When Gil Stratton’s character “Cookie” announces, in the voiceover that opens Stalag 17, “it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures — all about flying leather-necks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines… what gets me is that there never was a movie about P.O.W.s,” he wouldn’t have been accurate, even in 1944 when the film was set; Renoir’s The Grand Illusion was released in 1938, but it’s French. What’s really happening there is Billy Wilder is already winking at the audience to think about what POW films have been made, and I’m guessing he was betting that his audience hadn’t seen The Grand Illusion, or British productions like 1947’s The Captive Heart or 1950’s The Wooden Horse.
Even taking into consideration those predecessors, the POW film was still a relatively untouched cinematic genre, and I can only imagine that an artist like Wilder approached it with a child-like “what can I do with this new toy?” glee. Today, almost 60 years later, even after landmark films in the sub-genre such as Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape, Stalag 17 still feels like an utterly fresh and unique entry. Wilder was never one to play anything straight, and he’s probably one of the few that would have seen the broad comedic possibilities inherent in a film about German prison camps. But what’s remarkable about the film is its mix of comedy and drama, broadness and specificity, expansiveness and intimacy. It’s a balancing act that Wilder attempts (and sometimes struggles with) across every single element.
The film opens with one of the failed escape attempts by the American members of the titular prison camp, one that was taken from real life. After the failure, the group becomes suspicious that a spy from inside had told the Germans about their plans, despite how careful they were. The immediate suspect is Sefton (William Holden), who has taken to treating his imprisonment like a free market, using cigarettes as currency to trade for luxuries with the guards. This doesn’t sit well with Price (Peter Graves), Hoffy (Richard Erdman), Duke (Neville Brand), and others who begin singling him out. After a Lieutenant Dunbar (Don Taylor) is introduced to the camp and later tried for sabotage, the group has had enough of Sefton’s snitching, leaving it all up to him to hunt down the real culprit.
While the above is the overarching drama that holds the core of the film together, the real meat is in the comedy supplied by Robert Strauss (who was nominated for best supporting actor) as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Harry Shapiro. Both had been integral parts of the original Broadway production of the film, and they make as golden a couple on-screen as off. Yet their presence mixes with the drama as if two of the Three Stooges had wandered onto the set of an otherwise straightforward drama. While Wilder never seems entirely sure how to mix them into the dramatic storyline, he nonetheless has tremendous fun utilizing their effervescent comedic talents. Much the same could be said for Otto Preminger’s iconically German Von Scherbach, the commander of Stalag 17, and Sig Ruman’s hilarious Sergeant Schulz, the “warden”, both of whom steal every scene they’re in.
While Strauss and Wilder lost their Oscars to others that year, Holden did win for his performance. There are at least two ironies to this, the first is that it wasn’t a role he liked (he found Sefton thoroughly unsympathetic), the second is that many felt it was a recompense on the part of the Academy for not giving it to him for the previous year’s Sunset Boulevard. Whatever the case, he still turns in a stellar and nuanced performance. Of all the characters, he seems the most 3-dimensional and believable, walking the line between selfish, opportunistic scumbag, and a sly, intelligent survivor. The latter may be an appropriate epithet for Holden himself: Gil Stratton tells a story on the DVD of Holden asking Wilder what lens he was using to shoot a scene. When Gil asked him why it mattered, Holden replied that Wilder’s choice of a 135mm meant the shot would be in nice and tight, so he should only act with his eyes.
Holden may have disliked the role, but Wilder had enough sympathy for both of them. It’s a common point that Wilder always felt like a Hollywood outsider, and that likely engendered his sympathy for outsider protagonists and anti-heroes. This is all the more evident in light of one of the key changes made between play and film; in the former, Animal played the role of comic relief as well as spy, while in the film Wilder transfers the spy-role to another character. It’s probably no accident that he chose to allocate it to the most archetypal “All-American good-guy hero” in a cast full of them, sending the perceptive and sardonic message that those whom we trust, whom we allow to destroy us from the inside out, are infinitely more dangerous than the obvious outsiders we suspect.
But of all Wilder’s post-‘50s films, Stalag 17 is the least perfect. Surprisingly, its flaws come more in the writing than in the direction. Perhaps it begins with the voiceover, a favorite device of Wilder’s that he used to perfection in films like Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, but one that never integrates well in Stalag 17. The problem is that the narrator, Cookie, is little more than a passive observer in the film to the point he’s never able to make an urgent connection with the audience. Equally, Wilder seems to abandon it only to bring it back at awkward moments, allowing it to become a crutch he didn’t even need. There are also some pacing problems, primarily centered on the early reveal of the spy and the sloppy resolution of Sefton’s discovering him to the other prisoners. Besides these, the film runs at least 10-15 minutes too long, with a few forced and unfunny scenes gumming up the works of an otherwise clean-running machine.
But if Stalag 17 isn’t one of Wilder’s finest literary achievements, it is one of his finest pieces of direction. Right from the portentously fierce opening shot of the barbed wire gates from a low angle (strangely similar to a shot from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory), to the stunning and expansive establishing shot of the compound, Wilder directs with a forceful and incisive confidence that would’ve made Howard Hawks jealous. It’s also a lesson on the lost art of group compositions, with Wilder exploiting deep-focus foreground, mid-ground, and background action that aids in subtly developing the characters. Right from the get-go he shoots Sefton off-center, frequently framed within frames, segregated from the rest of the group, using the photographic rule of thirds to visually express the dynamics of power within the barracks. Elsewhere there are some nuanced fades and dissolves that use elements like the hanging light bulb, which becomes a symbol of the spy who uses it to communicate to the Germans, and a horseshoe stake (paired with a telling line of dialogue) to visually single out who the real spy is.
Whatever its strengths and flaws, like the best of Wilder, Stalag 17 finds its personality in the small moments, moments that seem like direct extensions of Wilder’s own idiosyncrasies. One such scene involves Preminger’s Von Scherbach having his assistant put on his boots just so he can call Berlin while being able to clap his boot heels together. The other moment involves the letters-from-home sequence. Particularly touching is the moment where the gregarious Animal reads a letter to Joey, the mute who went crazy after watching his friends get killed. He attempts to cheer him up by noting that when they write back they’ll say that Joey wants to become a musician, since he loves playing on his homemade ocarina. It’s a moment of rare pathos in the film, and a potent reminder that behind all of the fiction and comedy was the sad truth that countless men and women suffered through the German prison camps, many receiving much worse treatment than the Americans like those in this film.