Billy Wilder | 2hr
In turning his pen and camera to the incarceration of Americans in World War II German prison camps, Billy Wilder, the master of many genres, crafts a mystery, comedy, drama, and war film all at once, effortlessly drawing us into a narrative that is as gripping in its suspense as it is comical in its escapades. Purely in terms of subject matter, Stalag 17 may be his heaviest film yet, as life-and-death stakes are immediately established in the failed escape of two prisoners-of-war. Not long after, we start getting bleak establishing shots of the captured men gather in large, muddy courtyards, revealing the full scope of the camp in all its desolate misery.
But being one of the few screenwriters who may lay genuine claim to being the greatest in film history, such overwhelming despair is no great obstacle to Wilder’s efforts in drawing out the light humour of these men’s lives. Pranks, games, gambling, parties, dances, and holidays – anything they can do to make this place feel like home is something worth holding onto, even as they face real wartime horrors.
Though David Lean’s 1957 British war epic The Bridge on the River Kwai might be one of the first comparisons to leap to mind in its prison camp setting, there is also a cultural gap between them that is difficult to reconcile beyond the presence of William Holden. Instead, it is Robert Altman’s 1970 war comedy M*A*S*H that might bear more fruitful parallels, as although its setting is an American medical hospital in South Korea, the irreverence, humour, and professionalism of its surgeons are qualities shared by Stalag 17’s captives. Wilder’s work with such a large ensemble here is commendable, even Altman-esque in an era before Altman, as he carves out several distinct personalities by attaching key traits to them – Animal the mischief-maker, Price the chief of security, Bagradian the celebrity impressionist, Joey the ocarina player, and of course, Colonel von Scherbach, their Commandant who positions himself as a “good” Nazi even as he actively works to foil their covert plans.
Not everything here meshes together perfectly, as the weak voiceover that runs through this story offers nothing that we can’t gage from the dialogue, and it certainly doesn’t help that it is narrated by one of the least memorable characters, Cookie. It is rather Holden’s dark turn as J.J. Sefton that makes the biggest impact in this cast, as he sets himself apart from the other inmates in his guarded, cynical, and manipulative mannerisms. When suspicion is cast on him for being a mole feeding insider information to Von Scherbach, his quest to clear his name sees him set out to unmask the real traitor, promising to see this person get the comeuppance they deserve – and when he delivers this threat, we believe every word of it.
It is exceedingly common for screenwriters-turned-directors to let their dialogue do the heavy lifting, and yet Wilder is one of the few who does not fall prey to such temptations, as the tensions which emerge within this tight-knight community of American soldiers take on new significance in his deep focus compositions. The barracks themselves are a handsome rustic set which always seem to feature some sort of obstruction hanging from the ceiling, whether they be draped clothing left to dry or Christmas lights bringing a touch of festivity. Most significantly, those few prisoners who wind up emotionally ostracised are isolated in Wilder’s thoughtful staging, at times through his layering of bodies across the frame, or otherwise divided by barriers in the mise-en-scéne – most notably a hanging lightbulb, which itself takes on extra significance in the communication between the mole and the Colonel.
And that isn’t the end of Wilder’s stylistic bravado either. Though he does on occasion indulge in the odd wide shot of the entire cast, such cramped conditions don’t always allow for such luxuries, and so it is in his tracking camera that he allows us to consider this community of prisoners as a whole without cutting. When suspicion is cast upon Sefton, the silence of their mistrustful gazes is drawn out as Wilder pans his camera across their faces, each one staring right down the barrel of the camera. But just as these tracking shots can be used to distance us, they are also just as effective at inviting us into their brotherhood, as during a Christmas celebration we are left to wander through this makeshift dance floor where these lonely men slowly rock against each other. In scenes like these, Wilder recognises the need to step away from the despair and hysteria of the prison camp, and let some quiet hopefulness bleed through. Above all else, Stalag 17 is a tender ode to the persistence of the human spirit in the worst conditions, whether that manifests as irreverent joy or a cosy, quiet peace.
Stalag 17 is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel or Tubi TV, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.