Notes on Camp

Fiona Pleasance on Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, out on Bluray today.


Until a poll came along earlier this year to disabuse me of the fact, I could have sworn that one of the most thanked people in Oscar acceptance speeches was Billy Wilder.  Perhaps it’s just that Wilder’s acknowledgements were quite high profile, and from people on movies he had nothing to do with, like 1993’s Best Foreign Language Film (Fernando Trueba for Belle Époque: “”I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder… so, thank you Mr. Wilder”); or 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist (director Michel Hazanavicius: “I would like to thank the following three people, I would like to thank Billy Wilder, I would like to thank Billy Wilder, and I would like to thank Billy Wilder.”).  At any rate, they stick in the memory.

Ironically, one Oscar winner who could legitimately have thanked Wilder, receiving the Best Actor award for a film which he directed, is famous for giving one of the shortest acceptance speeches on record.  When William Holden went up to receive his little gold man for Stalag 17, all he said was “thank you”; twice for good measure.  It was a somewhat unexpected win at the time, seeing as Holden was up against both Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift for From Here to Eternity.

UK cineastes now have the chance to judge Holden’s performance in High Definition for the first time, as a restored version of Stalag 17 is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label.

Improbable as it sounds, in 1953 Wilder owed Paramount – the studio which had been his home since he started working as a director in Hollywood in the early 1940s – a hit.  His previous movie, Ace in the Hole, had been a critical and commercial disaster.  As the truism that you’re only ever as good as your last picture applied even then, and even to a director of Wilder’s stature, he was well aware of the need to do better next time.

In 1952, Wilder was “between” long-term writing collaborators.  His partnership with Charles Brackett had broken up after Sunset Boulevard (1950), and he was not to begin working with the collaborator of his later years, I.A.L. Diamond, until Love in the Afternoon, released in 1957.  Wilder, who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and part of the Jewish diaspora in the 1930s, liked to work on his scripts together with a native-speaking American.  But he was a notoriously rude, cranky and demanding colleague, and both Raymond Chandler and Stalag 17‘s Edwin Blum swore after one movie that they would never work with him again.

Of the four movies he wrote and directed between Brackett and Diamond, all were adaptations and three had been stage plays.  The first of these was Stalag 17, written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski and based on their own experiences as POWs in World War Two.  (Trzcinski, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Adam Driver, has a cameo in the film as the cuckold Triz).  The play had been a big hit on Broadway in 1951 and ’52, and a number of its actors also appear in the film; though not Holden, who saw the show but apparently disliked it so much that he left during the interval.

Wilder and Blum open up the action a little: while the play is set solely in one barrack, the movie has scenes set in various camp buildings and in the open air.  If the film still feels a little stagey at times, that was intentional.  Wilder wanted to keep the action within the barbed wire fences of the prison camp so that the audience would feel as claustrophobic as the inmates.

The film itself purports to offer a new perspective.  The opening voice-over – spoken by “Cookie” Cook, associate of J.J. Sefton, the character played by William Holden – laments …”those war pictures, all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerrillas in the Philippines.  What gets me is that there never was a movie about POWs, about prisoners of war.”  While the statement is not entirely accurate (La Grande Illusion, anyone?  OK, different war), it was the case that as of the early 1950s, the American WW2 POW experience had not yet really been captured on film.

Indeed, Wilder really seems to revel in the murkier aspects of POW life.  He kept the camp itself and the clothes so dirty that Paramount head office got nervous.  He shows the sex-starved inmates going a bit nuts when some captured Russian women arrive in the next camp over.  And he manages to suggest that, despite the inmates’ belief that they are all in it together, they haven’t actually left their social and class-based preconceptions behind them at all.

While some of the German guards are figures of fun, the camp commandant, played by fellow central European émigré director Otto Preminger, is mostly depicted straightforwardly (and in a manner perhaps not a million miles away from his own directorial style).  Staff Sergeant Johann Sebastian Schulz, played by that old Marx Brothers stalwart Sig Ruman, is portrayed almost sympathetically at first – though of course, in the end, he’s still a Nazi.  Wilder, who lost his mother and grandmother in the Holocaust, well understood the contradictions of that time.

Despite all of this, Stalag 17 is that relatively rare thing, a POW comedy.  But ironically, considering Wilder’s chops, some of the comedic elements of the movie have not aged terribly well at all, mostly the ones involving the character of the id-driven “Animal” Kuzawa, played by Robert Strauss.  Strauss’s mugging earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor back in 1953, but now comes across as misjudged and overdone, especially when compared to the more subtle and effective acting work going on around him.  In addition, a number of the references which place the film firmly in its period will probably remain obscure to contemporary audiences, who might, at a push, be able to recognise Betty Grable or a Jimmy Cagney impression, but won’t know Ronald Coleman from Adam.

Instead, Stalag 17‘s strengths lie with Holden’s character Sefton and the thriller at the heart of the film.  As Cookie points out, the men in Stalag 17 are “…all-American airmen; radio operators, gunners and engineers.  And all sergeants.  Now, put 630 sergeants together and, oh mother, you’ve got yourself a situation!”  The situation is this: after an attempted escape by two of their number ends with their deaths, the inhabitants of Barrack 4 realise that they must have a traitor in their midst, passing on information to their German captors.  Suspicions naturally fall on Sefton, a wily operator running rackets and buying himself preferential treatment with the proceeds.  Though his natural instinct is to keep his head down, after a vicious beating Sefton realises that the only way to save his own skin is to work out who the real spy is.  In the end, despite the possibility being hinted at, the bad guy turns out to be not an American but an infiltrating German.  Presumably that would have been a treachery too far.

It seems that Wilder was surprised by the success of the thriller element of the movie with audiences, and it wasn’t normally a genre he dabbled in.  But here, his choice of editor was fortuitous: George Tomasini’s next film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and he edited all of Hitch’s pictures except The Trouble With Harry until Marnie in 1964.  Tomasini knew exactly how to cut for tension and the ambiguity which runs through the film, as personified in the character of J. J. Sefton.

Billy Wilder made the movie Sefton even less sympathetic than he was in the play.  Apparently Holden kept begging Wilder to write a scene in which Sefton expresses his hatred for the Germans or something, just to make his loyalties clear, but it was never written.  He is a classic Wilder protagonist in that his primary loyalty is only to himself, his machinations driven by pure self-interest.  In a sense, Sefton also represents the triumph of American individualism over the all-in-this-togetherness of the POWs which actually conceals the traitor in their midst.  And Holden plays him beautifully, the cynicism and the wisecracking mixed in with reserve and a little sadness that it has come to this.

For Walter Neff, Joe Gillis and Chuck Tatum, things end just about as badly as can be, but J.J. Sefton is one of the luckier ones.  In fact, it’s because of his outsider status that he cracks the case.  As one of nature’s observers, he sees what his barrack mates can’t; as one of nature’s operators, he knows that everything has its price.  Sefton’s great escape is something of a turning point in the Wilder canon.  After him, even the other cynics and the nebbishes sometimes come out of things OK.

In the end, Stalag 17 was a huge hit for Billy Wilder and for Paramount, its box office takings more or less covering the costs not only of its own production but also that of Ace in the Hole.  Like J. J. Sefton and the other POWs in Barrack 4 at the end of the movie, Wilder and his bosses were quits again.

The Eureka / Masters of Cinema release of Stalag 17 on DVD and Blu-Ray is out now and comes with extras including two older documentaries (one about the making of the film and one on the “real heroes of Stalag 17”); an interesting new video lecture by film academic Neil Sinyard, and a commentary track featuring actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton (Hoffy and Cookie) and playwright Donald Bevan.  This must be a bit older too, as Stratton and Bevan died in 2008 and 2013 respectively.

The film itself is a new 1080p digital transfer and looks and sounds great.  One point though: on my review copy the Blu-Ray menu icon listed the film as Stalag 13, which is actually the location for the television comedy series also set in a German POW camp, Hogan’s Heroes.  Genuine error or in-joke?  Hmmmm….

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