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What's 'Casablanca' Without Nazis? After WWII, German Audiences Found Out

The classic World War II film Casablanca premiered 75 years ago. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and it told a story of romance, intrigue and sacrifice. It was also passionately anti-Nazi — but not for the Germans who first got to see it.

Casablanca was released in the U.S. in 1942, in the middle of World War II, but it wasn't released in Germany until 1952, after the war was over. For that German version, Warner Bros. deleted all scenes with Nazis in them, and almost all mention of the war. It became a completely different story — after all, Casablanca is a movie about Nazis and the war.

"Everything had to be changed for this first dubbed version, even in very tiny details," says Nils Daniel Peiler, co-author of a book on film dubbing in Germany.

The scene where customers at Rick's Café drown out German soldiers with the French anthem, "La Marseillaise"? Gone. Even characters were rewritten: Resistance fighter Victor Laszlo became a Norwegian atomic physicist, renamed Victor Larsen, who discovers mysterious delta rays and is on the run from Interpol.

In the original, when Bogart's character, Rick, talks to corrupt French policeman Louis Renault, he says Laszlo "escaped from a concentration camp; the Nazi's have been chasing him all over Europe." In the German version, Rick doesn't mention concentration camps or Nazis; instead, the dubbing actor says, "He broke out of jail, and has escaped many people before you."

The German Casablanca was released in what was then West Germany. Warner Bros. made the changes to appeal to German audiences and to get approved by the F.S.K., an industry-run German film board similar to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Jennifer Kapczynski is a professor of German studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She says, "I think there were certainly plenty of West German audiences that were not eager to be confronted with certain aspects of the Second World War."

People were reticent to talk about Nazism, and government and cultural organizations were cautious. Kapczynski says, "There is this sense that in showing characters from the Nazi past — and the figure of Hitler, absolutely — there is this danger of perhaps awakening in people a desire for a period of time, a period in history, from which they are absolutely cut off. It might reawaken these lingering desires for a fascist history."

Because of the edits, the German Casablanca was about 25 minutes shorter than the original. It did well at the box office, but Nils Daniel Peiler says German movie critics gave it lukewarm reviews. "It was considered just a typical Warner Bros. B picture starring Ingrid Bergman."

In the decades since, Germany has openly confronted its role in World War II in schools, public memorials and laws. But it wasn't until 1975 that a re-dubbed Casablanca made it to Germany, this one true to the original.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabelle Ross
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