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There was surprisingly enough a lot of humor in the American attitude
toward the Nazis and the Germans during World War II. Life goes on even
under the conditions of being prisoners of war, and people need to
laugh. In such circumstances, they especially need to laugh. We can see
that in some of the songs from that time and in this play from Donald
Bevant and Edmund Trzcinski that Billy Wilder made into an unusually
good movie. It should be realized that the full extent of the horror
that the Nazis had visited upon Europe was not known until after the
war was over and we saw the films of the concentration camps.
William Holden stars as Sgt J.J. Sefton whose amoral cynicism and gift for the cheap hustle allow him to feather his nest even while a prisoner of war.
He's the guy who always had a storehouse of cigarettes, booze, silk stockings, candy, etc. under his bunk, the guy who always won at cards, whose proposition bets always gave him the edge. We had a guy like that when I was in the army. We called him "Slick."
But William Holden's Sefton is more than Slick. He is outrageously cynical and uncommonly brave. He takes chances because he doesn't have the same kind of fear that others have. Most people would feel self-conscious (and nervous) eating a fried egg while everybody else in the barracks had watery-thin potato soup. Others might feel uncomfortable with bribing German guards for bottles of Riesling or tins of sardines. Not Sefton. He flaunts his store of goodies.
Perhaps that is overdone. Perhaps the real hardships that prisoners went through are glossed over in this comedic drama--a comedy, incidentally, that plays very much like a Broadway musical without the music. Perhaps it is the case that from the distance of 1953 the deprivations of Stalag 17 have faded from memory and it is the "good times" that are recalled.
At any rate, I think it is this kind of psychology that accounts for the success of this unusual blend of quasi-realism and burlesque. Certainly Stalag 17 has been widely imitated, most familiarly in the TV sit-com "Hogan's Heroes" and to some extent on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In." Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, on the other hand, which also finds humor in the horrific, is of a different genre. Like Ionesco's Rhinoceros, Benigni's movie is from the theater of the absurd, not the Broadway stage.
Holden won an Oscar for his performance and Robert Strauss who played Animal was nominated in a supporting role. Otto Preminger, the legendary director and producer, was excellent as the two-faced Col Von Scherbach, the ex-calvary commander and camp commandant who can only take a phone call from the high command with his boots on so he can click his heels. I also liked Sig Rumann as Sgt Johann Sebastian Schulz ("always making with the jokes, you Americans") whose previous career as a wrestler in the US accounts for his English-language skills. Gil Stratton, who for years did the sports for CBS Channel 2 in Los Angeles, is interesting as Sefton's sidekick and funky.
Indeed, what is responsible for the success of this movie as much as anything is this fine cast playing well-defined character roles. By the way, Strauss and Harvey Lembeck ("Sugar Lips" Shapiro) were reprising their roles from Broadway.
Important is the fine plot line in which Sefton is accused of being a spy for the Nazis while the real spy is exposed step by step. At first we don't know who it is, and then we do, and then the prisoners find out.
This should be compared with Sunset Boulevard (1950). While very different movies they have similar elements which reveal part of the psyche and methods of director Billy Wilder. First there is the anti-hero as the protagonist, in both cases played by William Holden. Then there is a lot of the old Hollywood crowd appearing in both films including directors appearing as actors, Erich von Stroheim (not to mention Cecil B. DeMille in his memorable cameo as himself) in Sunset Boulevard, and Otto Preminger here. Sig Rumann has over a 100 credits going back to at least the early thirties. Finally there is the discordant mix of comedic and dramatic elements, a mix that works on our psyches because life is to some very real extent filled with tragedy in close congruence with the laughable.
But see this for William Holden who was the kind of actor who was best playing a compromised character as here and as the failed writer/reluctant gigolo in Sunset Boulevard, an actor who drank too much and tended to undistinguished, but when carefully directed could rise above his intentions and give a sterling performance.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
In his lengthy and eventful career, Billy Wilder created many films that have rightly attained classic status, but his WWII prisoner of war comedy-drama Stalag 17 is arguably one of his best. The scripting is a perfect example of how to marry a tight plot with sharp dialogue and great characters, and the acting is flawless on all counts. While William Holden's performance as the cynical American sergeant rightly won him an Oscar, it is the comic antics of Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck that steal the show. And if there was ever a more entertaining ensemble of previously unseen (and sadly subsequently unheard of) supporting players - with the possible exception of Casablanca - I would love to see it. This film predates the more famous WWII pow film The Great Escape by more than a decade, but had Wilder, Holden and company not caused havoc in Stalag 17, the world would never have seen Steve McQueen play the cooler king with such wry aplomb. Stalag 17 is easily one of the finest films of its time, if not of all time, and I would encourage anyone who has never experienced its unique blend of cynicism, comedy, suspense and drama to check it out at the earliest available opportunity.
William Holden is always in the shadows in `Stalag 17', he's always behind
the characters or off to the side of the camera. You see, despite Holden's
character Sgt. J.J. Sefton being the film's main character, he is only seen
through the eyes of his fellow POWs, rarely ever alone. When they start to
think he's the spy so do we. Oh, sure, we know he isn't the rat (movies
don't do things like that), but since the story is told by all of the POWs
who think Sefton is the rat, we start to think like them too. That is the
mastery of Billy Wilder's `Stalag 17', it takes the film's most interesting
character and sets him apart from the rest for most of the film, letting us
learn about him as the characters do.
The story focuses on a group of POWs living in the American section of Stalag 17, supposedly the 's best POW camp. Among them are barracks chief Hoffy (Richard Erdman), Price (Peter Graves), Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Animal Casava (Robert Strauss). They all have their own special job when their fellow prisoners try to escape, Price, for instance, is security'. The film starts when two prisoners try to escape the barracks. Everyone inside is enthused, thinking the two will make it very far, except Sefton, who bets precious cigarettes that they wont make it past the outer forest. When he turns out to be right the POWs start thinking there's a rat and that rat is Sefton. And as the first hour passes we think so too, it's only logical, Sefton has any luxuries because of his deals with the s.
The POWs start to bully Sefton, and once they beat him to a pulp he decides to discover who the real rat is (at this point, of course, we know he is ). His investigation isn't handled with dialogue though, we get this by seeing his facial expressions and his lurking in the shadows of the barracks.
So, what starts as a light, `gung-ho' type war movie (there's lots of comedy in the first hour) turns into a dark, sort of gritty thriller with a twist that left me with my mouth open. I wont reveal it, but I'll just say that Sefton smartly solves the mystery and redeems himself to the rest of the barracks (I didn't spoil anything, come on, it's expected).
As I said, there's lots of comedy in the first hour and some in the second, mostly from Strauss and Lembeck's characters. Some of the comedy is key in showing how these characters cope with their nearly hopeless situation, handled well by Wilder and the actors (Strauss' performance even gained him an Oscar nomination) but some of it just seems tacked on and out of place, like when a drunken Strauss thinks that Lembeck is a hell.
But that is a small qualm, and the rest of the film is excellent. The direction and writing are great in showing us a war film, a mystery, a thriller and a dark comedy all at once. I'd have to say I like the acting the most though, Holden (who won a leading Oscar for his work in this) is suave and charming, as well as mischievous and cynical, he creates a real `cool' character without trying too. And the rest of the cast - Graves, Otto Preminger - are admirable as well. The POWs aren't clichés or caricatures, they're all their own separate people.
`Stalag 17' is great as a war movie, a mystery, a thriller and a dark comedy. It's a classic film, for all who appreciate good cinema, 8.5/10.
I'm a woman younger than 30.
Saw it for the first time in 2005- knew nothing about the director or the actors- and I couldn't turn away because I needed to know the answer to the mystery. The acting is superb, the dialogue quick, the plot unexpected. The film seems fresh and subtle compared to Hollywood films of now. Perhaps this is because the special effects are simple; the emphasis is on dialogue. We also watch for clues in the changing surroundings and the characters in the shadows.
I held my breath for the last few minutes. Even after the movie had ended, I wondered "What will happen now? Will the guards burst into the barrack? What will happen the next morning?" The last seconds of the film are peaceful, but the whistling at the end seems too hopeful...surely something will go still wrong!
This absorbing and very entertaining movie creates a believable and
interesting cast of characters, puts them into an intriguing story, and
uses its settings, props, and other resources very creatively. It is a
fine combination of drama and comic relief that stands up very well
against anything else of its type. The setting and atmosphere are quite
believable, and they make it easy to enter the characters' world.
The opening sequence sets up everything nicely, with most of POW's helping two of the prisoners in an escape attempt, while William Holden as the cynical Sefton separates himself from the rest. Sefton is interesting enough as it is, a man who simply by remaining true to his nature cannot help arousing suspicion and antagonism, and Holden was quite a good choice to play him. The story builds up nicely, with developments coming at a careful pace, and some good stretches of lighter material.
There are numerous interesting characters and good performances among the other prisoners, and in particular Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck steal more than one scene with their antics which, though goofy, are also an appropriate complement to the main plot and the setting. The German characters are more stylized, but both Sig Ruman and Otto Preminger make them come to life, and help them fit in seamlessly with the others.
Billy Wilder's direction and the photography also deserve praise. Besides the way that each sequence fits together so nicely with the others, there are several individual scenes and shots that are done in an impressive fashion - not flashy, but creative and thoughtful. The scene with Holden lying on his cot while most of the others sing and celebrate is one particularly good example. There is a wealth of good material throughout, making "Stalag 17" a classic that has lost nothing over the years, and one that can be seen and enjoyed several times.
In defense of this great film "Stalag 17", I would like to say a few things.
First of all, William Holden's performance in this film gives this film a
very big lead against many other films like it. Holden is a very good actor
given a very good role here as Sefton, a soldier that uniquely accepts his
situation. The other supporting, and even prominent roles are good but
seems "intentionally" underdeveloped for the benefit of not complicating
viewers with unnecessary information. The story, consisting of a "whodunit"
plot, wartime ordeals, and amusing dialogue between the characters is superb
for it's time. All in all, watching "Stalag 17" is at least a fine way to
spend your time.
I've read many reviews that say that they were disappointed with this film. Some were annoyed because it wasn't as realistically gritty and tense like "Saving Private Ryan". Well, that's the effect of the Hays Offices (censorship officials of American produced movies during the past). I have to say that although it may have lacked the grittiness of Spielberg's film, it still surpasses "Saving Private Ryan" for it's honest approach to it's characters such as the POW that responds to his wife's letter ("I believe it.") with a certain kind of feeling that can truly be described as honest and the German "Wake up caller" Scherbach's constant joking around with POWs while remaining true to his kommandant's wishes. The 'Animal' and Shapiro characters were obviously created for comic relief but it should only be taken as that, comic relief (Hell, everyone's a comedian and at least they tried). Most anybody that was disappointed with this film were probably disappointed for it's strange association with the TV show "Hogan's Heroes". I must say that I don't care much for that certain show but I do like this film.
I really don't think that any film should ever be compared with another film or a TV show (unless it's a spinoff, then they're just asking for it) no matter how related they are. A movie is a movie on it's own and never with the help of another, no matter the similarities. This is a classic film, worthy of it's praise yet unworthy of it's negative critique. Nobody should let personal opinions be considered flaws. Just watch it, when you have the chance, with an open mind.
Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 relies on folds of comedy and a cynical
attitude to elevate a story that seems out of a crime novel. Here we
have a cast of characters, and the undercurrent is 'who's the rat?' in
a bunker as the secrets shuffled around (i.e. that there's a tunnel for
escape) and the Germans know right away. There's fun in that, and in
being able to 2nd guess who the informant really is- at one point I
thought the old adage "it's the quiet ones you got to watch" would come
forward- but Wilder is brilliant at transforming this as some solid
suspense and dramatic tension while ALSO making a really snappy
(sometimes) dark comedy. It's a movie about personality, despite the
plot being somewhat important, and with the actors themselves
delivering a lot for the characters' sakes.
William Holden is the first given attribute as the star, playing the sort who, for a conventional movie-goer audience, seems easy to peg: too full of himself, sneaky, has the motive to be the informant. But as the layers come into focus, he's more than meets the eye, and Holden (against his better instincts, as he didn't want the role originally) fills it in with his subtle swagger and great sarcastic touch carried over from Sunset Blvd. Then there's Otto Premminger, a big surprise as he is mostly known as a director, as the Commandant, taking up and stealing every scene he's in (only Erich von Stroheim in Grand Illusion beats him out as tour-de-force Commandants). Then there's supporting work from the desperate 'clowns' (Robert Strauss's Betty Grable obsessed Animal and Harvey Lembeck's Shapiro), and the cool Don Talyer in a turn as Dunbar. They're all at their best.
While it almost appears to be more entertaining than it perhaps should- considering, as Cookie's opening narration says, movies about the army have been glamorized and this story is different- it's kind of like the Hollywood 50s answer to something like A Man Escaped. Bresson's film is cold and detached and immediate in dramatic impact, while Stalag 17 wants to be a big hit. There's a lot of humor, some unexpected, some that are meant to be big laughs (i.e. Animal and Shapiro's scheme to get into the Russian prison), and they all connect. It's simply a really entertaining movie that has transcended its period, thanks to Wilder's faith in (and more than likely proponent of) an ironic, witty sensibility to otherwise dark and gloomy cinematic terrain.
This is one of Billy Wilder's best films and still stands up very well
today. Unlike the concentration camps of the Holocaust, prison camps
for Allied prisoners were actually not all that bad in comparison
(except for how the Russian prisoners were treated--they were often
just shot). So, the prisoners enjoyed a little more freedom and were
constantly trying to deal with the incredible boredom of being locked
up with very little to do. As a result, films about these camps (such
as this one and THE GREAT ESCAPE) are few and far between--they would
just be too dull to merit a movie. However, in the case of this film,
the monotony is disrupted because there apparently is a snitch within
the prisoners' ranks--some rat is tipping off the Commandant (director
Otto Preminger--in one of his few acting roles) about escape attempts,
major rule infractions and who the actual perpetrator of a major act of
Naturally, prisoners begin to think that William Holden is the snitch. After all, he is living incredibly well compared to all the other Allied prisoners in the camp due to all his money-making schemes and black market activities. In addition, he is so cynical and apparently unpatriotic that he has no desire to escape--he's more than willing to sit tight until the war is over since he is safe and happy! In this role, Holden's character is VERY similar to the one he played in BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI--where he is also a schemer and mostly focused on saving his own sorry butt! However, the problem of the snitch isn't so simply solved and much of the film is about how Holden proves he was NOT the spy for the Germans.
The movie is odd in that it is a combination of both drama and comedy--with alternating moods throughout the film. Some of the ways the bored prisoners create their own fun are incredibly funny (especially the "MEIN KAMPF" scene) and some of the moments are poignant and exciting (such as the escape at the end of the film). All this comes together wonderfully in the marvelous ending of the film. The movie features exceptional acting, writing and direction and is one of the best WWII films ever made. See it--it's well worth your time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Stalag 17 is my favorite Billy Wilder film. This is Wilder at the top
of his cynical game. Not a frame of film is wasted in this movie and
even the most minute performances shine.
Of course the big prize here is the Oscar won by William Holden for Best Actor of 1953. In a recent biography of Wilder, I learned that Kirk Douglas was Wilder's original choice to play Sefton. Douglas wanted to do it and I'm sure would have been very good in the part, but he had prior commitments. So Wilder turned to Holden with whom he had done Sunset Boulevard and the results were sensational.
While making the film, Holden grew to hate his character. He urged Wilder to do something to soften Sefton and Wilder refused. I think the results vindicate Wilder and Holden was the first to agree.
Stalag 17 was a play set in only the barracks for the stage. To adapt it for the screen, Wilder created one character that was not in the original play, that of Cookie. Gil Stratton's performance blends so nicely in with the cast that that fact came as something of a surprise to me. Cookie is the offscreen narrator and it is through his eyes in which we see the action unfold.
Wilder has such a marvelous sense of the absurd here. In Stalag 17 he created in my opinion one of the great absurd moments in film history. During the mail call scene Harvey Lembeck is getting a ton of letters and poor Bob Strauss is pining away that no one wrote to him. He questions Lembeck and he finds that all the letters were from a collection agency about his overdue payments on his Plymouth.
Instead of love letters to "Sugar Lips" Shapiro, the collection agency wants "the third payment on the Plymouth, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, they want the Plymouth."
I don't know about the rest of you, but the sublime absurdity of a collection agency tracking some soldier all the way to a POW camp in Germany for overdue car payments just cracks me up every time I see Stalag 17.
Lembeck and Strauss were a great team together. Strauss was nominated for best Supporting Actor, but lost to Frank Sinatra.
Lembeck has another favorite moment of mine in the film. The main plot is to discover who in the barracks is a stoolie. Almost at the end of the film when the stoolie is discovered, the stoolie tries to protest. Lembeck, who's been a comic character throughout the film, drops his voice down and just says "he said to shut up." There is such a chill in his voice it will frighten the audience. Again sublime film technique by a master.
If Billy Wilder were making the film today some of the homoerotic overtones would be a lot more explicit. These men have not had any female companionship for a while and I'm sure some of the other prisoners would have started looking good. There's the Christmas dance in which poor Bob Strauss with some homemade hooch in him, starts dancing with Harvey Lembeck and thinking she's Betty Grable because Lembeck is in some impromptu drag.
Also at the dance the blonde naive pretty kid Peterson played by Robert Shawley who you see being held rather tightly by one of the other prisoners. That was about as far as you could go back in 1953.
In fact one of the reasons that Holden is hated so much by the rest of the barracks is that he's worked it out so he could consort with the Russian female prisoners in another part of the camp. The best thing the rest of them have in that barracks is Robert Shawley. He'd be a lot more explicitly gay by necessity or maybe even inclination today.
Fellow director Otto Preminger is great as the camp commandant and Billy Wilder favorite Sig Ruman is Sergeant Schultz. But he's not your Hogan's Heroes Sergeant Schultz. In fact as the plot unfolds Ruman is not quite the buffoon as we are originally led to think. It's a very subtle piece of acting by Sig Ruman, probably the best performance in his career.
In fact Stalag 17 is a wonderful ensemble gathering of great players performing a timeless story.
Despite the fact that this movie got made 10 years before the WW II POW
classic "The Great Escape", the movie is still known as the 'other' WW
II POW movie. While I do admit that "The Great Escpae" is still a
better movie than this one ("The Great Escape" is probably one of my
favorite all time movies) this movie is a great and classic one as
Just like "The Great Escape", the movie knows to create a perfect balance between its drama and comedy. This movie could easily been turned into a heavy war drama but instead a more light approach gets picked, without loosing any of its serious and more dramatic power. It makes the movie entertaining as well as effectively powerful. It can be assumed that "The Great Escape" and its style got inspired by this movie.
The movie is a 'great' portrayal of the lives of American officer POW's, in a German stalag. They try to make the best of it, with very limited resources. Every small thing and things that are out of the ordinary are the things that make them go through their days and is what's keeping them alive. The first halve of the movie isn't even about the William Holden character and he is just one of the boys. It isn't after about halve way through the movie that the story takes to take shape and the main plot of the movie becomes obvious. In advance you would just expect from this movie to be one about POW's trying to escape. But the story is way better written and layered than that though.
But it above all things is also a very well made and especially directed one, by 6 time Academy Award winner Billy Wilder. He also received a directing nomination for this movie. It's a '50's movie but it doesn't feel like one. The movie seems to be ahead of its time with its story handling, directing and just overall style of film-making. The camera-work is especially great and worth mentioning.
William Holden does a great job at portraying a complicated character. At first you just don't know what to think of him and he isn't a very likable character but he slowly turns into a strong and more important character, that starts doing the right thing. Holden also actually won an Oscar for his role in this movie, despite the fact that he never really wanted to do this movie. It was the only Oscar he ever got, which makes it quite ironic.
A great powerful, entertaining classic, which was truly ahead of its time.
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