overcome, and that the film’s audience will be on the side of everyone we see singing La Marseillaise in defiance of them: in such a depicted world, the song functions as a musical symbol of opposition to tyranny, by way of its historical association with a French Revolution construed as liberation from oppression. It is worth remembering, however, that to the non-European populations across ‘French North Africa’, La Marseillaise actually possessed a radically different significance — as the ‘national anthem’ of a brutal colonial oppressor whose accumulated criminality was, by 1941, perfectly capable of standing comparison with that of the Nazis.

Le jour de gloire est arrivé…
A man with a cart clears away bodies in the aftermath of a French bombardment of Casablanca. The French ‘pacification’ [sic] of Morocco began in 1912 and was not completed until 1934. The total number of Moroccans killed during that 22-year operation is — believe it or not — ‘Unknown’.

What is more, while the Nazi threat was dead and gone after 1945, French colonial violence against the majority populations of its North African possessions was nowhere near its end: one need only cite the vicious campaign — with its systematic use of torture, forced disappearance, illegal execution, and straightforward mass murder — by which the French state sought to retain control during Algeria’s eight-year ‘War of Independence’ (1954-62); the total number of Algerian dead is not known with any certainty, but has been put as high as 1,500,000.

By all means hate the jackboot and all that it stands for; but don’t forget that the Jacques-boot is itself steeped in the blood of millions…


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4 thoughts on “Friday Film (71)

  1. To my ears, the “battle” is over the minute the Marsellaise begins – simply because of the trumpet introduced to lead the melody, and swamping the German song.


  2. If anyone feels like a bit of homework, why not write and post 100-200 words on all the musical sound — including Captain Renault’s whistle! — that’s heard in the clip following the end of La Marseillaise: what is being done…?


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