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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Difficulty of Neutrality

In love and in war, neutrality is difficult for Rick, Ilsa, and Louis to maintain.Rick makes a point of not being involved in politics. He refuses to discuss the war, shuts up Carl's attempts to tell him about meetings of the underground, and does everything in his power to present himself as nonpartisan. Later on, though, just as the United States abandoned neutrality in December 1941, Rick shifts from neutrality to commitment. His sympathy for the Allies has always been evident in small acts, such as his refusal to allow the Deutsche Bank employee entry into the back room of his casino, but his partisanship grows more overt as the film proceeds. Louis undergoes a similar transformation, and by the end of the film, neutrality seems an untenable position. Rick's Café, as well as Casablanca itself, is an oasis in the desert, a paradise far removed from the troubles of the world. Yet the underground and black market activities that take place at Rick's belie these qualities. The battle of German and French anthems that erupts in the bar shows that Rick's actually teems with political passion.

When Ilsa visits Rick in his apartment and confesses that she still loves him, she does her best to be neutral in the undeclared war between the two men who love her. For as long as she can, she tries to deny the dilemma she faces. When she finally acknowledges the dilemma and realizes she has to decide between Rick and Laszlo, she leaves the choice in Rick's hands. No clean, painless resolution is possible, and a choice must be made. In war as in love, Casablanca suggests, neutrality is unsustainable.

The Inescapable Past

The first words of "As Time Go By" announce, "You must remember this," and in Casablanca, Rick, Ilsa, and Louis cannot escape the past and their memories. Even when characters try to flee from the past, and many do, the past catches up with them. On two occasions, Ilsa believes she has lost men in her life, only to have them reappear at the most inconvenient times. In Casablanca, Rick has created a lifestyle for himself that he believes will allow him to forget his painful memories, but the war and the flock of refugees hoping to escape to America remind him of an event or events from his mysterious life that prevent his return home. Likewise, Ilsa's arrival in Casablanca reminds Rick of their painful love story, the memory of which he has been trying to erase. The only character who suggests that the past can be escaped is Louis, who seems able to switch alliances breezily. Yet even Louis eventually acknowledges that his decisions have consequences. He recognizes that he must flee Casablanca because there is no escaping the way he helped Rick. He might want to ignore the past, but in this case he cannot.

The Power of Lady Luck

Luck figures prominently in Casablanca, especially in Rick's Café. One of the bar's most popular activities is gambling, and one of Sam's most popular songs is "Knock on Wood." Mr. and Mrs. Brandel, the young Bulgarian couple, demonstrate how luck functions in the movie. "How is lady luck treating you?" Louis asks Mrs. Brandel as Mr. Brandel gambles at the roulette table. Mr. Brandel is trying to win enough money to buy two exit visas. For Louis, luck is the force that brings a beautiful woman like Mrs. Brandel to him and allows him to try to take advantage of her desperate situation. For him, luck is a lady, a sexualized concept that implies both seduction and powerlessness. Rick has a different view of luck, and he intervenes to help the unlucky Brandels, rigging the roulette game so the couple hits the jackpot twice, "miraculously" gaining the amount they need. When Mrs. Brandel approaches Rick to thank him for his generous deed, he dismisses her thanks by saying her husband is "just a lucky guy." This line has a double meaning. The literal meaning is that Brandel is just a lucky guy at the roulette table, which obviously isn't true. The metaphorical, and true, meaning is that he is lucky to have such a courageous, loving wife.

Particular people in Casablanca can bring both good and bad luck to each other. When Ilsa and Sam first speak, Sam tells Ilsa she should stay away from Rick because she's "bad luck" to him. But this statement isn't entirely true. Ilsa broke Rick's heart so tremendously that over a year later he still hasn't recovered, but, in this case, heartbreak has nothing to do with luck. "Luck" is simply a word used to cover up a more painful truth. Luck in Casablanca is also not entirely free of human influence. Ugarte is arrested while gambling, which suggests that he is unlucky to have been caught. The truth is that his own actions of murdering and stealing, rather than bad fortune, are the cause of his arrest.


Exile and Travel

The city of Casablanca is filled with foreigners, most of whom are exiles. Among the characters in the film, only the doorman Abdul is actually Moroccan. Though some characters, such as the colonialist French or the conquering Germans, are not in Casablanca as exiles, the majority are. Rick appears at first to be just another disenchanted American expatriate, but he is actually an exile from America, to which he cannot return, and also from France, where he cannot return as long as the Germans still occupy it. An exile is someone who can never return home. Along with the idea of exile comes the idea of travel. The movie opens with a montage of various means of transport, including ships, trains, cars, and planes, that refugees use on their way to Casablanca. These images of hurried travel contrast with images of leisurely voyage, such as a car ride through Paris and a boat ride down the Seine, both of which Rick and Ilsa share during the Paris flashback. Travel can be both a means, as in the case of the refugee, and an end in itself, as in the case of a tourist, but for the exile, it is never-ending. Unlike both the refugee going to a new home and the tourist soon to return home, the exile is perpetually homeless, traveling forever.

Dreaming of America in Africa

Related to the motif of exile is the motif of America, which is where all of Casablanca's refugees hope to go. If Casablanca is the oasis in the desert, America is the promised land on the desert's far side. America offers itself not as a place of temporary exile, but as a new home, even for foreigners. The difference between the refugee and the perpetual exile is determined by the ability to go to America, because America represents the final stop on the refugee path, where exile ends and an actual new life begins. Only Rick cannot go to America. Instead, he must remain in Africa. At the end of the film, he leaves Casablanca, which is on the eastern edge of Africa, for Brazzaville, which lies at the country's heart. Neither desert nor promised land, Brazzaville is pure jungle. If America represents what is known and desired, Brazzaville represents all that is uncertain. For Rick, the journey has just begun.


The spotlight that shines from a tall tower and lights up the city of Casablanca reminds people that they are always being watched. The spotlight is a constant presence at Rick's, regularly circling past the front doors. The spotlight first swings past the doors immediately after Louis has assured Strasser that the murderer of the German couriers will be found at Rick's, as if to stress the relationship between government authority and the invasive, spying light. The spotlight crosses Laszlo's path as he leaves Rick's with Ilsa, underscoring the fragility of Laszlo's safety and the fact that he is constantly being watched. Later that evening, Ilsa returns to Rick's and opens the front door just as the spotlight passes by, backlighting her brilliantly in the doorframe. This dramatic image is important for several reasons. First, it marks the first time the light actually pierces the front doors and enters Rick's. The image also makes Ilsa look like an angel, and lets us see her as her lovers see her. The use of light here is also a meta-filmic comment about the artificiality of the cinematic lighting. The spotlight reappears as Rick gazes out his window after he and Ilsa kiss in his apartment. Even Rick and Ilsa's romance, the device suggests, is being watched, and the war has completely altered the conditions of their love. This change could partly explain Rick's self-sacrifice at the end of the film. In order for Ilsa to escape the eye of the spotlight, Rick realizes, he must let her escape to America.


Sam's Piano

Sam's piano is the symbolic heart and soul of Rick's Café. All the guests want to sit beside it, in part because they want to be close to Sam, who is one of the most untainted characters in the film. The piano itself suggests purity, which may be why Louis doesn't even think to look there for the missing letters of transit. The music from the piano functions as an opiate, a drug that allows visitors to forget their worries. All is well at Rick's, at least on the surface, when Sam is playing. Sam's resumed playing after Ugarte's arrest, for instance, signals that everything has returned to normal, while his closing down of the piano when Rick and Ilsa first see each other signals that the club's peaceful innocence has been interrupted by painful memories. When the German soldiers take over the piano to play their national anthem, the bar's patrons rise in revolt and defiantly sing "La Marseillaise." More than the arrest of Ugarte, this singing proves the biggest disturbance in the bar, and Louis is forced to shut the place down.

The piano is also a symbol of Rick's heart. Rick forbids the playing of "As Time Goes By" so he doesn't have to wallow in the painful memory of Ilsa and Paris. Like many of his guests, he prefers to forget his pain. When Ilsa requests the song, Sam claims not to remember it, but at her insistence he goes ahead and plays, initiating the re-acquaintance of the former lovers. Sam awakens the song on the piano, and Rick's heart wakes painfully as well. For a while he suffers tremendously, but eventually he seems to come to grips with his aching heart and painful past and to reemerge a better person. Rick will leave Casablanca, but Sam and his piano will stay behind. Having regained his real heart, Rick is free to abandon the piano.


Laszlo is both a character and a symbol in Casablanca. His symbolic elements are rooted in his upstanding, moral personality. Before Laszlo arrives in Casablanca, Rick stirs from apathy at the mention of his name. Laszlo is a symbol of resistance to the Nazis, and his personal conflict of whether or not he can escape Casablanca represents a much larger struggle for power and control. The Nazis officially control the city, but the underground resistance has the support of the majority of the people. The balance of power teeters precariously between the two groups. Laszlo's ability to escape Casablanca will be a sign as to which group may ultimately prevail. That Laszlo was able to escape from a concentration camp and then make his way to Casablanca indicates that the Nazi control over the European mainland is not absolute. If Laszlo can find his way to America, his escape will be a symbol of the power of resistance to Nazi rule. What happens to Laszlo himself is important, but the implications of his fate make up Casablanca's broader themes.

The Plane to Lisbon and the Letters of Transit

The plane to Lisbon is the best way to leave Casablanca, and it represents the possibility of escape from war-torn Europe and the first, most difficult step of the journey to America and freedom. The letters of transit are the golden tickets out, the exit visas that cannot be refused. Throughout the movie these letters are what everyone wants, and whoever controls or holds the letters has tremendous power. As Casablanca proceeds, the power shifts hands. At first, the civic authority of Casablanca, in the person of Louis, controls the plane's flights, and Rick, who possesses the letters, wields this power and has control of people's fates. Later, Rick transfers the letters to Ilsa and Laszlo, allowing them to depart on the plane. As a result of this exchange, the escaping refugees gain a powerful status as political symbols, while Louis and Rick's own power in Casablanca is weakened. The two self-sacrificing heroes have no choice but to leave the city and start over elsewhere.

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