If we’re talking directors, Billy Wilder’s name’s going to come up often. No one else in Hollywood’s ‘50s and ‘60s era produced as many timeless pictures as he; Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Witness for the Prosecution, The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole – the list goes on, but each of these movies sits boldly on the page. One stands out a little more than the others, though; these films use some of the biggest sets ever built, boast world-devouring movie stars, and play off self-aware commentary to make their mark on us. 1953’s Stalag 17, on the other hand, is memorable for how much it does with so little.
Somewhere along the Danube river in 1944, Prisoner Camp 17 – Stalag 17 in German – is facing a potential uprising. The incarcerated US soldiers have failed at yet another escape attempt, and murmurs of an insider in the barracks have grown louder. Chief among the suspects is Sefton (William Holden), a sergeant who regularly trades with the enemy for cigarettes and other rationed items. But with their camp’s warden enforcing even stronger laws, and seeing no end to the war, they have only one desperate option: escape. But this isn’t Papillon or Escape From Alcatraz, where the entire film plays as little more than build-up and the majority of screentime is devoted to the Star; surprisingly, Holden could only be loosely called the ‘main’ character here, for Stalag 17 is rife with a diverse chessboard of players. Robert Strauss puts in a heartwarmingly cantankerous performance as ‘Animal’ among many other stellar performances, and as the film constantly flits between mini-plotlines around the barracks, interchanging hilarious side stories (sneaking around the women’s barracks) with the detective plot of finding out who the snitch is, we’re shown that the world these prisoners find themselves in may be small, but it is also humming with life.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to see how these pieces all fit together. Wilder plays the long game with Stalag 17, and the pay-offs are interwoven beautifully. Perhaps most enjoyable of all is its tone; mixing humour and tension for all its worth, the movie mines comedic gold from a situation that couldn’t be much worse. When Christmas time descends on the camp, the men do the waltz with one another down the centre aisle between their bunks; it’s Wilder’s gender-swapping mastery (highlighted most brazenly in Some Like It Hot) that feels like this might be played for laughs, but there’s something sadder underneath the facade. It’s always Wilder’s slow-handed, breathtakingly precise direction that builds our interest further and further.
There’re plenty of arguments to be made that Stalag 17 might suffer from anachronistic jingoism; that would be mistaking it for vibrancy, for life, and urgency. The movie was produced only nine years after the horrific events it was based on (and only two years after the play it was adapted from), and that closeness never feels exploitative, only perceptive. Such is Wilder’s ability with script, Ernest Laszlo’s elegant images from his magic cinematographer mind, and a cast of enormous charisma and talent, Stalag 17 is an incredibly fine addition to the War picture pantheon. If this film is a footnote against Wilder’s more seen work, trust that it’s an unmissable footnote.
Stalag 17 is now available on Blu-ray as part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series.