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“Casablanca” Has a Message for Us Today

The first time I saw Casablanca was 1992, The most recent was last night. On each viewing, I notice something I hadn’t seen before, walk away with something new. Casablanca is often described as a romance—and it is. It is a drama. It is a war film...

The first time I saw Casablanca was in 1992, at the Key Theatre, a now-defunct arthouse cinema on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, at a special theatrical release celebrating the film’s 50th anniversary. The most recent time I saw Casablanca was last night. In between, I’ve seen it probably two dozen times. On each viewing, I notice something I hadn’t seen before, walk away with something new.

Casablanca is often described as a romance—and it is. Bogart and Bergman are one of the all-time Hollywood pairings, and, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” is probably the film’s best known line. The conflict in romances derives from the insurmountability of the obstacle, on what is keeping the two lovers apart: Romeo and Juliet are the teenage kids of two families in a blood feud; Harry and Sally don’t want to risk their friendship for a romantic engagement that might not work out; Tom Hanks lives in Baltimore and Meg Ryan lives in Seattle. The obstacle in Casablanca, which I will not spoil, is realistic, tragic, and completely insurmountable. It is a riddle that cannot be solved, a problem that has no solution, like how to fix the United States while the Senate exists.

But Casablanca is not just a romance. It is a drama. It is a war film. It is a buddy movie, replete with some of the sharpest comic dialogue ever written. It is a heist picture—we don’t see the two German couriers murdered on the train, we don’t see the letters of transit stolen from them, but the rush to obtain those two documents animates one of cinema’s greatest plots. It is an exploration of how to deal with heartbreak and loss. It is a story about sacrifice and courage and redemption and standing up to tyranny. It is an allegory for a world that, when it was made in 1942, was very much still at war—and, as such, is an overtly political film. Casablanca contains multitudes.

When I first watched the movie, I was more concerned with the romantic content. I loved Rick, loved his café, loved his white tuxedo jacket and his gruff manner and how he threw the best party but always held himself at a remove. But it is impossible to watch Casablanca in 2024 and not focus on the Nazis.

The first action we see in Casablanca is a violent police crackdown. And not just any violent police crackdown. This part of North Africa is controlled by unoccupied France, the German rump state based in Vichy. A prominent Nazi is coming to town, and the local authorities are detaining all the potential rabble-rousers—the usual suspects, as it were—who might not welcome the Gestapo’s jackbooted presence in French Morocco. One fellow is menaced by the police, who shoot and kill him when he tries to resist arrest; when they search his body, they find he is carrying leaflets for Free France.

If the film were made today, this scene would have been shot on location, in Casablanca or a city that could reasonably pass as Casablanca, and the terror of the crackdown would be amplified in one of those grandiose action scenes that modern movies often open with. But the film was produced in 1942. It was shot on a soundstage in Hollywood. The danger is cloaked behind old-timey cinematic production. No matter. The opening distinctly shows brutal, Nazi-aligned cops using unnecessary force, shooting and killing an agent of the Resistance: an anti-Fascist.

Similarly, the first time we see Rick—after we meet Captain Renault, the French prefect of police, and Major Strasser, the Nazi big wheel—he is alone at a chess board in the casino part of the club. His first lines of dialogue are directed to an arrogant Nazi—an official at Deutsche Bank, no less!—whom he bars from entering the inner sanctum:

—Your cash is good at the bar.
—What? Do you know who I am?
—I do. You’re lucky the bar’s open to you.

Rick owns and manages the café, and he is a good boss. He supports his employees, reassuring Emil after the house loses 20,000 francs, and keeping everyone on the payroll when the police shut him down. But he keeps himself aloof. “I stick my neck out for no one,” he says when the police arrest Ugarte. “I’m the only cause I’m interested in,” he tells Ilsa. But this is a false front, a defense mechanism. He doesn’t want his heart broken again. He is, as Victor Laszlo astutely observes, a man trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t really believe.

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At 17 and a half minutes into the movie, Ferrari, criminal overlord and owner of the Blue Parrot, remarks to Rick that “isolationism is no longer a practical policy.” That line may as well have been spoken to the entire country. Rick and Sam, his friend and piano player, are the only Americans in Casablanca, and as such, represent the United States. The staff and clientele at his club come from everywhere: Carl is an anti-Nazi German, Sascha is Russian, Emil and Yvonne are French, Abdul is Moroccan, Berger is Norwegian, and so on. In that sense, the café is a microcosm of Europe. (In real life, many of the supporting actors are European war refugees who had escaped the actual Nazis—including the astonishingly good actor who plays the Gestapo’s Major Strasser, Conrad Veidt, who fled his native country with his Jewish wife when Hitler came to power.)

It is no accident that the action in Casablanca takes place over three days in early December, 1941—just before Pearl Harbor. Rick, like the U.S. in the late fall of 1941, preferred to remain neutral. But ultimately, like the U.S., he is drawn into the fight—and his presence ultimately helps the good guys prevail.

Perhaps the film’s most rousing scene is when the orchestra, with its brass instruments, overpowers the Germans singing patriotic songs at the piano, with a stirring rendition of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. In 1992, I chalked it up to Hollywood schlock; now, I recognize the scene’s awesome power: music becomes the field of battle. Even Yvonne, last seen flirting with a handsome Nazi, is moved to tears:

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But the film is not all doom and gloom. Casablanca rewards us with sharp dialogue and genuinely funny moments. When Victor Laszlo arrives at Rick’s, he orders drinks, only to have his orders upgraded and put on someone else’s tab, which annoys him; it’s a running joke that he can’t pay for his own drink. Carl’s aside with the couple practicing their English before leaving for America is comic gold. And as Captain Renault, Claude Reins drops one-liner after one-liner, in a remarkably modern performance—not least of which the famous “I’m shocked, shocked” scene.

When Rick sits down for his interrogation by the Nazis, he is asked his nationality. “I’m a drunkard,” he says dryly—and it looks like the men at the table are genuinely laughing, as if the line was ad-libbed. But Renault immediately supplies the rejoinder: “And that makes Rick a man of the world.”

We learn that what causes Rick’s moral paralysis is his heartbreak. Ilsa Lund—the wife and traveling companion of the Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, who has just arrived in town—is, improbably, the woman who broke his heart. The chances of them meeting again like this are a million to one, which Rick alludes to in yet another famous line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

During their confrontation later in the film, Ilsa accuses him of, basically, nurturing a grievance: “You want to feel sorry for yourself, don’t you? With so much at stake, all you can think of is your own feelings. One woman has hurt you, and you take your revenge on the rest of the world. You’re a coward and a weakling.” She may as well be addressing Elon Musk, or any one of a thousand other alt-right Twitter incels.

But by then, Rick has already started to change. Precedents are being broken. He’s having a drink with customers now. He’s involving himself in politics more overtly. This is made clear in the scene with the Bulgarian refugee, Annina. She is, Rick observes, underage and should not be at the bar. But she seeks him out. She wants to be reassured, without explicitly saying so, that if she has sex with Captain Renault, he will honor his promise and let her and her husband leave for America. This is dark, dark stuff, concealed by the soft lighting and the beautiful actress:

Oh, monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world—but she did a bad thing to make certain of it—could you forgive her?

Rick replies with a punch to the gut: “No one ever loved me that much.”

But this is not true, although he doesn’t realize it yet. Ilsa did love him that much. And he is sufficiently moved by Annina to arrange for her husband to win at roulette, securing enough money to finance their visas—much to the delight of the staff.

The first time I saw the movie, I knew what the last line was, so I had some idea of the ending, but I didn’t know anything else. Twenty minutes from the end, Rick gives Victor Laszlo the letters of transit. Renault emerges from the shadows to arrest him. And I remember thinking, “Holy shit! How the hell are they going to resolve this?” I wasn’t the only one. Even the screenwriters didn’t know, well after production began. All they did was devise the best ending of all time.

[This is a good time to stop reading, if you haven’t seen the movie, because spoilers are coming.]

We think Rick and Ilsa will take the letters of transit and leave. Ilsa thinks that, too. But that’s not what happens. Once at the airport, Rick informs Renault that Ilsa and Victor will be the ones leaving. This surprises Ilsa, Renault—and the audience. But this is Rick putting away his personal grievance for the greater good. This is him atoning for the sins of the past. This is also him entering the fray, as Laszlo tells him on the tarmac, in a line I use in the intro to my podcast: “Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know our side will win.” That line is spoken in December of 1941—for all we know, Japanese planes are bombing Pearl Harbor as Laszlo’s plane flies to Lisbon. If Rick represents America, this is America entering the war. And, remember, the movie came out in 1942! “Our side” winning was not a sure thing.

(Also: Rick told Victor that the letters of transit were not for sale at any price. At the end, he refuses to take Victor’s money—which both makes the comment about the letters not being for sale true, and also continues the running joke about Laszlo not being able to pay for his own drinks.)

The Resistance leader and his wife get on the plane. The plane taxis out to the strip. And then, the Nazi big wheel shows up! After warning him to put down the phone, Rick shoots and kills him. Renault explains how “unpleasant” this is going to be. “I’ll have to arrest you, of course.”

The plane takes off, heading for Lisbon. The couple makes it out of Casablanca. Rick wins his 10,000 franc bet with Renault. Then the police show up. And watching the movie, we prepare for Rick’s impending arrest. “Major Strasser has been shot,” Renault tells his charges. And there is a long, dramatic pause, before he delivers yet another of the film’s famous lines: “Round up the usual suspects.” With those five words, he lets Rick go free.

Renault—an unscrupulous lech who “blows with the wind,” a “poor, corrupt official” who exploits his authority by bedding desperate refugee women—has found his own way back to the light. He, too, is back in the fight. And he and Rick leave together, bound for the French garrison at Brazzaville, and adventures to come, and a continuation of what is already a beautiful friendship.

Watching the film again last night, there was something else I realized about Casablanca. No one wants to be in Morocco. Everyone wants to go to America. The word is spoken countless times: America, America, America. Rick is American but can’t go back to America, although he desperately wants to. America is the symbol of freedom, of safety, of security, of respite from the Third Reich. The entire black market of French Morocco revolves around guarantees of safe passage to America. It’s taken as a given that America is the land of the free.

But now, somehow, 82 years after the release of Casablanca, this is no longer a given. Nazis are again on the rise—only this time, they’re not in Europe or North Africa but here, in America, among us. What would those supporting actors who fled the Third Reich have made of that? What would Rick have thought?

While helping dress his wound, Rick asks Victor if he thinks what he’s fighting for—that is, democracy, freedom, anti-fascism—is worth it. I leave you with Laszlo’s response: “You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.”

The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

[Greg Olear (@gregolear) is the L.A. Times-bestselling author of the novels Totally  Killer (2009), Fathermucker (2011), and Empress (2022), as well as Success Stories of a Failure Analyst (2023) and 2018’s Dirty Rubles: An Introduction to Trump/Russia, which Salon called “required reading for all Americans.” His first two novels have been translated into other languages and have been optioned for screen.

His work has appeared at Dame Magazine, Slate, Medium, the Huffington Post, Newsweek, Hudson Valley Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, and his now-defunct arts and culture site, The Weeklings.

A graduate of Georgetown University, he lives in New York with his wife, their two kids, and their three cats.]