AFI Club: Casablanca, A Reflection On How Crises Affect Our Humanity

Welcome to The Wisdom Daily’s AFI Film Club! Each month, I will be counting down the Top 10 American Film Institute’s list of Motion Pictures (the 2007 update) and exploring an American ideology/ theme in a recap. Why AFI? Why here? Why Now? Why Me? Click here for a brief rant on my connection to the catalog (insert inappropriate “the list is life” joke here). Enjoy the post and comment (about the film please- I already know that I’m terrible at the kazoo).   Here is AFI’s #3, Casablanca:

Can I tell you a story, Rick?
Does it got a wild finish?
I don’t know the finish yet.

How do you watch a film with no ending?

I’m not talking about a piece suffering from a dreadful case of third act problems, choosing a shallow unlikely last 15 minutes that undoes all of the work’s creative development. Many such pictures go to theaters, win awards, and are canonized as one of the greats (*cough* A Philadelphia Story *cough*). Casablanca has one of the most succinct scripts in American cinema. The story is razor sharp, its characters fully-fleshed out, with every piece of dialogue as whimsical as it is dire. I’m not even concerned about how the movie literally had no ending during production, or that according to legend, Ingrid Bergman only found out she’d be leaving Rick while they were mid-scene.

I’m wondering how an audience member sitting in the theater in 1942- a full year after the US entered the Second World War- watches Rick and Louis walk into the smoky haze firmly on the anti-Nazi team, with no idea how it’s going to end for these men or their men and women overseas. Anxiety about invasion and occupation was looming, and many American businesses had partnerships with the Nazi government, including motion picture studios such as MGM, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox. They would reproduce movies specifically for German audiences, stifle anti-Nazi screenplays, and remove Jewish names from the credits. ( I feel obligated to mention that the majority of these studio heads were Jewish; a blot on the makeshift quilt of American Jewish history).  The only major studio that refused Nazi appeasement was Warner Brothers (also run by Jewish executives, so yay?), and they ventured to produce this legendary flick, as a gentle critique of and wake up call for Nazi occupation in Europe. It was a Hollywood (HUGE grain of salt) act of bravery and one that is embodied in the illicit film they created.

Watching this classic is an absolute delight. It’s like seeing an old friend whose presence reminds you of a life you wished you lived. If you’ve never seen it, you should, but there is truly no spoiling this ever-ripe masterpiece. It is my absolute pleasure to present a nuts and bolts summary of the #3 spot on the AFI list, Casablanca:

In 1940, European refugees have escaped their Nazi-occupied countries to the neutral zone of Casablanca, Morocco. Everyone needs letters of transit to the US, a quick buck, or both. In the city’s popular nightclub, “Rick’s Café Américan,” shenanigans are in full swing, as the warm atmosphere fills with songs, booze, and illegal gambling. The owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart’s most iconic role and suit) is the gruff type with a clear regiment: wake up, make money, entertain beautiful women, repeat. He doesn’t involve himself in wartime politics, until Victor Laszlo, a Czech nationalist, and enemy to the Third Reich, comes to Casablanca on his route of escape. Rick’s chum, Police Captain Louis Renault, has been given strict orders to keep Laszlo in the city limits. Neither the man nor the ideals concern Rick much, until he sees Laszlo’s traveling partner and wife, Ilsa Lund (if eyes could melt, Ingrid Bergman…).

Ilsa is a ghost from a past life, one who Rick fell in love with in pre-occupied Paris, wished to wed, and who unexpectedly abandoned him with no explanation. This makes things awkward, especially when Ilsa learns that Rick has access to two letters of transit to America, and if Victor doesn’t get one, he will be killed by the Germans in Casablanca. Ilsa meets up again with Rick, demanding the visas. It doesn’t go as she plans, and she breaks down, explaining that when they met in Paris, she was under the impression that her imprisoned husband, Victor Laszlo, was dead, and fell completely in love with Rick. When she learned that Victor was alive, she couldn’t bear to face Rick again. She swears to never leave Rick again and requests a visa for her husband to escape, and she and Rick can live out their years together in Morocco. Victor also approaches Rick privately, explaining that he knows what’s going on with Rick and his wife and that he’s pretty cool with it. He just wants his wife to be safe, so he asks Rick to take the visas and go with her to America.

Meanwhile, Rick has some of his own ideas. After an elaborate scheme to derail the lurking Captain Louis, Laszlo, Ilsa, Rick, and the captured Louis head to the airport. Once there, Rick gives both of the letters of transit to the Laszlos. Ilsa is distraught, but Rick explains that staying together is not right, but hey, they’ll always have Paris. She solemnly agrees and heads on a plane with Victor. Louis, also feeling a change of heart, helps Rick get away with this illegal activity, and the two friends walk into the night, ready to fight the good fight.

While this is praised as one of the greatest love stories of all time, at its core, it’s about the ways people try to maintain their humanity when the world is falling apart. Who fights, flights, and who stays where they are, lighting a cigarette on the carnage?  Using the storytelling structure of flashbacks, Casablanca makes a bold statement of how people’s behavior in crises is inherently tied to the way they relate to time. Ilsa is stuck in the past, choosing her memories over dealing with her current situation, Rick wants to focus on nothing other than himself and the present, and Victor Laszlo is always imagining a better future. The film takes a strong stance on Victor’s coping mechanism to be the most righteous, and uses him as a measuring stick to both Ilsa and Rick’s character development.

Ilsa walks into a nightclub and brings the haunting reminder of Rick’s past with her. Ouch. She comes to Morocco and knows exactly where Rick works. She decides to head over, turning his world upside down. While she looks like she’s the one who’s moved on, her presence is a constant reminder of the past, a representation of a peaceful and more romantic time. She brings out in Rick a melancholy nostalgia, starting the conversation with him about the past, trying to gauge how he’s changed.

After a particularly bad fight with Ilsa, Rick goes to the bazaar  to apologize to her, but she wants nothing of it. She comments “We knew very little about each other when we were in love in Paris. If we leave it that way… maybe we’ll remember those days and not Casablanca.”

Paris represents a utopian version of a free Europe. In one famous scene, the patrons at “Rick’s” start to sing French Nationale, and become overwhelmed with emotions and pride, reminding them of their democratic ideals. Ilsa desires to live in that memory, a time unplagued by war, in which she does not have to deal with her new realities  She is overtaken by her love for Rick and pleads to stay with him, totally fine abandoning her kind-hearted husband.

In post-Hays Code Hollywood, this action of choosing infidelity is heavily frowned upon by the general movie-watching audience, and is a cautionary reflection of her inability to face her reality. Rick ultimately has to act as the “voice of reason” explaining that they can’t be together, but reminding her that they’ll still always have the good times. The past is debilitating for her, and even though she goes with Victor, the viewer is aware that she’ll never match his passion for the fight.

When we first meet Rick, he is a man concerned with the present. We are aware of some sort of past where he used to be a political man, but he’s thoroughly disenfranchised by the many failures he’s faced and has lost his will to make a future for himself.  He does what it takes to survive, apathetic to other’s needs, remarking “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Much is written about Rick’s character embodying America, and the isolationist and self-serving policies of the States, pre-Pearl Harbor. It borders on nihilism and manifests itself in a fascination with death. At one point, Laszlo explains that to stop fighting is to stop breathing, to which Rick responds that it would be good to put everybody out of their misery. When Ilsa threatens him at gunpoint for the visas, he says “Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

It’s a radical idea, that apathy and neutrality are the same as actively dying, and that anybody who does this has a suicide wish. However, this is the time before the anti-hero, and any protagonist of a major picture needs his redemption somehow, so he doesn’t stay in this present for long. Ilsa comes into his life, yes, but more importantly, so does Victor Laszlo.

For a fugitive of a concentration camp, the source of an unrelenting manhunt, Victor Laszlo is one of the happier, well-adjusted characters in the movie. This is because he believes in the future, based on his ideas, and focuses on his democratic ideology that will defeat the German oppressors. He is a famous freedom fighter, and one that’s created quite a stir in Casablanca, but he does not see himself as the cause. When the authorities interrogate Victor and get him to name names, Victor responds, “And what if you track down these men and kill them, what if you killed all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands would rise up to take our places. Even Nazis can’t kill that fast.”

This line is fascinating for two reasons; firstly, this seems to be one of the few veiled references to the atrocities of the Jewish genocide. In 1942, many of the details were hushed up and kept from the American people, and this line opens a door (that is thoroughly shut by the love interests in this story). Secondly, it’s one of the most optimistic sentiments, Laszlo is willing to die as a martyr, confident that there’s a future beyond him. Something in him will always live, even if death is around the corner. The opposite of Rick’s approach that death is a cure for pain, Laszlo sees it as inconsequential to his principles.

He has a similar approach in his private conversation with Rick when Laszlo asks if Rick can take the visas and go to the states with Ilsa, ensuring their safety. Rick seems surprised, and even annoyed by his nobility, and asks if he really loves her that much. Laszlo responds “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I am also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.”

Victor is not that different than Rick, he too feels love and heartbreak, even over the same girl. However, his love is channeled into an idyllic (maybe unrealistic) state, honed to do what’s best for her, even if it means sacrificing his own happiness. If he’s passionate about his love for this woman, then it goes beyond his personal desires to be with her. He just wants her to be happy and safe. Perhaps it is this sentiment, more than his democratic ideals, that moves Rick to become a more empathetic person, and restores his hope. In the end, Rick proves himself a reliable enemy of the Reich, and Victor remarks “welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.” Another person has given themselves over to the greater good.

“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

We, in 2018, know the ending… the Allies won, the camps were liberated, Rick Blaine has or will come back victorious. Whatever love that Rick and Ilsa had is a footnote in the history.

So I guess Rick is right; their love and their memories are futile.

That may be the most pungent and sobering assertion of the picture. Because, even though Nazis are evil and saving souls are important, I still wanted them to end up together. I wanted to believe that their love was as important as trying to save the world. It sounds preposterous on paper, but when apocalyptic news stories are treated as the same level of relevance as a headline about a pop star’s wedding, we start to convince ourselves that our service to our community is secondary to our own interpersonal world. There may be important battles to fight, and organizations to join, but we let it fall on the wayside to care for our friends and family.  In that last scene, Rick is standing at an airport on a foggy night saying that we are wrong, no question. I’m never comfortable with absolutes, but it’s a good reminder that we don’t know the finish to our story yet, either.


Helmore, Edward. “Hollywood and Hitler: Did the Studio Bosses Bow to Nazi Wishes?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 June 2013.

Lyttelton, Oliver. “5 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Casablanca’ On Its 70th Anniversary.” IndieWire, IndieWire, 26 Nov. 2012.

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