Posted by J on November 15, 2008
Stalag 17 suffers from neglect because of its later spawn, Hogan’s Heroes and The Great Escape. This is the movie in which Sergeant Schulz first appears, that duddy German barracks officer who’s always the butt of American POW wisecracks. If you know that fact alone before watching the movie, you’ll be completely surprised by Stalag 17‘s depth and its formal intricacies. This is a great example of a well-made movie, a genuine classic.
The vast difference between this movie and The Great Escape is in its aim. The Great Escape, a movie about American POWs in a German WWII prison camp, is all about escape. It’s a fun action-adventure flick, with some colorful characters and charismatic actors. It’s also a decent pickup in the $5 DVD bin at Walmart. Too bad we’ve never seen Stalag 17 in the same bin. It’s about escaping from a German WWII prison camp too, but it aims for the deeper themes of community and individualism, loyalty and betrayal, and justice and injusitice. It also has Billy Wilder’s crafted, framed shots and a first-person narrator, which adds complexity that The Great Escape lacks. Complex movies are rewatchable, which is why they’re a good deal for $5.
Frankly, to have made Hogan’s Heroes from this movie is like taking the Fool from King Lear and making him the star of a low-brow slapstick comedy. Like any Shakespearian tragedy (though we don’t say this movie is Shakespearian or tragic), Stalag 17 has its comic moments, particularly with two bumbling bunkmates who have babes on the brain. But there is tension and melancholy underneath the humor, since these POWs have a genuine dislike for the Nazis, and vice versa. The Nazis are fine with playing nice, unless they are disobeyed. Then it’s death by machine gun. These American POWs look like they aren’t sure they’ll ever get home. The best they can do is make a home at the prison camp.
The main issue in Stalag 17 is that there is a traitor in the barracks. Somebody is tipping off the Germans about all that the American POWs do. Who is it, the narrator asks? It could be anybody, but one of the men is a loner and an opportunist. Another is crazy, perhaps. Whoever it is, he is responsible for the loss of important goods and a breakdown in community trust.
We won’t say who it is, leaving the analysis to you, but notice the way economics and sociology clash. The opportunist makes money (cigarettes) on the community and accumulates a huge stash. Seemingly jealous, the rest of the barracks is automatically suspicious of his success. He is not contributing to their well-being, nor does he help himself with his aloof remarks. This situation quickly turns into a problem of loyalty and justice — and it’s impossible to not abstract the particulars of the plot onto 20th century American history. It’s a particularly interesting exercise to consider this movie in light of HUAC’s activities in the 1950s and Hollywood blacklisting.
Anyway, just remember this is nothing like Hogan’s Heroes, and probably tied with The Bridge on the River Kwai for the best WWII prison camp movie.