Cinematic Century

1953 – Stalag 17

 

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Well, after a brief break for the greatest American musical ever made I think it’s high time to get back to this accidental Billy Wilder marathon I’ve given myself. When I first started working on this project I knew that I loved a few Billy Wilder movies, but it wasn’t until I actually put everything in a list that I realized how that guy was knocking it out of the park so consistently in such a short amount of time. And the films really couldn’t be more different. He was a wonderful storyteller, regardless of whatever genre he was trying out. But, when I was getting everything set up, I hadn’t even seen today’s film, Stalag 17. I actually had a hell of a time with 1953, and it’s a year that came down to the wire, requiring several rewatches for films from the year, trying to figure out which clicked with me the most. For a while I was just going to go with Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, a film that I should love. It checks off a whole bunch of my boxes, but for some reason I cannot articulate, despite a lot of thinking, the film just doesn’t work for me. I know I should love it, I can see why it’s great, it’s just never done it for me, and since this is supposed to be a list of my favorite films, it felt ridiculous to try and make this work. Which kind of pointed me in the direction of Pickup on South Street, a film I enjoy quite a bit, but that’s nothing really special. I’ve written about it on the site before, and it’s a hoot, but it couldn’t quite hold its own against the other films of the year. I could have been a total bummer and talked about Tokyo Story, but that falls into that awkward territory I come across occasionally where I can pretty easily say it’s the best film of 1953, but it’s nowhere near my favorite. I even tried out Shane, thinking I could use another Western on the list, but boy oh boy was the movie dull. So, I figured I’d go back to the well and check out Billy Wilder’s 1953 project, Stalag 17. And I loved it. I have no idea how Wilder was this talented, and how he produced such amazing films one after another, but it’s much appreciated.

The film ends up becoming another film on a very strange list of movies that I’ve tackled on this project. It’s a weird World War II comedy! My usual remarks about this strange sub-genre apply here, I have no idea how it works as well as it does, and it shows the importance of finding humor in horrible situations. But, unlike the Great Dictator and To Be or Not To Be, this film didn’t have the excuse of coming out while the War was still happening and the horrors hadn’t quite been exposed. But, while it could feel like the film could easily become problematic just years after the War ended, it manages to hold together primarily because of the source material. This film is based off of a popular play that was written by actual prisoners of war, recounting their experiences in a German camp during the war. Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski wrote Stalag 17 as a memoir of their time in an actual camp known as Stalag 17B, filling it with the friendship, camaraderie, and horror that came along with that experience. Wilder became interested in the story, and after rewritting quite a bit of the script with Edwin Blum, production began on a filmed adaptation of the play. They ended up building their own POW camp set, and ended up making a pretty unconventional shoot. But, it paid off. The film was a big financial and critical hit, and is regarded as one of the finest World War II films ever made.

 

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Stalag 17 takes place in the titular prisoner of war camp, following the exploits of a group of American soldiers who are frittering away their lives while World War II rages. They spend their time scheming to escape, hanging out together, and dealing with the German officers who run the camp, specifically Sergeant Schulz, their primary contact in the camp. The film begins with an attempted escape that has been planned for quite some time. Two of the soldiers manage to sneak out of the camp, but are immediately caught by the Germans, who appear to have known that they would be there. The men immediately begin suspecting that someone in the barracks is a snitch who is working with the Germans and telling them all about their plans, and suspicion immediately falls upon a man named JJ Sefton. And, for good reason. Sefton is a bit of a con artist, stockpiling cigarettes and all sorts of other amenities while constantly scamming the other prisoners for his own gain. He even has a mercantile relationship with some of the Germans, making the other men assume that Sefton is accomplishing this because he’s working for them.

No one can really prove that Sefton is involved though, they just know that he isn’t completely on the level.  However, they can’t completely fixate on the question of the snitch, otherwise they’d go mad, so they spend most of their time just trying to remain sane. They play games, they tell jokes, and they just generally goof around. Unfortunately, one of these methods requires a contraband radio which they use to keep up with sports scores. And, one day, Schulz arrives, heads straight to where they keep the radio hidden, and uncovers it before confiscating it. This further puts them on the lookout for the snitch, and when Sefton coincidentally gets a reward from some of the German officers they decide that Sefton is definitely their snitch. But, they get a bit of a distraction with some new prisoners arrive, particularly an officer named Lieutenant Dunbar who will be staying in Stalag 17 for a while until he’s transferred to a nicer officer barracks.

The men become fascinated with Dunbar, who begins showing off and telling them all about his heroic exploits out in the war. Including the fact that he and some other soldiers sabotaged a train full of ammunition that the Germans have been trying to solve for quite some time. Sefton and Dunbar almost immediately rub each other the wrong way, which honestly makes the other men like Dunbar even more. Which makes it even more problematic for Sefton when Dunbar is taken to the head of the camp, Colonel von Scherbach, because they know he was responsible for the sabotage. This is finally a bridge too far, and the soldiers ends up beating Sefton, punishing him for being the snitch. But, he’s not. It’s actually a man who calls himself Price, and who is really a German operative who has been placed in the barracks to spy on them. And, on Christmas Eve, the soldiers learn that Dunbar is being sent to Berlin to be executed for his sabotage, and they decide to try and free him. The only problem is the snitch. They assume that Sefton will find a way to screw them over, but the entire film he’s been privately investigating the snitch, and has realized that it’s Price. He just so happened to notice Price making a knot in the wire of their lightbulb, a signal to Schulz that he’s placed a note in a false queen on their chess board. And, as the plan to save Dunbar is about to occur, Sefton reveals the truth. He exposes Price as a German agent, and even offers to help Dunbar escape. The men free Dunbar, use Price as a distraction by forcing the Germans to kill him, and Sefton and Dunbar flee to safety, leaving the men behind, but giving them just a taste of hope.

 

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It continues to blow my mind how incredibly skilled Billy Wilder was as a filmmaker. He was churning these master pieces out, all of them feeling so very different and unique. They all have his trademark wit, but other than that he’s really testing himself, doing new and exciting things with each project. And this film feels like a major departure from the rest of his works, at least until this point. Wilder movies had always been funny and charming, but this film was probably his funniest up until this point. He’ll make even more outright comedies later in his career, and spoiler alert, we’ll probably talk about at least one of them, but it’s impressive how funny they managed to make this movie. Especially considering the fact that it revolves around prisoners or war in World War II. It’s light-hearted, but never tries to use that silliness to cover up the horror of what these men are going through. It’s just how they’re coping. It’s full of camaraderie and men doing everything they can to survive in the insane situation that their lives have become. William Holden won an Oscar for his role as Sefton, and even though it does appear that this was one of numerous cases of the Academy giving an award out because they screwed up and didn’t give it to him earlier, namely for Sunset Boulevard, he’s great in this. Really, everyone is, but Holden manages to sell the strange tone that this film is going with, managing to portray a character who is making the best out of a terrible situation, while trying doing everything he can to remain sane in an insane situation.

Which is kind of what the film is all about. It’s the story about a group of men who have been sent to kill other young men, but who were captured alive. They now have to be kept inside a camp, in the hands of the enemy, while being treated decently, until the war ends. There’s a bizarre surreality to this film, which really gets to the heart of how strange war really is. We have rules for war, one of the most animalistic and uncivil things that humanity does. But, we can’t be too uncivil. These men are given a camp, food, and a modicum of entertainment thanks to visits from the impartial Swiss who are making sure the Geneva Convention isn’t being broken, all while a staggering amount of people are being slaughtered in the very same country. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just how things are. We’ve decided that there needs to be civility and rules to war, and we act like that makes complete sense. There are Americans and German paling around in this film, regular people who were forced into war with each other, but when they’re stuck together they start to recognize the absurdity of the whole situation. Because it’s all absurd. War shouldn’t exist. It’s good that we have rules in war so that things don’t get too flagrantly evil, but it’s incredibly strange that we’ve drawn any lines whatsoever.

 

Stalag 17 was written by Edwin Blum and Billy Wilder, directed by Billy Wilder, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1953.

 

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