Tuesday, November 1, 2016
World War II. Hundreds of American soldiers are being kept in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp along the Danube river. Two inmates try to escape one night, but are caught by the guards at the fence and shot. This just raises the suspicion of the prisoners that there must be a snitch among them who always tells their plans beforehand to camp's commandant von Scherbach. Sefton, who amassed cigarettes from smuggling, becomes the scapegoat, since everyone thinks he always gets so much as a reward. However, Sefton manages to prove he is innocent and find the real snitch - Price, a German American, who communicated with a knot on the cord of the light, hiding messages in a chess figure for von Scherbach. Sefton manages to escape with Lt. Dunbar.
"Stalag 17" is one of only two World War II films directed by Billy Wilder, who here uncharacteristically abandoned his usual milieu and decided to deliver a genre film: the story probably could have not stayed immune to director's "funny bone" and thus some sequences almost spillover into a comedy - for instance, when the prisoners get mail, one of them reads how his wife informed him that she "found a baby on her doorstep" when he was away and decided to adopt it, informing him to "not be surprised" when he comes back; the ironic opening narration where the narrator laments how war movies are always made about submarine patrols and guerrillas, but never about POWs - whereas some have complained that Wilder portrayed the Nazi soldiers and commandants of the camp as too benign, thereby losing their menace - when one American camp prisoner says "Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Droppen Sie Dead!" to von Scherbach, the commandant just laughs approvingly, without any hard feelings - though his sharpness and finesse are displayed throughout the story, especially in the darker second half, delivering the pessimistic messages in a subtle way. The sequence where the camp commandant orders the individual who smeared his trousers by throwing a rock into a puddle in front of him to make a step forward, and then, one by one, the entire prison camp population makes a step forward, was delivered seven years before a very similar one in "Spartacus", whereas William Holden delivered a dominant, authoritative performance as Sefton, who is caught between both sides. As always, Wilder managed to make surprisingly positive and optimistic movie about such a depressive and pessimistic topic, which holds up even today.