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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Billy Wilder turns his cutting wit on the Nazis

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With The Railway Man on the horizon, we highlight movies about prisoners of war.


Stalag 17 (1953)

It’s an illustration of his particular genius that when Billy Wilder, an Austrian Jew whose mother and stepfather died in Nazi concentration camps, came to make a movie about Nazi prisoners of war, the result was a black comedy rather than an anguished drama. When Wilder despaired, he made dramas, but when he was angry, he made comedies like Stalag 17 and Ace In The Hole, with jokes so acid they sting. (Compare Stalag 17 to the watered-down ripoff Hogan’s Heroes for an object demonstration.)

William Holden, at his most abrasively cocky, plays a POW who’s become an expert in gaming the system—a POW profiteer. His fellow internees tolerate him, but when an escape attempt ends in tragedy, they’re quick to suspect that he’s been snitching to the Germans. With a few modifications, it’s a part Humphrey Bogart could have nailed in his prime, but there’s more hostility than resignation in Holden’s take. He hates the world, and himself for knowing how to survive in it. Some of the other characterizations, like Robert Strauss’ “Animal,” stray into caricature, but viewers get the sense Wilder wasn’t just making a movie, he was remaking a genre, starting with the stock characters of likable servicemen and hollowing them out from the inside. In spite of his outward gentility, Otto Preminger’s camp commandant—clearly modeled on Erich Von Stroheim in Grand Illusion—is brutal when he needs to be. This is not an environment in which stoic goodwill is sufficient to stay alive.

There’s a sense in which Stalag 17 doesn’t feel like Wilder at full strength; it comes from the period between his collaborations with Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, when the quality of his sounding boards was not always consistent. But Wilder at three-quarters strength is more potent than most directors at capacity.

Availability: Stalag 17 is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix.