Set in a German POW Camp for enlisted American airmen, a spy is discovered to be living in one of the prison barracks after an escape attempt fails resulting in the deaths of two inmates. The prisoners at once suspect Septon, an unscrupulous inside dealer who trades almost anything with the Germans for extra privileges. After Septon is beaten up, he himself determines to find the real spy and the result is a mixture of intrigue and betrayal leading to a surprise ending.
Summary written by Anthony Hughes (email@example.com)
Many years ago, I took a copy of Andrew Sarris's book 'The American Cinema' off my uncle's book shelf, and was affronted to see Billy Wilder listed under the section 'Less Than Meets The Eye'. I was just discovering the sardonic and cynical Wilder, and I found that his jaded view of human nature pretty much corresponded with my own, especially since I was about 24 years old. I understand Sarris recanted this view later, but for me the damage was already done.
Now that I'm not 24 years old, I still find that Wilder's wit can cut through layers of Hollywood-engendered expectation in a way I find thrilling. We see that it's an American film, the actors speak with American accents, but the sensibility being enunciated through those voices is peculiarly European, dry and rather dark.
For instance, in 'The Apartment', we get comfortable with Jack Lemmon's familiar schtick and immediately like the attractive young Shirley MacLaine's freewheeling manners, and settle in for a good romantic comedy. Then the young woman attempts to commit suicide. She takes pills. The camera stays with Jack as he discovers the lovely Miss Kubelik, the empty bottle; and stays as he calls the ambulance, attempts to revive her; and then keeps staying as they make awkward small talk after she has had her stomach pumped. The only thing missing from this frame is the vomit, which you get the impression Wilder only left out because it was 1960.
'Stalag 17' isn't really in the class of 'The Apartment', but the Wilder sensibility is already there nevertheless. It's one of those films that carved its own channel, allowing others to follow afterwards, making it feel a bit too familiar. The fact that it looks a bit like 'Hogan's Heroes' is not really the film's fault, even if it has a big stupid German guard called Schultz. But it does cut into the film's credibility with the casual viewer, making it just a little harder to get into the mindset of a 1953 cinema audience, who'd never seen a comic film about a Prisoner of War camp before. This certainly would have given the movie a distinct edge, especially considering that an average audience would have still contained men whose memories of imprisonment under the Germans were still fresh.
It’s worth keeping in mind while watching the film that it was made by a Jewish political refugee from Hitler’s Germany. What’s more, Otto Preminger, who plays camp Kommandant Col. von Scherbach, was himself a Jewish immigrant from Austria.
It's a comic film whose inherently un-comic premise makes sure that its laughs are never too easy. I say that even though the comedy is really broad. I mean early Jerry Lewis broad. The constant mugging to camera of 'Animal' and 'Sugar Lips' Shapiro is actually very grating, and dates the film badly for a modern audience.
However, William Holden's cynical character Sefton gives the film its currency. The consequences for him are serious, and Wilder doesn't let us forget that men' lives are at stake. This is nowhere more more evident than when the prisoners throw the spy they have discovered in their barracks out into the darkness with tin cans tied to his ankles. He thrashs about in the mud, caught in the spotlights, frantically waving his arms, calling out to the sentries in German, and they cut him down with machine guns regardless.
Preminger has a great comic moment when he's seen lounging around in his socks without his riding boots on because they hurt his feet. He puts the boots back on to make a call to his commanding officer, so that he can stand to attention and click his heels while he speaks to the general on the phone! This is a classic bit of Wilder business, as it is funny while also managing to satirise the Nazi officer class and affirm the character in our minds as an old fashioned Prussian all at the same time.
Like all of Wilder's films, it features some great biting dialogue, like when the suspect Price confronts Sefton's accusations:
Price: I don't like you, Sefton. I never did, and I never will.
Sefton: A lot of people say that, and the first thing you know it, they get married, and live happily ever after.
For me another interesting shade of the film is its politics. Wilder was a leftist back in Berlin, like many other of the German diaspora in Hollywood, and like most of them, he found his overt politics smoothed over by the demands of working in a prosperous America. It is interesting though to place the movie in the McCarthyist context of the times, which was really boiling in 1953.
Sefton can be easily seen as a typical American can-do capitalist, spurning the mob mentality of the other prisoners, making good through individual application and enterprise. At first he is, however, anything but a sympathetic character. The prisoners suspect him as a collaborator and a 'stoolie'. This shifts throughout the film, as we come to see his individuality and integrity as his best features, in the end saving the lives of the other men.
But like many McCarthy period political allegories, the condemnation of the collective can be seen also at the same time as a condemnation of the mob mentality of anti-Communist witch hunting. Sefton's character arc reaffirms American individualist and capitalist virtues at the expense of the collective Socialist ideology, but it also condemns mindless pack-hunting. In the context of the times, it could be seen as a condemnation of Right-wing McCarthyism from the Centre.
It might be that it took critics a long time to accept Billy Wilder as an auteur director, as the art is always cunningly concealed. He's not a showman like Hitchcock. If anything, he's always at great pains to serve the screenplay, which by the way, is usually also his.
Those screenplays are bold, sharp and funny. They do draw attention to themselves, which is why Wilder was often held up as a great writer even while his direction was undervalued. This is no longer the case, of course, with young admirers like Cameron Crowe always ready to plead his case.
'Stalag 17' isn't one of the Wilder greats, but he's one of those great personalities whose worst stuff is still better than most of anything else you'll see.