#43 — Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953)
I like to think that Billy Wilder is the only filmmaker — hell, maybe the only creator — who could make a film like Stalag 17 work, but that’s clearly not the case, on the basis of readily available evidence. For one thing, the film about prisoners of war at a Nazi-run camp during World War II didn’t even originate with the Austrian-born writer-director. It began life as a stage play, written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. The there was, amazingly enough, the successful U.S. sitcom Hogan’s Heroes that followed about ten years later, offered as an original work but so clearly inspired by Stalag 17 that it immediately inspired litigation. Even so, it’s hard to watch the film without seeing how Wilder’s uniquely sensibility–cynical but heartfelt, uncompromising and yet deeply attuned to the satisfying rhythms of good drama–shaped it into something more, smarter and sharper than it would have been in just about anyone else’s hands.
Wilder’s mark begins with the casting of the central character, indeed the very foundations on how that character operated within the story. In Wilder’s shaping of the film, J.J. Sefton is played by William Holden with his trademark brusque, perpetually perturbed ease of being. In prior conceptions, the part was held for Charlton Heston, all stalwart machismo. When Wilder took over (he’s co-credited with Edwin Blum on the script), the empty heroism was stripped away, leaving a protagonist who was noble almost against his own instincts for sour retreat. Holden, whom Wilder had worked with a couple years earlier, on Sunset Boulevard, couldn’t be better suited for the role. As an actor, Holden usually seemed impatient with his own fiction, as if any extra minutes on the running time represented a bothersome delay in him getting to his nightly steak dinner. That merges nicely with the story of a fairly ragtag group on inmates engages in elaborate plotting against their German captors. Holden won an Academy Award for the role, and it’s not hard to see why his peers saw fit to celebrate this performance. It’s one of those happy instances when a natural and distinctive movie star charisma actually wound up adding depth to a role rather than distracting from the intricacies of character.
Wilder’s resolute authenticity as a storyteller is finally the most notable feature of Stalag 17. Despite the fairly offbeat setting (the film does take place less than a decade after the devastating war it wrings for comedy), Wilder is first and foremost concerned with honoring the truth of the people and the place. To use a term often reserved for more fantastical films, he’s world-building here, thinking about all the different social dynamics at play with the confined space of the barracks and the oppression of the camp. He thoughtfully develops the human ecosystem that captured soldiers develop, from the survival instinct that inform their plotting to the much-needed friendships they rely on and treacherous suspicions that plague them. Without leaning too heavily on roughly sketched psychology, Wilder flashes an instinctual sense of how all these men act under the challenging circumstances. Nothing is played for laughs before it’s played for the reality of the moment, which is exactly why the humor is so effective. Maybe others could have made Stalag 17 into a reasonable film, but I remain convinced that only Wilder could make it into a great one.