‘Casablanca’ Ending Explained: Fighting Fascism Requires Sacrifice

Jun 3, 2023

Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca has probably one of the most well-known endings in all of cinema’s history. Even those that have never seen the iconic antifascist romance can quote and provide context to lines such as “We’ll always have Paris” and “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. However, not everyone can identify the many themes and meanings that permeate the final moments of Casablanca. Despite being apparently straightforward, this 1942 classic is packed to the brim with analogies, as well as with a powerful message about taking a stand for what’s right. From Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) decision to part ways with his former lover to the first steps of his beautiful friendship with Louis (Claude Rains), a lot of what goes on in the last few minutes of Casablanca has a deeper meaning than what meets the eye. Unpacking it is essential to fully understand how Curtiz’s propaganda masterpiece became a staple of film history.

What Is the Story of ‘Casablanca’?

Image via Warner Bros. 

Set in colonial Morocco during World War II, Casablanca looks for inspiration in the plights of many European refugees that fled to the African capital in search for a life free of the horrors of Nazi Germany. The story takes place in 1942. France has just recently been occupied, and only its Southern portion remains a sovereign State. Known as Vichy France, the country ruled by Marshal Philippe Pétain has no qualms collaborating with Hitler, but is still officially an independent country. Vichy France also retains power over France’s overseas territories, including its colonies, such as Morocco. Thus, many of those that are persecuted by the Nazis, from Jews to political adversaries, use the city of Casablanca as a safe haven to gain entrance to other free European ports from which they may depart to a new beginning in the Americas.

As they wait for the paperwork necessary, the refugees of Casablanca, the movie, spend their days drinking and gambling at Rick’s Café Américaine. Owned by an American expat by the name of Rick Blaine, the café is a local hotspot for foreigners of all nationalities. Reserved and cynical, Rick asks no questions of his customers and tends to everyone with the same level of distant courtesy. The upside is that his Café Americaine serves as a business counter in which forgers and refugees can negotiate fake letters of transit that allow them faster entrance into the port of Lisbon. The downside is that Vichy representatives and Nazi officers are also welcome into the café.

RELATED: Why Was ‘Casablanca’ Banned? The History Behind the 1942 Classic

But Rick hasn’t always been this careless about the company he keeps. Not long ago, he was a fighter for justice, a man that helped combat the advance of fascism in both Ethiopia and Spain. Alas, being constantly defeated has rendered him disillusioned. However, Rick’s past is about to catch up with him as a pair of new customers enter his Café Americaine.

Okay, that’s not exactly where the story begins. The character that first sets the events of Casablanca into motion is no new customer of Rick’s, but a long-time regular. Having killed two Nazi officers and stolen their signed letters of transit, 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’s about to be arrested, he asks Rick to hide the letters of transit, to which Rick not-so-reluctantly agrees.

Ugarte is taken in and subsequently killed. Shortly after his arrest, however, the two people that he intended to sell the letters of transit to enter Rick’s bar. They are none other than famed resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Upon seeing Ilsa, Rick is invaded by feelings of jealousy and resentment. Unbeknownst to Laszlo, who was at a concentration camp at the time, Rick and Ilsa had an affair in Paris shortly before the German invasion. As the Nazis marched into town, Rick begged Ilsa to run away to Casablanca with him, and she agreed. However, when the time came to leave France behind, Ilsa never came, leaving Rick to flee the country solely with his faithful employee, piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson).

Why Does Rick Decide to Part Ways with Ilsa?

Image via Warner Bros.

It turns out that, during her affair with Rick, Ilsa believed Laszlo to be dead. When the Germans entered Paris, news reached her that her husband was actually alive and in dire need of her assistance: having escaped the concentration camp, Laszlo was sick and hiding somewhere in the outskirts of the French capital. And, so, even though she had feelings for Rick, Ilsa had no other choice but to turn his back on him.

Rick, however, doesn’t care for any of this. Though Ilsa repeatedly tries to tell him what actually happened in Paris, he refuses to listen to her. What’s worse, he refuses to give her and Laszlo the letters of transit that Ugarte had set aside for them, leaving the resistance leader at the mercy of Strasser and Renault. Realizing that Rick’s jealousy is the only thing keeping her beloved Laszlo from safety, Ilsa is once again forced to abandon one lover for another. She goes to Rick and tells him that she never stopped loving him. As she covers him with kisses and embraces, she vows to stay behind in Casablanca while Laszlo flies to Lisbon.

Upon hearing her words, Rick concocts a plan to deliver the letters of transit to Laszlo and get him out of Morocco. In order to allow him safe passage to the airport, he deceives Renault into thinking that he’s setting up an ambush to catch Laszlo. After all, if Laszlo tries to use letters of transit stolen from dead Nazi officers to escape, that would be more than enough reason to arrest him. As they reach the airport, however, Rick turns on Renault, allowing Laszlo to board the plane. Surprising both the film’s viewers and its characters, he also gives the letters of transit to Ilsa and tells her to leave with her husband. Confused, Ilsa asks him what shall become of their love story, to which he responds that they will always have Paris.

It is hard to determine whether Ilsa meant what she said when she told Rick that she was still in love with him or whether she was just trying to protect Laszlo. Likewise, there’s no telling if Rick actually believed her words. What matters is that Rick had the chance to recover the life that he lost, to once again have everything he always wanted, but he gave that up. He realized that Laszlo’s safety was important not just for Ilsa, but for the fate of the world. Laszlo is, after all, a beacon of hope for those fighting the Nazis. At the same time, he came to the conclusion that Laszlo needed Ilsa, and, thus, that she should leave Casablanca with him. Rick’s ending in Casablanca isn’t just about giving up on a former lover. It is also about sacrificing your own selfish whims for the greater good. It is Rick going back to the idealist that he used to be before Paris.

What Is the Meaning of Rick and Louis’ Newfound Friendship?

Image via Warner Bros.

But how on Earth does this man begin a beautiful friendship with the likes of Louis Renault, a Nazi apologist that wanted nothing more than to catch Laszlo to impress his German colleague? Well, it turns out that Louis isn’t as rotten as it initially seems. As Laszlo and Ilsa are boarding the plane, Louis phones Strasser to warn him about the escape. However, when Strasser reaches the airport, he is unable to do anything about it. Showing us once again that he is ready to put his own well-being on the line for the cause, Rick pulls out a gun and shoots Strasser dead.

For a second, it looks like Renault is going to take Rick in for the murder. Rick himself surely believed it, since he made preparations for his own arrest or demise, selling his bar and assuring employment for its staff with one of his main business rivals. But just as Rick is getting ready to face his destiny, Louis shows his true colors and makes no move to take him in. Instead, he walks towards Rick’s side, and the two leave the airport as friends.

Once again, there is a lot left up in the air in this scene. Could Louis have spent the entire movie harboring resentment towards Strasser and planning his murder? Or maybe he just felt a shift in power at the moment the Nazi officer was shot? Perhaps he was inspired by Rick’s actions and decided to switch sides. Who knows? Captain Renault’s motivations are still up to interpretation. What matters is that he has decided to abandon his collaborationism and join Rick in the fight against the Nazis.

The Importance of the Bottle of Vichy Water

Rick and Louis’ friendship is an analogy for the real-life alliance between Americans and French, the first having abandoned their neutral stance while the second find the strength to fight even while subjugated. In 1942, the United States had just recently joined the war, and France was about to lose what was left of its autonomy: by the end of the year, the Nazis would put an end to the sovereign Vichy State, leaving the French with no alternative but to fight the occupation.

Though Curtiz’s movie came out a few good months before the end of Vichy’s France, the downfall of the collaborationism it stood for is represented in the film by one of its most peculiar shots: that of a bottle of Vichy Water being thrown in the trash. Right after Rick shoots Strasser, Louis fills a cup with water from a bottle marked as Vichy. Immediately after, he takes a long look at the bottle, throws it in the trash, and kicks it. It is a sign that he is done being fed the lies of Vichy, that he no longer accepts being controlled by its regime. As the bottle falls into the trash can and subsequently to the ground, Louis refuses to continue working for the Nazis. He is now ready to fight for his people.

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