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The real-life refugees of 'Casablanca' make it so much more than a love story

A screenshot from <em>Casablanca</em> showing Humphrey Bogart and Helmut Dantine.
Warner Bros.
A screenshot from Casablanca showing Humphrey Bogart and Helmut Dantine.

It's been 80 years since the Hollywood classic Casablanca opened nationwide. Set at Rick's Cafe, a nightclub in the Moroccan city during World War II, the story centers around a love triangle.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick, the cynical American bar owner who repeatedly claims to be neutral in the war. Ingrid Bergman plays his old flame Ilsa Lund, who is now married to Victor Laszlo, a dashing resistance leader played by Paul Henreid.

But Casablanca is more than just a love story. It is a film about, and stocked with, the waves of refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe during wartime. And many of the actors playing those roles were, in fact, refugees.

"When people speak here, the accents are real," says Leslie Epstein, the son and nephew of screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein. "That gives it a kind of authenticity. In a sense, they're playing themselves."

Helmut Dantine was one such actor. Dantine was born in Austria and, as a teenager, became the leader of the anti-Nazi youth movement in Vienna. When the Nazis annexed Austria in March of 1938, they promptly arrested 19-year-old Dantine.

His family used their political connections to negotiate his release, and immediately sent him to the United States. He landed in Los Angeles, enrolled at UCLA, and began his acting career.

"He was drop dead gorgeous," says his widow Niki Dantine. "He would walk in the room and the ladies would straighten the seams in their stockings."

In Casablanca, Dantine plays Jan Brandel, a young refugee who has fled Europe with his wife. In one scene, Jan is playing roulette, hoping to win enough money to buy their exit visas. But he's losing. Seeing his predicament, Rick rigs the game to help Jan win, essentially gifting them the cash to secure the couple's passage to America.

In other wartime films, Dantine would be cast as the villain, playing Nazi officers opposite Errol Flynn in Northern Pursuit (1943) and Escape in the Desert (1945).

"It must have been incredibly hard for him emotionally," Niki Dantine told Radio Diaries. "Having been the leader of the anti-Nazi youth movement, to then be playing Nazis in film."

There were several other European-born actors in Casablanca who had made it to Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis.

  • Conrad Veidt plays Nazi officer Major Strasser. Veidt was a German actor whose wife was Jewish. Like Dantine, he escaped the Nazis only to find success portraying them on screen.
  • Peter Lorre plays Ugarte, a customer at Rick's Cafe who steals from German couriers at the start of the film. Lorre began his career as a stage actor in Vienna and Berlin, and became internationally known with his performance in Fritz Lang's M (1931) and in America for his role in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
  • S.Z. Sakall plays Carl the waiter. Before the war, Sakall was a Hungarian cabaret actor. Members of his family died in the death camps and he escaped to Hollywood, where he was known as "cuddles" and often cast in comedic roles.
  • Marcel Dalio plays Emil, the croupier. In France, Dalio was a star, known for his roles in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Dalio was Jewish and he fled Paris in 1940 with his wife Madeleine Lebeau — who plays Yvonne in Casablanca.
  • Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre starred alongside each other in <em>Casablanca</em>.
    Donaldson Collection / Getty Images
    /
    Getty Images
    Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre starred alongside each other in Casablanca.

    Today, many viewers see these on-screen refugees as Jewish, but they are never identified as such. From The Jazz Singer (1927) to Gentleman's Agreement (1947), the term "Jewish" rarely appeared in Hollywood screenplays. One exception was Mr. Skeffington (1944), written by the same writers as Casablanca: the Epstein Brothers.

    "The Hollywood moguls, the boards in Washington, none of these people wanted the American public to think of World War II as a war for the Jews," Leslie Epstein told Radio Diaries. But even if it softened the specifics, Casablanca still delivered a powerful political message to audiences.

    "Casablanca is a propaganda film," says Noah Isenberg, author of We'll Always Have Casablanca. "It's a propaganda film because the American public were not fully convinced of the moral imperative of fighting this war; and the message is, this is a fight worth fighting."

    The character arc of Rick Blaine, played by Bogart, is a clear metaphor for the United States and foreign policy. Rick begins the film as an isolationist, telling Ilsa: "I'm not fighting for anything anymore, except myself. I'm the only cause I'm interested in."

    But as the story progresses, cracks appear in that façade. In the scene with Dantine, for example, Rick's aid of young refugees is a sign he is not as cold-hearted as he leads people to believe.

    Later in the famous scene of the singing of La Marseillaise, Rick gives permission for the band to play the song of the resistance. As the refugees in the bar belt out their anthem, the film cuts to a closeup of the young French actress Madeleine Lebeau, tears streaming down her face.

    Lebeau had fled Paris with her husband, Marcel Dalio, just two years prior. "They're not tears of glycerin shed by an actress," says Epstein. "The tears in her eyes are real."

    During World War II, Hollywood provided safe harbor and employment for European emigres. After the war, a few of the refugee actors in Casablanca were successful playing character roles. But for most, the work dried up as Hollywood turned its focus back to life in America. Some would be targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Others returned to post-war Europe.

    Casablanca is often considered one of the greatest love stories ever told on screen, but its political message was particularly attuned to the times. Niki Dantine believes it left a mark.

    "I think a film like Casablanca gave Americans an opportunity to see what it was like to survive and how your life hangs in the balance during wartime."


    This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries, and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Joe Richman. You can find more stories on the Radio Diaries Podcast.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Nellie Gilles