Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder / Edwin Blum
Starring: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, Neville Brand
Released: 1953 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
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Stalag 17 arrived only a couple of years after writer-director Billy Wilder saw his social commentary Ace In The Hole receive a muted reception from critics and filmgoers alike. It was a daring project to undertake – the remnants of world war were still very evident in 1953, and the setting for a comedic drama in a German prison camp could easily be misconstrued as insensitive or even naive. But Stalag 17 is neither. Wilder, who was deeply affected by the war (born in what is now Poland, he lived in Berlin for a time before fleeing Germany after the rise of Adolf Hitler. His mother, stepfather, and grandmother were all killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp) sees these American prisoners in a unique and entertaining light – as racketeers and petty mischiefs. They make the best of a bad situation, while their escape attempts and clandestine bureaucracy give them a sense of hope; that they can still contribute to the war effort where their participation in the battle is almost certainly at an end.
What may have become cliche later – with the popular appeal of Steve McQueen-fronted The Great Escape, and the iconic stars of Escape To Victory – Stalag 17 was a fresh-faced, uniquely written, and assuredly directed film about life in a prison-of-war camp. Wilder may overlook some of the darker attributes of Nazi occupation, but the cynicism he portrays through William Holden’s Sefton is a perfect indictment of the human condition when basic liberties are rescinded.
Sefton is the sort of love-hate character that instantly draws your attention and maintains it – some of his actions are repugnant but at the same time you can, perhaps begrudgingly, relate to the motivation. The film begins with the escape attempt of two sergeants. Sefton takes bets on their survival, putting his own money (or cigarettes in this case) on them failing. When the sirens begin to sound and gunshots are heard the fate of the two prisoners is obvious. Sefton wins the bet. Believing there’s a “stoolie” in their ranks, since the German’s always seem to be one step ahead of their plans, Sefton becomes the prime suspect. He is far too complacent when betting against the escape attempt, and his constant trading with the guards for extra privileges is held in contempt by his fellow inmates because it only benefits himself.
Holden, who actually pleaded with Wilder during principle photography to make Sefton more likeable, was rightly awarded the Oscar for best actor in 1954. Holden didn’t get his way with the character however, seeing Sefton’s selfish ego betray the trust of his fellow prisoners. But Wilder wants you to despise Sefton – whether for his lack of patriotism or his disregard for others – because it’s in this that his character becomes totally captivating. Again, it goes back to the idea that you don’t have to like someone to understand their motivation. When Sefton is beaten up because the rest of the camp believe he’s the bad guy, he’s forced to find the real culprit the only way he knows how: through self-preservation. Wilder allows Sefton to achieve vindication but his actions throughout remain conceited and self-aware. And that’s the beauty of Stalag 17 – how it takes your conception of conventional morality and asks you to become complicit in its subversion.
But Stalag 17 is more than just a film about Sefton. Wilder combines the talents of an excellent ensemble of actors to create a real sense camaraderie and friendship amongst the inmates. They even have a playful relationship with the guards (where Wilder doesn’t resort to the sort of Spielberg Manichean mentality that sees all German soldiers as uncompromisingly evil purveyors of Hitler’s every whim) and Otto Preminger as Colonel Von Scherbach provides some of the films funniest moments. However, Wilder does allow Robert Strauss as prison idiot Stanislas “Animal” Kasava to go over-the-top with his neurotic shenanigans and obsession with the female inmates of a nearby women’s prison camp. I found Marko the Mailman’s high-pitched “At ease, at ease” statement before every sentence far funnier.
Stalag 17 isn’t Wilder’s best film nor is it his most authentic. But then again sub-par Wilder is better than most. Importantly, the film is hugely entertaining, funny, and tragic: that perfect blend of attributes Wilder seamlessly finds in every story he points his camera at.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews here