itsnotmymind (itsnotmymind) wrote,

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The Importance of Exit Visas - What Casablanca Gets Wrong

I recently read Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II, by Meredith Hindley. The book is nearly 500 pages - and tells the true story of the city of Casablanca during World War II.

I read the book in part because of my deep love for the movie Casablanca. I was especially curious to find out what the movie gets wrong. Sure enough, the author includes a section at the end of the book where she discusses the accuracy of the movie. But there is one significant discrepancy that she only touches on. I would like to take about it in more depth. It is very significant to the plot of the movie, to how the refugee experience is portrayed.

From the very beginning of the movie, a voice-over describes the situation for the refugees: "[In Casablanca], the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca - and wait - and wait." In the movie, the focus for refugees is on acquiring exit visas to get out of Casablanca. In order to do this, they must either work with the Vichy government, or acquire them on the black market. Claude Rains' character, Captain Louis Renault, represents the Vichy government. To quote Major Strasser, the main villain (played by Conrad Veidt) who represents Germany, "Captain Renault's signature is necessary on every exit visa." Refugees must either pay Renault money for an exit visa, or, if the refugee in question is a beautiful woman, Captain Renault may offer her the option of trading her body for a visa. If a refugee can't get a visa from Renault, they can work with Ugarte (Peter Lorre's character) or Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet's character) to get an exit visa on the black market.

Once the refugee has an exit visa, they then take a plane to Lisbon (a plane that appears to fly regularly, judging by how often we see it and the characters' dialog). Then from Lisbon they take a clipper to America.

In reality, getting an exit visa was not a huge concern for most refugees. Casablanca was overwhelmed by refugees - they didn't have enough food or housing for them. The Vichy government didn’t have a motivation to detain most refugees. Refugees did indeed get stuck in Casablanca - but it was not because the Vichy government wouldn't let them leave.

Instead, there were two barriers keeping refugees stuck in Casablanca.

The first barrier was, indeed, visas - but not exit visas provided by the Vichy government. The challenge was acquiring visas to allow refugees into the country they wanted to flee to. The American consulate was swamped with refugees, but only a limited number of people from each country were allowed to have visas to the United States. Other countries had similar rules. Imagine a Casablanca where instead of trying to get visas from an corrupt Vichy government, refugees had to appease and impress the American consulate that would only allow so many people into the country.

The second problem was transportation. Hindley is very specific: There was no plane from Casablanca to Lisbon. Even refugees who got visas struggled to find transportation. In reality, refugee women weren't selling their bodies to Vichy officials - they were selling their bodies to ship captains for passage to America.

I quite enjoyed the book and I still love the movie - it's just interesting to look at the ways in which Hollywood does not match up to reality.
Tags: casablanca, destination casablanca

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