Back in 1995, the British filmmaker Adam Curtis produced a documentary series about politics, memory and the construction of normality. The first episode of The Living Dead deals with the Second World War and how the harsh truths about what people did to survive the war were replaced by the myth of the Good War from which everyone returned a hero except for those who were duly tried and convicted. The myth of the Good War entered the cultural bloodstream in a number of different ways including prisoner of war films like The Captive Hart and The Great Escape. These films helped to promote the idea of the Good War by presenting life in a POW camp as one of solidarity and collective action towards a shared goal. While this vision of life as a POW echoed on until the genre finally began to run out of steam in the 1960s, there were always exceptions to the rule. Despite being marketed as a tribute to America’s heroic prisoners of war, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 is a vicious attack on the myth of the Good War produced at a time when the House Un-American Activities Committee was encouraging Hollywood high-flyers like Elia Kazan and Ronald Reagan to inform on other artists and performers.
Stalag 17 takes place in an eponymous prisoner of war camp where dozens of captured enlisted men are forced to sleep together in barracks. The film focuses on one particular set of barracks comprising American sergeants who have elected themselves leaders and begun working on a series of escape plans. The only problem is that every time someone tries to escape, the camp guards are waiting outside the fence to shoot them dead. This turn of events puzzles the inhabitants of the barracks no end as the plans were carefully prepared and everyone involved was vetted and checked out by an elected head of security. In fact, everyone inside the barracks seems to be on the right page except for Sefton (William Holden).
Whereas the rest of the group are red-blooded, American patriots who want nothing more to life than good food, good booze, a sexy dame and the chance to escape, Sefton has turned his internment into a business opportunity allowing him to accumulate cigarettes that he trades to the German guards in return for better food, better clothing, better bedding, and the occasional visit to the women’s barracks. Sefton’s willingness to exploit his fellows’ base desires makes him unpopular but not nearly as unpopular as his tendency to bet and win on the fact that escaping prisoners are going to wind up either dead or captured. The inhabitants of the barracks hate the Germans but they loathe Sefton and once it becomes clear that someone in the barracks is an informant, they all decide to single him out for retribution.
Stalag 17 is not exactly the easiest film to get into. In fact, the film is almost completely unwatchable for most of its opening hour. The problem is that the film ostensibly plays lip service to the idea of the Good War by presenting many of the POWs as happy-go-lucky scamps. Stalag 17 is often described as an iconic film as it was one of the first films about the Second World War to present the Germans as figures of fun rather than menace. Just as this vision of the Nazis as effeminate, strutting nincompoops would later inform British comedies like ‘Allo ‘Allo, the idea that prisoners of war could pull off elaborate schemes under the noses of their German captors would later inspire 168 episodes of the American sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What makes the film very nearly unwatchable is the fact that virtually all of its jokes are embarrassingly unfunny: First we have the incessant torrent of anti-German comments that are really little more than crude xenophobic sniping dressed up as banter. Then we have about a dozen different jokes involving an over-weight man falling over and finally we have a scene in which hundreds of well-fed American POWs scream and gesture lewdly at a bunch of terrified female prisoners. This type of humour might well have passed muster amidst the jingoism and sexism of 1950s America but it actually makes the POWs come across as a bunch of boorish idiots… and therein lays the point.
Wilder was an Austrian Jew who moved to Berlin in the 1920s in the hope of establishing himself as a journalist and screen-writer. Almost as soon as he had established himself in Berlin, the Nazis came to power, forcing him to relocate to Paris and then on to Hollywood where he forged a reputation for versatility before settling into a deeply cynical purple patch that saw him push the boundaries of mainstream entertainment by inventing the American film noir with Double Indemnity, providing the first serious big screen examination of alcoholism with The Lost Weekend and two vicious critiques of the American media with Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. Wilder has always divided film critics who despaired at his failure to either stick within a particular genre or express any form of political vision. Indeed, while Wilder famously expressed his lack of sympathy for the blacklisted directors and screenwriters comprising the Hollywood Ten, he did later co-create the Committee for the First Amendment who provided valuable support to those who faced persecution at the hands of HUAC. In fact, when the Screen Directors Guild tabled a motion demanding that everyone in the American film industry take an oath of allegiance, only Billy Wilder and John Huston dared oppose the motion. Wilder was not a Hollywood communist or even a left-wing director but he was someone who understood what it meant to be on the margins of society. His experiences as a Jew who had worked in Austria and Germany before moving to an equally anti-Semitic America combined with the fact that he helped to make films for America’s Psychological Warfare Department meant that Wilder knew how much of American society was built on lies. This suspicion about groups and profound cynicism about the myth of the Good War radiates from the character of Sefton.
Early in the film, Sefton explains how he arrived at Stalag 17 only to have the other POWs steal his Red Cross package along with one of his shoes. Bitter about his treatment and utterly unconvinced by the group’s very public profession of patriotic solidarity, Sefton makes his own existence more comfortable by pandering to the hypocrisy of his fellow detainees. Oh… they may claim to miss their wives and want to escape but most of their energy and resources actually go into gambling, getting drunk and trying to look into the women’s de-lousing tent. Sefton gets targeted by the group because his rugged and unapologetic individualism reminds them of the baseness of their nature. The first half of the film confronts us with that baseness by subjecting us to an hour of embarrassing comedy while the second half of the film has the fun-loving scamps brutalise Sefton as a means of drawing our attention to the nastiness underpinning their hypocrisy.
The second half of the film begins when Don Taylor’s Lieutenant Dunbar replaces one of the men machine-gunned in the opening scene. A handsome layabout from a very wealthy family, Dunbar wins over the group by bragging about the way he managed to set fire to a munitions truck on the way to the camp. This news immediately gets back to the Germans who interrogate Dunbar until the barracks manage to free him and hide him somewhere in the camp. Believing that Sefton is the spy, the group isolate him from their plans leaving Sefton to work out the identity of the real spy without either tipping off the Germans or invoking the anger of the group. Needless to say, when Sefton does reveal the identity of the spy, the braying imbeciles turn on their one-time friend almost immediately setting up a memorable final scene in which Sefton mocks the group’s so-called patriotism and tells them never to acknowledge him should they meet him in civilian life. The film ends with Sefton on top but Wilder refuses to have him redeemed by the group: These idiots beat him because he was different and the only reason the barracks got to save the day was because Sefton the Outsider managed to outsmart them.
Stalag 17 is undoubtedly a film that works better today than it would have done back in 1953. Early critics were puzzled by Wilder’s decision to leave Sefton un-redeemed and it is only now that attitudes have shifted and humour has changed that we see Sefton’s contempt for the group raised to the status of motif. The film’s comic interludes are unbearably oppressive because that is the way that they would have seemed to Sefton. It is interesting to see the myth of the Good War critiqued from the right but that is exactly what Wilder is doing with this oddball comic thriller. Brilliant and brilliantly unbearable.