Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“Curtiz” is a moderately successful Hungarian production that uses the filming of “Casablanca” to examine conflicted reactions to the Second World War. As prolific filmmaker Michael Curtiz, Ferenc Lengyel gives a cagey, intelligent performance. Like Rick Blaine, the hero of “Casablanca,” Lengyel’s Curtiz is an expat who’s found peace in a foreign land. He knows he has it good in Hollywood (an especially commodious hideout), and he doesn’t want entanglements, war and family trouble in particular. His hardened exterior gives him an edge: not only does it allow him to intimidate underlings, it immunizes him against sentimentality and weakness.
“Curtiz” is stylistically arch and filtered through its own sensibility. At first I was put off by the high-contrast black-and-white photography, because to me it suggests arty perfume commercials rather than 1940s Hollywood; but the picture’s artifice gradually won me over. If it were more naturalistic, its strategies, which are also highly artificial, might seem discordant.
Director Tamás Yvan Topolánszky (he also co-wrote the screenplay) encourages us to draw comparisons between Curtiz and Rick, and to acknowledge in the director’s relationship with his estranged daughter an echo of the relationship between Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa. It’s a cornball idea, and only partially successful, but the movie’s Curtiz keeps us happily off balance: his complexity denies easy judgements. If he isn’t heroized, as Rick is in “Casablanca,” it’s because Topolánszky doesn’t want us to see his subject as noble. This is part of larger commentary on the glibness of Hollywood mythmaking, presented here as an adjunct of propaganda. Rick is the fantasy, Curtiz the rude stuff that the fantasy papers over.
“Curtiz” reminded me that I’ve always been bothered by the way in which “Casablanca” invites us to see ourselves in Rick, and to pat ourselves on the back for it. (What guy involved in a breakup doesn’t imagine that he’s making a hard sacrifice rather than being dumped?) Topolánszky seems to share my discomfort; what’s more, he homes in on it and gives it an ideological thrust. Rick becomes the side of the war that Americans won’t (or can’t) acknowledge. Indeed, I suspect American audiences will have a hard time making ideological sense of “Curtiz”: it’s one of the few counter-narrative WWII films I can think of. At times it expresses real anger at America, this country that won the war without really suffering.