Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Stalag 17 (1953)
Stalag 17 begins with an escape from the tightly controlled Luftwaffe prison camp during the last year of WWII. As the two men snake their way through a tunnel, it’s a little too easy for the Germans to find them and fill them full of bullets. The meaning is clear. There’s a rat amongst our heroes.
The members of Barracks 17 live out a day-to-day life in the Nazi prisoner camp while attempting to discover an informant in their midst and plan for their next escape attempt. There’s Price (Peter Graves), the dashing security officer; Sefton (William Holden), the standoffish asshole who openly barters with the enemy for goods; Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Animal (Robert Strauss), the comedic pair that plot entrance to the women’s camp and never seem to take anything seriously; Dunbar (Don Taylor), the infinitely likable Lieutenant who continually gives the Nazis hell; and a host of other figures that inject their own personalities into the crew.
I’m not going to deny the fact that The Great Escape may be a better movie. I don’t know – I tend not to worry about those types of qualifications when we’re talking about this level of filmmaking. Questioning whether one is more perfect than the other is a difficult game, but I can say for certain that if you loved The Great Escape, you’ll fall equally in love with Stalag 17. In fact, there’s a decent chance that the production behind Escape may have learned a few things from Stalag considering it came out a decade before.
The most notable difference is a lack of known faces – but therein lies the brilliance of a film more populated by characters than personalities. Without the burden of stardom (except for William Holden), the actors sink down deep into the roles and prove to be an incredible mixture of cheerfulness in the face of destitution and anger in the face of corruption and betrayal. What could have easily become a dark drama about prisoners of war is infused with humor and humanity (alongside the urgency of escape).
There’s obviously a Men on a Mission situation here, and it’s presented flawlessly with the sort of intrigue and complexity you’d expect from the death trap of a Nazi POW camp. No one is ever really safe. Still, there is just enough wiggle room between the rules (and enough wiggle room in all the rules they seek to undermine outright) that the characters can really have fun with each other in the face of terrible food, awful conditions and no sign of rescue.
In fact, it’s the lack of rescue that drives the plot – most of the men see it as their patriotic, military duty to try to escape so that the Nazi resources are wasted on them.
But more than that, every scene is memorable and either serves to build the story or to reveal more about characters that you’re quickly falling in love with. This is due almost entirely to the brilliant understanding of the human condition and direction of Billy Wilder (who we happen to be shining a spotlight on for the second week in a row). He’s masterful enough to build sequences where Animal daydreams about Betty Grable while admiring a pin-up hung over his bed, continue the gag by having Animal mistake his best friend Shapiro for Betty Grable in a hilarious, delusional misunderstanding, and play on all of that comedy to show how devastatingly depressed Animal really is. Wilder’s scenes can turn on a dime from intense celebration to the depths of despair – especially when dealing with characters who are, for the most part, putting on a brave face and laughing through hell.
In the same way, beyond the veil of displaying these men on camera, a mystery lurks in the background of who the informant is and how he’s passing information. Sefton, being the obvious suspect since he’s antisocial (and it’s believed he earns a few hours in the women’s barracks for snitching), is beaten badly by his fellow prisoners. Determined to find the real snitch and clear his name, Sefton begins seeking out the minor clues that lead him to discovering and outing the rat. In an inspired storytelling turn, even with the informant identified, it’s not certain whether the latest escape attempt will work or not. In fact, the odds are still against them in the form of attack dogs, razor wire and guards with guns.
As for the details, the score elevates the atmosphere and haunts the movie with that rousing rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” The song is used in multiple ways, either to display the likelihood that the men won’t be marching home, the joy of a triumph within the camp, and most ingeniously when Sefton clandestinely spots the real snitch passing information. It’s an intense song of loyalty set behind a scene of the utmost betrayal.
The other two small points that round of the perfection of this movie are 1) the casting of director Otto Preminger as the camp’s commandant Oberst von Scherbach and 2) the inclusion of German dialog without subtitles. In two moves that came long before Tarantino used them in Inglourious Basterds – Wilder decided to cast a known director in a co-starring role and to trust American audiences to catch the body language and context clues enough to allow German characters to speak their native tongue. Plus, the casting of Preminger (an Austrian Jew) as the evil Nazi commandant is an added bonus joke against the Nazis.
Over all, it’s not hyperbole to call this movie a masterpiece. It’s not only one of the best WWII movies out there, it’s also an enduring film in its own right that blends comedy, stark drama, light-heartedness and suspense together flawlessly with the utter cool of watching American prisoners get the best of the Nazis.