Stalag 17 (1953)

Directed by Billy Wilder

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[EDIT: This is a long, rambling review as I try to figure out what Stalag 17 is really about.  By the end I decide it’s about the postwar conditions of the 1950s, specifically the red scare.  It takes me a while to get there, and I still might be completely missing the point, but I’m going to leave it all here on the table.  The writing that follows is my mostly stream of consciousness thought process when trying to break down a film.  It might be ugly, but that’s what it is.]

It’s hard to place your finger on what interests Billy Wilder as a director.  He had a long career full of a strange variety of stories and genres, and Stalag 17 is one of the most perplexing but intriguing of them all.  It’s the type of movie that you wouldn’t expect to exist, combining Animal House with a World War II prison camp less than a decade after the war had ended.  And coming from a director who lost family members in the Holocaust, it’s flabbergasting that Wilder could make such a broadly comic movie about something so terrible.

The movie never does touch on the Holocaust, but this is a German war camp with German soldiers portrayed as clueless and generally affable.  This is a war movie about as far removed from the war as you can get.  It’s not tasteless, and it certainly is enjoyable, but it just represents a strange blend of tone that you don’t see as much of today.

Before I dive into the movie, I just want to highlight the varieties in tone from film to film of Wilder’s early career, and maybe that can help shed a light on Stalag 17.  Before 1953 he had made a screwball comedy about Ginger Rogers posing as a young girl for a free train ride, a classic noir about a man who helps kill the husband of the woman he’s in love with, a grim story of an alcoholic man’s descent into madness, Sunset Boulevard and then a movie about a monster of a reporter whose capitalistic lust for a good story eventually kills a man and himself.

Sunset Boulevard is in its own category because it has to be.  It’s a haunting fairytale that ends with the hero dead in a pool.  It starts that way too, just as Double Indemnity begins and ends with the character’s unenviable fate.

These movies show how capable Wilder was as a director of comedies and dramas, at times blending the two into something more sinister, as in Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity.  This genre-mixing, if you will, created stories much more subversive than I think you might’ve found at the time.  I’m speculating a little, but these Wilder films used humor to emphasize the drama, helping distance you from the characters as they circled the drain.  The drama and tension often remained, but you were forced to look at the characters with objectivity.  We were never meant to connect with or empathize with them but rather to see their character arcs as warnings for the rest of us.  The same could be said of Ace in the Hole.

Wilder, himself an immigrant, had an outsider’s perspective on these American stories and characters, allowing him to point out something in the way they live that we might not have seen at a first glance.  This is all to say that Stalag 17 feels more personal to Wilder, considering its subject matter and placement outside of the United States.  This is a story about Americans, but it’s really just about people who undermine the Nazis, similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Stalag 17 begins with two American prisoners killed during an escape attempt, but subsequently it feels like a broad comedy.  The POW camp is more of a fraternity house, and the Nazi warden is like the stuffy dean character you get in so many college comedies.

The Nazis are lame, not sinister– I’m really having a hard time writing about this.  You’re getting an unasked for peak behind the curtains at how I put this together.  I also didn’t realize “unasked” was a word, I anticipated the red squiggly line to appear underneath, but alas it did not.

Anyways, Stalag 17 is a pure drama until it’s a pure comedy.  Then it becomes something of a noir story with the grim, hardened perspective of the protagonist, played by William Holden who played a similar role in Sunset Boulevard.  The movie doesn’t really blend genres as much as it goes back and forth between them.

It starts with a failed escape and ends with a successful one, and in the middle we watch as the American prisoners begin to feud amongst themselves when they realize that one of them is a German spy.  It’s really a terrific movie that could work on its own as a straight drama.  There are terrific touches and terrific characters, mainly the Holden character, J.J. Sefton.

Sefton knows how to survive in this environment because he’s unafraid to make deals with the guards.  He gambles on the odds of a would-be escapee’s survival, he makes his own liquor, hosts “horse” races (with mice), and he pays off the guards to allow him to venture into the nearby women’s bunk to hang out with them.  Sefton treats this all as a game, and this soon rubs the other prisoners the wrong way.  When it becomes clear that one of them is a spy, Sefton is the obvious target.  They mistake his sardonic wit and relative freedom within the camp as a sign of his guilt.  They turn on him, beating him up, and this sets up an interesting dynamic in which despite the fact that there are Nazis all around, the biggest threat to Sefton is right there sleeping next to him, the other Americans.

It falls on Sefton to clear his name and find the real spy.  The sequence following Sefton as he puts the pieces together is something like pure cinema.  It’s beautifully put together, and we watch as the grim hero calmly assembles the puzzle in front of him.  Then he’s not quick to reveal what he knows to the others.  He slowly, methodically reveals what he knows and, like a determined survivor as he is, uses his information to help him escape.

Sefton is the type of hero you’d expect to see in any number of noir detective stories.  He’s not concerned with right and wrong or anything other than self-protection.  He doesn’t mind gambling on the odds of survival for other prisoners who try to escape, he doesn’t mind conferring with the enemy, and he isn’t quick to expose the hidden enemy when he finds him.

I’m still trying to piece together what this all means.  What does this say about Wilder?  It’s a great film on its own, and Wilder is an impressive director, but how does this differ from his other works, or does it?

We root for Sefton in a way we don’t for many of Wilder’s other protagonists.  I felt for Sefton, mostly when the other Americans wrongly teamed up on him.  Were we supposed to feel for Sefton?  I ask because he doesn’t even seem to feel for himself.

Then, when it comes to the Nazis we are meant to laugh.  They are buffoons, brash and supposedly sinister but mostly just blow-hards.  They are never a real threat, granted they did shoot down two American soldiers at the start of the film.

I’m still not sure what to make of all these characters, representations, etc.  You don’t get many World War II comedies anymore.  Most WW2 films are very serious, bleak and tragic.  Maybe that’s just what we expect because what happened was so terrible, but this was a movie made with the memories of the war fresh in our mind, and Wilder, with a deep personal connection to what happened, asks us to laugh at the enemy, then to wonder if there’s something more sinister within ourselves.

Or is that going too far?  I’m not sure, but he makes the real threat the suspicion of the Americans– oh my god, is this about the red scare?  Wow.  Maybe it is, Jesus that would be something.  I’m going to run with this.

The obvious enemy was the “other,” the Nazis.  They dress and act sinister.  Their colors were red and black, need I say more?  So they’re the enemy, but ‘we’ harden ourselves for battle to deal with them.  Except that once ‘we’ win, that hardened nature doesn’t just go away.  We put up our defenses to deal with an enemy, and once they’re gone our defenses are still up, leading us to spin around in circles and be fearful of everything.  So the prisoners have their guards up to deal with the enemy, but this leads them to turn on each other, specifically Sefton.

The war changed ‘us’ in a way to make us constantly on edge, always anxious.  This created the atmosphere of the fifties and the Cold War.

Or maybe I’m way offbase, but I think this could be what Wilder is discussing.  His previous film, Ace in the Hole, was a subtle condemnation of the American dream.  It’s a story about a reporter, Kirk Douglas, who is so determined to hit it big with a hit story that he’ll do anything, including unwittingly sentencing a man to die.  The movie opens with Douglas as a poor reporter with nothing to his name.  He then goes on a rags to riches journey, the kind we’ve all been told about as kids, only this time it’s not an uplifting tale of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.  Douglas has the right idea, but it manifests itself in disturbing ways.  It’s an indictment of the American dream, what it represents and what people will do to get it.

This, as well as Wilder’s earlier films, establishes a certain amount of subversion that I think you now find here in Stalag 17.  Damn.  I hope I’m not completely wrong here, but I think this might be what he’s after.

Wilder, if I’m not totally wrong, wraps his message in strange, amusing, dramatic and sometimes silly films that are always or mostly about ‘us,’ as in Americans.  He has something to say about what Americans feel and what they should really feel.  It’s a perspective he is only afforded by having an outsider’s point of view.

Man, I really love Billy Wilder’s movies.  After this he would go on to make other classics, including more broadly comic films like The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.  He also made The Apartment which might be his best of all.

Up Next: Straw Dogs (1971), Out of Sight (1988), The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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