courtesy of Michael Curtiz Casablanca has perhaps one of the most famous endings in all of cinema history. Even those who have never seen the iconic antifascist romanticism can quote and provide context to lines like “We will always have Paris” and “This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. However, not everyone can identify with the many themes and meanings that permeate the final moments Casablanca. As straightforward as it may seem, this 1942 classic is full of analogies, as well as with a powerful message about taking a stand for what is right. From Rick (Humphrey Bogart) the decision to part ways with her ex-lover to the first step of her beautiful friendship with Louis (Rain Claude), a lot happened in the last few minutes Casablanca has a deeper meaning than meets the eye. Unpacking it is important for fully understanding how Curtiz’s propaganda masterpiece became a staple of film history.
What is the Story of ‘Casablanca’?
Set in colonial Morocco during World War II, Casablanca finding inspiration in the plight of the many European refugees who fled to African capitals in search of a life free from the horrors of Nazi Germany. The story takes place in 1942. France has just been occupied, and only the South of it remains a sovereign State. Known as Vichy France, the country ruled by Marshal Philippe Pétain had no qualms about collaborating with Hitler, but was still officially an independent nation. Vichy France also retained control of France’s overseas territories, including its colonies, such as Morocco. So many of those persecuted by the Nazis, from Jews to political enemies, used the city of Casablanca as a safe haven to gain entry to another free European port where they could set off for a new start in America.
While they were waiting for the necessary documents, the refugees from Casablanca, the film, spend their days drinking and gambling at Rick’s Café Américaine. Owned by an American expat named Rick Blaine, this cafe is a local hotspot for foreigners from all nationalities. Reticent and cynical, Rick doesn’t ask his customers questions and tends to everyone with the same level of decency. The upside was that his Café Americaine served as a business counter where counterfeiters and refugees could negotiate forged transit papers that allowed them quicker entry into the Lisbon port. The downside was that Vichy representatives and Nazi officers were also welcome in the cafe.
But Rick wasn’t always this careless about the company he kept. More recently, he was a fighter for justice, a man who helped fight the advance of fascism in Ethiopia and Spain. Unfortunately, constantly being defeated had let him down. However, Rick’s past is about to catch up with him when a new pair of customers enter his Café Americaine.
Okay, that’s not exactly where the story begins. The first character sets events Casablanca into motion isn’t a new Rick’s customer, but a long time customer. After killing two Nazi officers and stealing their signed transit papers, black market negotiator Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is now being hunted by German Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and French Captain Louis Renault. Knowing that he will be arrested, he asks Rick to hide his transit papers, which Rick reluctantly agrees to.
Ugarte was brought in and then killed. However, shortly after his arrest, two people he had intended to sell transit papers entered Rick’s bar. They are none other than the famous resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) and his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergmann). When he saw Ilsa, Rick was attacked by feelings of jealousy and revenge. Unbeknownst to Laszlo, who was in a concentration camp at the time, Rick and Ilsa were having an affair in Paris shortly before the German invasion. As the Nazis march into town, Rick begs Ilsa to flee to Casablanca with him, and she agrees. However, when the time comes to leave France, Ilsa never arrives, leaving Rick to flee the country with only his loyal employee, piano player Sam (Doley Wilson).
Why did Rick decide to split up with Ilsa?
As it turns out, during her affair with Rick, Ilsa believed Laszlo was dead. When the Germans entered Paris, she received news that her husband was actually alive and desperately needed his help: after escaping from the concentration camp, Laszlo was ill and was hiding somewhere on the outskirts of the French capital. So even though she has feelings for Rick, Ilsa has no other choice but to turn her back on him.
Rick, however, doesn’t care about any of this. Although Ilsa repeatedly tries to tell him what really happened in Paris, she refuses to listen to him. What’s worse, he refuses to give her and Laszlo the transit papers that Ugarte has set aside for them, leaving the resistance leaders at the mercy of Strasser and Renault. Realizing that Rick’s jealousy is the only thing keeping her beloved Laszlo away, Ilsa is forced once again to leave one lover for another. She goes to Rick and tells him that she has never stopped loving him. When he covered her with kisses and hugs, he vowed to stay in Casablanca while Laszlo flew to Lisbon.
After hearing her words, Rick hatches a plan to deliver transit letters to Laszlo and get them out of Morocco. To allow him to pass safely to the airport, he tricks Renault into thinking he is setting up an ambush to capture Laszlo. After all, if Laszlo tried to use transit papers stolen from a dead Nazi officer to escape, that would be more than reason enough to arrest him. However, as they reach the airport, Rick turns on the Renault, allowing Laszlo to board the plane. Shocking both the film’s audience and her character, she also gives Ilsa a transit letter and tells her to leave with her husband. Confused, Ilsa asks him what will become of their love story, and he replies that they will always have Paris.
It’s hard to tell if Ilsa meant what she said when she told Rick she still loved him or if she was just trying to protect Laszlo. Likewise, no one knows whether Rick actually believes his words. What matters is that Rick has a chance to recover the life he lost, to once again have everything he always wanted, but he gives up. He realizes that Laszlo’s safety is important not only to Ilsa, but also to the fate of the world. After all, Laszlo was a beacon of hope for those who fought the Nazis. At the same time, he comes to the conclusion that Laszlo needs Ilsa, and, thus, he must leave Casablanca with her. Rick ends Casablanca it’s not just about giving up on an ex-lover. It’s also about sacrificing your own selfish desires for the greater good. Rick will return to the idealistic way he used to be before Paris.
What Does Rick and Louis’ New Friendship Mean?
But how could this man strike up a beautiful friendship with the likes of Louis Renault, a Nazi apologist who only wants to catch Laszlo to impress his German counterparts? Well, it turns out that Louis is not as rotten as he seems. As Laszlo and Ilsa board the plane, Louis calls Strasser to warn him about the escape. However, when Strasser reached the airport, he could do nothing. Showing us once again that he is prepared to risk his own well-being, Rick pulls out a gun and shoots Strasser dead.
For a moment, it looks like Renault will arrest Rick for the murder. Rick himself must have believed him, as he made preparations for his own arrest or death, selling his bar and securing jobs for his staff with one of his main business rivals. But as Rick prepares to face his fate, Louis shows his true colors and makes no move to accept it. Instead, he walked towards Rick’s side, and the two left the airport as friends.
Again, there’s a lot left up in the air in this scene. Can Louis spend the entire film harboring hatred for Strasser and plotting his murder? Or maybe he just experienced a shift in power when the Nazi officer was shot? Maybe he was inspired by Rick’s actions and decided to switch sides. Who knows? Captain Renault’s motivation can still be interpreted. What matters is that he has decided to leave his collaboration and join Rick in the war against the Nazis.
The Importance of the Vichy Water Bottle
Rick and Louis’ friendship is an analogy to the real-life alliance between America and France, the former having abandoned their neutral stance while the latter finding the strength to fight even while being overrun. In 1942, the United States had just joined the war, and France would lose what was left of its autonomy: by the end of the year, the Nazis would end the sovereign Vichy State, leaving France with no alternative but to fight occupation.
Although Curtiz’s film came out a good few months before the end of Vichy’s France, the collaboration’s downfall is represented in the film by one of its most bizarre shots: a bottle of Vichy Water thrown in the trash. Right after Rick shoots Strasser, Louis fills a cup with water from a bottle marked Vichy. Soon after, he took a long look at the bottle, threw it in the trash, and kicked it. It was a sign that he was done with being fed Vichy lies, that he no longer accepted being controlled by his regime. When the bottle falls into a trash can and then to the ground, Louis refuses to continue working for the Nazis. He is now ready to fight for his people.