Stalag 17: Billy Wilder creates Hitchcockian intrigue in a POW camp

After the success of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, William Holden reunited with Billy Wilder for ‘Stalag 17’, a film with a protagonist who is as cynical as the doomed screenwriter in Wilder’s dark satire on Hollywood. This time, Wilder shifted Holden to a German prison-of-war camp in 1944. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved this film. It is cut out of the same cloth as some of the great POW dramas such as John Sturges’ ‘The Great Escape’ and Jean Renoir’s ‘The Grand Illusion’.

A discussion involving any POW drama would be incomplete if the Renoir film is not mentioned, because it is the one that started it all. Its influence can be felt in all the POW dramas which came since then, especially ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Stalag 17’. This exceptionally written film can be counted among a string of successful hits from Wilder during the ‘50s, beginning with ‘Sunset Boulevard’. The film is essentially a “traitor among us” story, with so much suspense and tension packed in it that it would be apt to call it Wilder’s “Hitchcock film”.

As expected from any POW film, there is an escape plan in there somewhere; but the film is not so much about the escape as it is about the camaraderie and the trust between the men. After the failed escape attempt of two prisoners, and a series of other unanticipated setbacks, everyone begins to suspect the presence of a traitor in their midst. Suspicion naturally falls on Sefton (Holden), an easy target on account of him being the smarter and more enterprising one of them all; he occasionally gains some privileges from the Germans in exchange for some of the “gifts” he has hidden away inside a box.

Sefton is like that rich and handsome kid in college who is envied by the others because he gets all the girls. In fact, he does something similar here: When a batch of female prisoners is dropped at an adjacent camp, Sefton manages to sneak into it. Naturally, this episode agitates his sexually frustrated fellow prisoners who finally arrive at the conclusion that Sefton is indeed the mole. What follows is quite unpleasant, but this makes Sefton — who didn’t care initially — now fully determined to weed out the real mole. Given that the film is directed by a Jewish-American, its sentiments are undoubtedly anti-German.

I was surprised to see that the Germans in this film are not — unlike some of the Hollywood war films made at that time — played by American or British actors. They even speak to each other in German. In the role of the principal antagonist Colonel von Scherbach, Wilder cast the famed Austro-Hungarian director Otto Preminger – another Jewish immigrant just like Wilder. Given his intimidating frame, confident body language and eloquent speaking style, he is able to dominate every scene he is in. I was amused by one particular scene where he is seen walking inside his office in socks, and then puts on his boots just to make a phone call to his superiors, and takes them off after the conversation is over.

Wilder did some of his finest writing during this period. His dialogues have a certain kind of pace and rhythm that no other writer could replicate. Wilder gave each character in the film a distinct personality, and as a result, every single one of them is equally memorable. I found the guy with the funny nasal voice who came in regularly with all the announcements and letters, hilarious. He sounds like someone straight out of a cartoon. And then there is an officer who can mimic Clark Gable, Cary Grant and James Cagney; his impersonations were spot on. It’s been several hours since I’ve seen the film, and yet I can remember all of them vividly. This is one of Wilder’s best films.

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