The Themes of Love and Sacrifice in Casablanca

Casablanca, by Michael Curtiz 1942, Shows the sides of love and sacrifice in the context of World War Two. These themes are propagated by the selfless actions of Rick, a cynical night club owner, and Ilsa, who must suppress her love for Rick in order to support her husband, Victor Laszlow, an anti-Nazi crusadist. The key scene in which Rick and Ilsa are reunited in the presence of Victor Laszlow and Captain Louis Renault at Rick's Café emphasizes the tensions which arise from Rick and Ilsa's obligations to love and sacrifice.

Elements of mise-en-scène, particularly lighting, acting, costume, make-up, and staging, reveal the tensions between Rick and Ilsa, generate different sympathies for each of the characters, and implicitly exacerbate the pervading Nazi threat. On a broader scale, the stylistic elements cultivate ideological sympathy for the Allied cause and anxiety towards war.

One key formal element of the scene is the lighting which allows the audience to see Ilsa as her lovers do.

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Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, receives a fill light that removes the shadows on her face, making her skin appear perfectly smooth. The back light provides a halo effect, reinforcing her portrayal as an innocent, sympathetic woman. Although Ilsa has betrayed Rick, her portrayal as a compassionate, almost angelic figure complicates the audience's interpretation of her character.

In contrast, Rick's lighting creates a haggard image of the older night club owner. His key light casts shadows which emphasize wrinkles. This wearied picture of Humphrey Bogart, who acts the part of Rick, complicates the relationship between Ilsa and Rick.

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Clearly Ilsa, who has injured Rick, sympathizes with her former lover. However, her relationship with Laszlow precludes the possibility of Ilsa manifesting her love for Rick. Thus, the lighting places a dichotomy between Rick, a lonely bachelor, and Ilsa, a beautiful, angelic lady. The characters are admirable in two different ways and the audience is torn between sympathies.

In the scene, line delivery and facial expression channel tensions into the situation while evoking sympathy on implicit and ideological levels. Bogart's line delivery shows hostility and cold cynicism. Because this is the first time he demonstrates emotion, the audience realizes that Rick's relationship with Ilsa has dramatically affected his ability to love and intervene in the lives of others. His stubborn face and cool remarks reveal the powerful effect of Ilsa's betrayal and intensify the tensions of the scene.

Ilsa's calm replies to Rick's cold overtones reinforce the audience's sympathies for Ilsa. Because she is torn between two admirable men, Ilsa clearly suffers more than the other characters. Sympathies for Ilsa are generated by her sincere expressions of kindness and the tears which begin her encounter with Rick. Ilsa's reserved yet sincere compassion towards Rick reveals that she cannot love either of the men completely without seeming unfaithful. Despite her mixed love lives and infidelity, the audience is led to forgive her.

One key delivery by Bergman reflects an ideological meaning enforced by the movie. While Rick speaks of the Nazis with clear resentment, Ilsa's remembrance of the Nazi's invasion of Paris is channeled through a soft voice and sympathetic, dejected face. Ilsa looks down as she speaks of the dress she wore that day, demonstrating her sorrow towards the situation. This teaches the audience a sadder facet of the war. Clearly, the Nazi encroachment has rendered the relationship between the lovers. Rather than re-emphasizing hatred for the Nazi's, Bergman's portrayal evokes compassion for the Allied cause.

Captain Renault's intonations during the scene reveal suspicions concerning Rick and Ilsa. His suggestive voice which raises questions about their relationship cultivates an awkward tension between Rick and Laszlow. Two words in particular, 'extremely jealous,' are delivered with high intonations and connote suspicion. While the other characters politely try to address each other, Renault bluntly confronts the mysterious situation between Rick and Ilsa.

Renault's costume reinforces theses scenic anxieties. Dressed in a decorated military uniform, he is a looming reminder of the war. Renault's presence as an officer symbolizes the forces which have complicated the situation between Rick, Ilsa, and Laszlow. This coincides with the awkward tensions his delivery creates. Placement of a decorated officer as the central bearer of tension in the scene enforces the audience's anxieties with the war and generates sympathy for the Allied cause. Rick, Ilsa, and Laszlow, who all emerge as supporters for the Allied cause, are haunted by Renault and the conflict he represents.

The costume and make-up of Rick and Victor Laszlow generates a comparison of their different roles in the war and complicates the audience's decision to sympathize with either one of them. Rick is attired in a bright white tuxedo and bowtie. His ensemble is neatly tailored to his body, producing an air of sophistication and strength which separates him from his clients. This costume implies that Rick is an important, masculine figure. Victor Laszlow's more conservative suit depicts his role as a leader. Unlike Rick, he wears a tie, reminding the audience of his practicality and pursuit of purpose. Laszlow's make-up endows his hair with a grey streak. This is an indication of the exhausting years he has spent in a concentration camp and evokes sympathy for him as a persecuted individual.

The sharp dichotomy between the appearances of Rick and Laszlow communicates a central problem of the film. While the audience admires Rick, a strong, sophisticated gentleman, they cannot ignore the noble image of Victor Laszlow, the conservative freedom fighter. Rick's costume implies classic Hollywood love, while Laszlow's appearance, though less attractive, promotes ideological support for the Allied cause. The audience becomes torn between these two messages, contributing to the scene's tensions.

Bergman's costume and make-up contribute to her portrayal of Ilsa as a sophisticated, beautiful woman. Unlike many of the women in Rick's Café Américain, Ilsa wears a modest, elegant women's suit. Her attire does not draw excessive attention to her figure, but rather highlights her natural features. Bergman's make-up is subtle, yet creates an image of perfectly smooth skin. Clearly, Ilsa is separated from the other women in Casablanca by her beauty and sophistication. This image of Ilsa compensates for her betrayal of Rick and alleviates his hostilities towards her. Again, these implications force the audience to admire and sympathize with Ilsa.

A final stylistic component which enforces both the tensions of the scene and strong ideological associations is the staging of Victor Laszlow and Rick. Either standing or sitting, Laszlow's posture remains erect; this stability contributes to Laszlow's embodiment of the pure, noble hero. Laszlow represents perseverance and courage; his demeanor promotes a noble image of those actively involved in the Allied cause. In contrast, Rick sits slumped and haggardly, implying that he has been jaded by his relationship with Ilsa. These different representations evoke conflicting sympathies from the audience. By acknowledging both the moral courage of Laszlow and Rick's unhappy situation, the audience realizes a piece of the emotional strain which plagues Ilsa throughout the film.

The combined effect of these formal elements guides the audience's attitudes towards the characters and their anxieties. As the film progresses, the perceptions established in this scene prove imperative in understanding the important conflict between Ilsa and Rick, the effects of war, and the themes of love and sacrifice.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Themes of Love and Sacrifice in Casablanca. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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