"We Said No Questions."
Reflections on Playful Uncertainty in Casablanca

Edvin Vestergaard Kau

According to Captain Renault, the French prefect of police in Casablanca, Ilsa Lund has been asking questions about Rick Blaine before the three of them meet at the same table together with Victor Lazslo (her husband and an important leader in the resistance movement). However, when Renault announces this, she manages to stay calm and very innocently plays down the fact that they know each other, saying: "I wasn't sure you were the same. Let's see, the last time we met…," "Was The Belle Aurore," Rick finishes for her. "How nice you remembered," Ilsa replies with a big smile. One might wonder what is going on behind what is said and the obvious reactions in this first part of the conversation. What is happening in their minds, what are their secrets?

How we see how they look
The first time Ilsa Lund enters Rick's Café Americain, she is reminded of the days she spent with Richard Blaine in Paris around the time the Germans marched into the city. As soon as she and Victor enter, her attention is draw to the piano player, Sam. And of course she couldn't have missed Rick's name above the entrance. Asking Captain Renault about Sam (as a way of indirectly obtaining information about Rick, of course), he informs her that Sam arrived from Paris together with Rick, tells her about his ownership of the café, and even how attractive he is (which makes Ilsa look down).

So, under the circumstances and in more than one way she was basically right in saying to her husband: "Victor, I feel somehow we shouldn't stay here." On the one hand, both he and she are in danger because of his activities in the resistance movement and the Germans' joining forces with the French administration, loyal to Vichy; and on the other, she is very worried about the risk of being confronted with Rick.

At this point, the audience knows nothing about Ilsa. Only a few glances and hesitations (mostly on the part of Ilsa and Sam) hint at something in the past, and the mystery is only further deepened and obscured by Sam's line: "Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You're bad luck to him." Also, we know very little about Rick. Besides running the café, he "ran guns to Ethiopia" in 1935, mentions Renault, and "fought in Spain on the loyalist side" in 1936. He has a past that makes it difficult for him to return to the United States, and the Germans' record on him makes it impossible for him to go to Nazi controlled countries.

During the conversation between Renault, Victor, Ilsa, and Rick some remarks and reactions suggest that Rick and Ilsa had some kind of relationship in the past. Something about which nothing definite has been told so far. But then the audience is shown something special during the last part of the scene and the dialogue. It gradually starts appearing as the above-mentioned dialogue unfolds. Ilsa continues her line, talking about the last time she and Rick were together: "But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris." Rick: "Not an easy day to forget. I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue." Ilsa, smiling: "Yes, I put that dress away. When the Germans march out, I'll wear it again."

The camera work and editing discretely yet at the same time very precisely build Rick and Ilsa a space of their own within the scene as a whole. The conversation between Victor and Renault together with the variation of "As Time Goes By" in Max Steiner's score become the back-drop for what is going on between Ilsa and Rick. While Renault and Victor talk the concentration on Rick and Ilsa that began during their remarks on Paris proceeds to show or foreground their silence and their glances. Stylistically they are singled out from their surroundings, and during the last moments of the scene the camera even "sneaks" in between Ilsa and Rick, and Victor Lazslo is standing behind her, so her expression is hidden from him and is only visible to Rick and the audience. Everything works together to show that they have something hidden in their past and hearts. Something that neither the audience nor the other characters can know anything about. (Except for Sam, who followed Rick from Paris, of course.)

In love and war
The main characters are situated in the middle of a drama of historic world events. In this context of politics, war, ideological clashes, moral pressure and resistance, we are presented with a kind of "blurred" romance. If the love story is told during the course of the film, and the war as the circumstances surrounding the lovers is a well-known and closed chapter of history, what is still fascinating about these intertwined plot lines?

Wartime and the events in the battlefields certainly played a role in Warner Bros.' decision to develop and produce "Casablanca" for the screen. The script was an adaptation of the play "Everybody Comes to Rick's," by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Producer Hal Wallis at Warner Bros. immediately saw the possibilities when he was presented with the project in December 1941. During the winter and spring of 1942 a number of writers would develop the script. Shooting began on May 25th and was finished by late August. Some of the first comments Wallis read from the Warner staff responsible for evaluating the cinematic potential of incoming manuscripts used words like "excellent melodrama," "timely background," "psychological and physical conflict," and "a box-office natural" (Miller, p. 30). Soon it would become even timelier. On November 8th 1942 allied forces landed in North Africa, in fact they fought in a battle near Casablanca, and of course Wallis and Warner were busy getting the film out. The premiere came on November 26th at the Hollywood Theatre in New York, complete with a Free French parade, and on January 23rd 1943 it opened in Los Angeles and was generally released - notably around the same time as the Casablanca Conference, where Roosevelt and Churchill met with de Gaulle.

Apart from this, and without there being an equally visible fingerprint in all films, many things were in line with the wishes of the American government, which wanted to mobilise Hollywood for ideological warfare. Directors and hundreds of other people in the industry worked on (training and propaganda) films for the government. In return for the cooperation the industry was given different kinds of support and advantages. For example, the Justice Department dropped antitrust cases against studios that had their own theatre chains.

Even specific themes considered helpful to the American cause were outlined for use in feature films by government officials, such as war issues in general, the American way of life, criticism of the enemy, favourable depictions of allies, the home-front efforts, and the allied forces.

In this political and psychological climate Casablanca was a plum in Warner's lap. Without being too crudely cut along the lines of what the politicians might want, it "automatically" had a very timely plot, the right blend of characters, and the right mix of patriotic and ideological hints. Take, for example, the character of Rick and his development. At different points his personal considerations and decisions are commented upon by Renault and put into a much broader political perspective, such as when he makes his remarks on what Rick does or doesn't do and when he talks about his "isolationism" and good or bad "foreign policy."

Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein did important work on the script, and Howard Koch took over, actually rewriting it in large part and developing a new script. Koch was a liberal who apparently tried to have his projects make as much political sense as possible. He was the scriptwriter behind the adaptation of H. G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds" for Orson Welles's famous Mercury Theatre radio broadcast that caused people to believe that Martians were invading. In Casablanca he tried to make Rick Blaine a stronger character (also politically) and to underline references to current events. (Miller, pp. 111-17). In his own words, compared to the efforts of the Epsteins he saw what he was doing like this: "They apparently see the situations more in terms of their comic possibilities, while my effort has been to legitimize the characters and develop a serious melodrama of present-day significance, using humor merely as a relief from dramatic tension" (Miller, p. 116; italics added).

No questions. Any answers?
With the tilting camera and its diving crane, both the audience and the story's many refugees are lowered down into Casablanca's market place and the trading of human lives. Some are lucky to be able to go on to America, while many, in the words of the voice-over of the opening scene, "Wait, and wait - and wait". This is the important premise and setting of the events. The war defines everything that happens. This also means that Casablanca is not about themes like fate or culture in general. It is about some people who find themselves in a kind of no man's land created by the war; it is about survival, loneliness, death threats, fighting for a common cause, and love. And everything is told in the light of very precise circumstances. Also, Casablanca is a place where the producers can develop the exoticism of the location as well as the destiny of a whole series of refugees in transit.

In this framework of world history, location and an obscure past, what is hinted at but never spelled out clearly becomes a puzzle that is never completely solved. How does the war affect the lives and innermost feelings of the characters? How much of what they say and do are we to believe? What are their real motives? As it turns out, the audience will never know. This goes not only for Ilsa and Rick, but also to a great extent for Renault and Victor. For instance, is Ilsa telling the truth about her information that Victor is dead (and later, isn't), when she meets Rick in Paris? Or does her expression tell a different story at the very moment she says the words to Rick?

The possibility of such double talk (and the awakening of the audience's sensibility towards it) is in fact demonstrated in the above-analysed moments, when Ilsa's and Rick's silent reactions are foregrounded near the end of the conversation with Victor and Renault. It is an example showing how psychological "action" is shown within the visual style. This is a practice of style that "goes beyond itself" and becomes much more than what is traditionally described as a kind of invisible carrier of the logic of narrative continuity. What we find is an uncertainty and some hints that the film offers to the audience. Through these elements of style the viewer is "invited" to participate in playful and pleasurable guesswork regarding what the characters' real past, motives, and perhaps hidden passions might be. The dialogue never reveals any definite solutions, and in establishing this guessing game it is important that even the described precise stylistic devices (camera work, eyelines, expressions, editing…) do not give away any solutions either. The fascination has to with the lack of definite answers.

From Paris to Casablanca on a sofa
During the first minutes of the Paris flashback Ilsa acts very carefree and happy, showing her love for Rick with a relaxed smile on her face. Apparently nothing can disturb them. Rick asks his first question over a glass of champagne: "Who are you really, 'n what were you before? What did you do, and what did you think, ah?" But, at the time, she answers: "We said no questions." They can laugh about it, and Rick just ends by saying: "Here's looking at you, kid!" They go out dancing, but back at the hotel things get serious when Ilsa wants to hear what Rick is thinking, and he asks how he could be so lucky, how he could find her waiting for him to come along. Ilsa: "Why there is no other man in my life? That's easy. - There was … He's dead!" He says that he is sorry he asked and that he "forgot we said no questions." Ilsa remarks that only one answer can take care of all their questions, which means that they stop talking, lean back in their sofa and kiss each other. But before that, when she mentions the dead man, Ilsa begins to look down and to the side, worried about something. (Already at this stage she may have invented a lie on the spot.) This kind of behavior continues throughout the last scenes of the Paris flashback sequence. Instead of concentrating on Rick, her glance wanders off in other directions, and is often highlighted as directed out of the picture frame.

A remarkable duality is thus initiated in Ilsa's behaviour and Ingrid Bergman's performance, as well as in the viewer's attention to what is happening. It is also an example of the special kind of interaction between what is clearly defined for the audience (events, people, relations, conflicts, etc.) and ambiguities that also demand attention.

The next time a sofa plays a major role is in Rick's apartment above his café in Casablanca, when Ilsa is trying to persuade Rick to give her the visas for her and Victor's escape. After the discussion and her admitting to still being in love with Rick, they kiss again. Before that, she gives another version of the events in Paris and tells him that Victor wasn't dead after all, claiming that she only learned this shortly before they were to leave the city; therefore, she did not tell Rick in order to let him leave alone, in a way forcing him away from her. But again, the film hints at something other than what her words are saying. The way she explains to him about Victor and the way this is shown to the audience still leave room for doubt. Her hesitations and eye movements even suggest that it is already at this point that Rick develops the plan to send Victor and Ilsa out of Casablanca on that legendary airplane.

As is evident, the repetition of sofa situations is both a simplification and one of several ways of tightening the structure of the story. Along with the way Curtiz handles the dialogue, uses the camera and edits the dynamics of time and space, this repetition opens up for a sense of variation and an awareness on the part of the viewer of possible combinations, explanations and other patterns of meaning. These elements are just examples from a production that was not at all as confused as myth would have it. The continued development of the script well into the shooting period did not mean that Casablanca was shot in sequence, and Ingrid Bergman was not left in ignorance of the ending during the shooting of many of the important scenes with Rick and Victor. In fact, the final scenes at the airport and hangar were shot before several other important scenes (such as the scene with Ilsa and Rick in his apartment). The key consideration was the best and most economic way to use sets and players. "According to the production reports, Casablanca was shot in pieces as sets and people became available, just like any other film (Miller, p. 123; italics added).

Most of the choices made by the scriptwriters, producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz involved establishing motivations and simplifying the structure of the story. Even the apparent solution to the problem at the end is an example of this: How can they get rid of Strasser without getting Renault or Rick into trouble? Strasser himself has to challenge Rick (trying to phone and drawing his gun). Renault must resort to his old routine: order that the usual suspects be rounded up. Victor has to get away safely, and Ilsa must go with him to be safe, even if he continues his fight against Nazism.

So, at the end of the day it is not what we intellectually and logically understand in the story that continues to be the attraction and charm of Casablanca (war, propagating the right values, the right side winning, etc.), rather, what is intriguing and what makes the audience stay and love this movie is its mystique: what I have discussed as the uncertainties, as the riddles behind the actions of the characters, as well as in their lives and decisions. Why, when it comes to decisive matters, is Renault finally behaving in a decent way? How can Victor both go on with his fight and keep his loved one - without having her? How can Ilsa go on living like that? (Or: How can the film let her?). One could ask even more questions without finding any answers. On the surface of the plot this realm of uncertainties doesn't even arise as themes within the narrative, nor even as questions. The exiting thing in the depiction and in the viewer's experience (and, a little mysteriously, what is never explained) is the doubt and the resulting curiosity, that is, the fact that the characters never remain unambiguous and that they are not the templates that the myths about Casablanca would like to make of them. "We said no questions," but they are the intriguing center of the film - as long as we can play along with them as unanswered.

to the top of the page


Behlmer, Rudy: Casablanca 1942-1992. 50th Anniversary Celebration. MGM/ UA-Turner, 1992.

Jerslev, Anna: Kultfilm og filmkultur, (pp. 63-86). Aalborg: Amanda, 1993.

Maltby, Richard: "'A Brief Romantic Interlude': Dick and Jane Go to 3 Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema," in Bordwell, David & Carroll, Noël: Post Theory. Madison, Wisconsin: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Maltby, Richard: Hollywood Cinema, pp. 344-51. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Miller, Frank: Casablanca. As Time Goes By… London: Virgin Books, 1993.

Raskin, Richard: "Casablanca and U.S. Foreign Policy," in The Functional Analysis of Art. Aarhus: Arkona, 1983.

to the top of the page