There’s little evidence to suggest that Casablanca was ever supposed to be anything more than a slightly soppy wartime drama. Certainly, no one at the studio expected it to go on to become one of the most beloved romances of all time and a defining piece of WWII-era cinema. But it has more than just the sizzling chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart going for it – Casablanca also captures a heartbreakingly authentic glimpse of the refugee crisis in Europe during the war, which is made all the more poignant by the fact that the actors on screen are depicting a version of their own reality. Many members of the cast themselves had fled the Nazi regime, giving Casablanca a power and emotional resonance that goes far beyond many other war propaganda films of the day.
Humphrey Bogart was American, born and raised in Manhattan, and although Ingrid Bergman was a Swedish immigrant, she came to the United States for her career rather than out of any desperate need to flee the Nazis. But other than these two lead actors, the majority of Casablanca’s cast found themselves a people without a homeland, much like their desperate characters stranded in Morocco.
Peter Lorre plays Ugarte, an amoral criminal with extremely precious letters of transit in his possession (these essentially represent a golden ticket out of Casablanca and onward to neutral countries). A Hungarian Jew, Lorre made his career in Germany with his stunningly unsettling performance as a child murderer in the classic 1931 thriller M, but was forced to flee when the Nazis came to power just two years later. He settled in Hollywood during the late 1930s, where studios took advantage of his unconventional looks to cast him as the off-putting villain or henchman in dozens of films before his death in 1964.
There’s also Paul Henreid, who plays the third character in Casablanca’s famous love triangle, the Czech revolutionary Victor Laszlo. Henreid was himself half-Jewish, and a fervent anti-Nazi. After helping a Jewish friend escape from Berlin, he was declared an “official enemy of the Third Reich” and had all of his assets seized by the state. He worked in the UK throughout the late 1930s, but always under threat of deportation or even internment, since he could be considered an enemy alien if he wasn’t careful. He moved to the United States in 1941, quickly dropping the Germanic “von” from his birth name and becoming a U.S. citizen.
And finally, the most unexpected character of Casablanca to be a war refugee: Conrad Veidt, who famously plays Major Strassler, the Nazi villain of the piece. Although Veidt was a defining figure in German cinema throughout the silent era (one of his first major roles was as Cesare in the expressionist horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), he was a strong opponent of the Nazi regime, which effectively ended his career in Germany. He emigrated to Britain a week after marrying his Jewish wife, and although he was told that if he divorced her, he would be welcomed back into the German film industry with open arms, he chose instead to start a new life elsewhere.
Before leaving the country, he was forced by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (alongside everyone else who worked in German film at the time) to fill out a racial questionnaire. Under “Race” he (falsely) wrote that he was Jewish, putting an emphatic punctuation mark at the end of his life in Germany. Upon arriving in Great Britain, he donated what was essentially his life savings to the UK government to help support the war effort. And although it might seem strange that a man so thoroughly opposed to the Nazi regime would frequently play Nazis on screen, it was actually something he insisted upon – his contract expressed his desire to use his German heritage to almost exclusively play villains.
This trio of supporting actors reflects the cast’s international nature, full of performers tragically displaced by war. But nowhere is this more evident than in the famous La Marseillaise scene, where Rick’s Cafe Americain is packed with extras defiantly singing the French national anthem in an effort to drown out the Nazis’ Die Wacht am Rhein. In many ways, these performers are essentially living the lives of their characters. They inject raw emotion and a frenetic energy that gives this sequence a sense of magic, as they are given space to pour all of their anxiety and grief into this one song.
There are plenty of 1940s romance films, and even more World War II dramas – the decade is positively rife with both. But there’s a sense of emotional honesty in Casablanca, an authenticity that comes through on screen, which has made it so resonant with audiences over the years. Beyond the writing or the directing or the gorgeous set pieces, it’s the contributions of the largely displaced cast that give the film a life of its own.