Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)


Billy Wilder’s war film Stalag 17, his last movie for Paramount, is an encapsulation of his style: subversive but humane comedy/drama fused with an outside format of choice, in this case the war film. It’s clear from the opening narration — when a side character wonders why there aren’t more movies about POWs — that this is something special. Indeed, Wilder’s cinematic shorthand and sense of psychological dimension are staggering. The movie begins well into territory already mined, and distinguishes itself with every succeeding development. It is both a delicately crafted mystery — the search to discover who in the prisoners’ barracks is feeding information to Nazis — and a harsh treatment of the life during wartime on the wrong side, which is not depicted as all that terribly different from life on the right one.

Stalag 17 is deeper than a lazy anti-war picture, though; it is a film about bigger and deeper things — privacy, pacifism, greed, imprisonment, androgyny, the subtle torture of isolation — that simultaneously straddles the vitality of victory the way many films during the war, like Lifeboat, once did. Having a man whose mother was killed by Nazis at the helm of the picture keeps it well away from flippant or trivial territory when it ventures into comedy; Roberto Benigni could take lessons.

What is most remarkable about the film is its bending of a traditional structure obvious everywhere from Grand Illusion to Lord of the Flies: the masculine melting pot of diverse and hungry men, and how it spins out of control unchecked. Unlike nearly every other director who has ever made an attempt at this plotline, Wilder humanizes it and allows it to emerge as an impassioned (but understated), unsentimental, and reluctantly powerful story. The hero of the picture is barely a hero at all; his only concerns are himself, his belongings, and women. His final act of heroism, when he reveals the identity of the real spy after having been assumed as the culprit and goes out to save a life, is cynically motivated. But in a perverse way, he is the archetypal American — the grouchy capitalist who minds his own business and handles his own affairs. As the Epsteins put it, he sticks his neck out for nobody, and he is a POW because he is willing to fight for his right to do so, however limited his philosophy may be in its final application to his fellow human beings.

This enterpreneur is portrayed by William Holden, one of the finest actors ever to work in American movies, and it is a brilliant and fascinating performance (which led to an Oscar win). Holden brings so much sophistication to this relatively simple role that the story comes to rest on his shoulders; each time the script paints him into a corner as a useless, selfish sap, his face alone brings the audience back under his wing. It’s a face of wisdom and a face of harsh reality, and when the time comes for him to notice a loop in a wire holding up a light bulb, his only expression of joy in the whole film causes little more than a blip. In The Bridge on the River Kwai a few years after this, the great Holden would be essentially wasted; here, he does enough outstanding, almost inconceivably sophisticated acting for three movies, more than making up for David Lean’s lazy use of him as the fun-loving bum of the hour.

As usual, in every way that Wilder could make it easy on himself, he doesn’t; it would have been much easier to make Holden a streamlined, suave person who immediately endeared himself to the crowd. Or to make the Nazis ridiculous buffoons, for all the film’s moments of lightness, instead of genuinely scary, as Otto Preminger most unforgettably is (in what has been reported as a close approximation of the way he directed). In fairness, the injection of buddy comedy featuring Harvey Lembeck and the delightful Robert Strauss into the film is not a total success (but significantly, it was inherited from the source material); it doesn’t seem properly integrated in the suspenseful and character-driven material around it. Wilder is much more successful in establishing a group mentality among the prisoners, bonding through their alternately harrowing and dull day-to-day lives, while maintaining each of them as a complex individual character. The comedy that comes out of the simple unadorned use of these soldiers as no more than horny men in danger stuck where they don’t want to be is honest and intelligent in the ways the more obvious farcical preening is not, however amusing in might be in a different kind of film.

One exception to this comes later on, in a scene that foretells Some Like It Hot which may be the most vivid moment of mastery in the film. The men dance together pretending they are with women, and a drunken Strauss mistakes Lembeck for Betty Grable and pledges his love for him. Wilder’s daring willful ignorance of traditional sexual politics remains the most startling and welcome feature of his 1950s films. But whats all the more impressive is how seamlessly Wilder cross-cuts in this same sequence between the dance and the drama happening on the fringes, as Holden carefully watches his bait in an expertly mounted thriller scene that retains all of its edge despite the wackiness happening in the middle of the room, which in turn is funny and arresting despite the nail-biting around the perimeter. Wilder has shifting gears down to such a science by this point that he no longer even has to shift to keep the viewer with him. This sequence gives the lie to the popular notion that Wilder was a purely verbal director — that is, if the lyrical cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo), beautifully constructed rhythm, and gloriously cathartic yet restrained composition and editing style (with Hitchcock regular George Tomasini in tow) did not already do so.

The implications of that single scene, however, bring forth how necessary a second viewing is to fully appreciate the subtleties and intracicies of the narrative and visuals. During the dance alone, the background menace and masterful blocking race by with such speed that one hardly has time to consider the expert storytelling proficiency and Wilder’s impeccable “juggling” direction. Stalag 17 is worth plenty of repeated study, and such a crash course in movie magic could hardly be more thrilling: We have here a layered, fascinating dramatic achievement.

[Originally posted in 2007.]

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