“There are two people in this barracks who know I didn’t do it—me and the guy that did do it.” —— Sgt. J. J. Sefton (William Holden)
When it’s funny, it’s hilarious, and when it’s tragic, it’s terrifying. Which may reflect the extremes of war—when there’s no fighting, it’s boring, and when there is, it’s hell on earth. Clearly, Billy Wilder and his co-screenwriter were aware of this dichotomy when they scripted Stalag 17, based on a 1951 Broadway play that ran for almost five hundred performances.
Stalag 17 is the funniest possible war picture—or the darkest, however it is interpreted, or both, which seems the logical and obvious way to view it. Humor as an antidote to tragedy is as old as Shakespeare, as old as the Greeks, in fact. In the opening narration by one of the World War II inmates of a German POW camp somewhere along the Danube, Sgt. “Cookie” Cook (Gil Stratton) complains that stories about such prisoners never receive the attention, or the glamour, of submariners, frogmen or jungle guerrillas.
And here they are, over six hundred American airmen, all sergeants, in this one Nazi compound around Christmas of 1944, and because the Germans seem to know everything that goes on, a possible spy must reside among them. Thus Stalag 17, besides being a dark comedy, is also a mystery.
But who is the spy? Certainly not either of the two who are, in a sense, the comedians of Barracks Four, the camp jesters in this tale, Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) and his straight man Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck). There are some possible suspects, though: the barracks chief “Hoffy” Hoffman (Richard Erdman), the security man Price (Peter Graves), tough guy Duke (Neville Brand) and even “Cookie,” who seems above it all, the “chorus” in this Greek play.
The general consensus is that the mole is J.J. Sefton (William Holden), the guy with the close-shaved head, the fast talker, ready with a dozen con games to swindle the men, the guy who looks out for himself, bribing the German guards for favors and blankets and fresh eggs and a lot more. The trunk full of cache proves his expertise.
In the opening scene of the film, the camera tracks through the middle of the barracks, bunks on either side, and past the table with a chessboard and, above it, a single dangling light bulb, to the cluster of airmen preparing for an escape. Sefton takes bets that the two men won’t make it out of the forest, just beyond the barbed wire fences. As it proves, the men are machine gunned by guards lying in wait, which automatically makes Sefton all the more a suspect.
He further infuriates the men by setting up a telescope of soldered tin cans and lenses bargained from the Germans. However angry at him, the men are their own victims and play along. For a peek at the Russian women prisoners being deloused—even if hidden behind the walls of their barracks—Sefton charges one cigarette or a half bar of chocolate. The line extends outside the barracks.
For the mouse race, complete with arena and a name for each animal, he accepts bets calculated in cigarettes. And for a shot of schnapps from his distillery, it’s two cigarettes.
And life, if it can be called that, continues in Barracks Four. The monotony is broken by sailboat races at the cesspool, pinochle and chess championships, single-gender dancing to a contraband phonograph and listening to the BBC on a radio smuggled from barracks to barracks. Here again, just as the Germans knew about the tunnel and the stove that camouflaged its entrance, they somehow know about the radio and its chicken coop wire antenna and confiscate them.
Mail call is always a welcome diversion. Shapiro wants “Animal” to believe all his letters are from women, until his buddy discovers they are typed, in fact are numerous payment-due notices on his Plymouth and, with the last letter, as Shapiro says, “Now they want the Plymouth.” Shapiro delights in provoking the obsession “Animal” has for Betty Grable and his gloom when he learns she has married band leader Harry James.
Other humor is provided by one sergeant (Edmund Trzcinski) who reads from his wife a letter that begins, “You won’t believe it.” She has found on her doorstep a “most adorable baby” who looks just like him and has decided to keep it. “Why does she always say I won’t believe it?” he asks. “I believe it.” A long pause. “I believe it.” Later in the film, he is seen again holding the letter and saying, “I believe it.” Disguised as comedy, here is the anguish of men separated from their loved ones, the often recipients of those wartime “Dear John” letters. Trzcinski, along with Donald Bevan, wrote the original Broadway play.
And insanity, another liability of such incarceration, is exemplified by the speechless Joey (Robinson Stone) who plays his ocarina at the most inopportune times—during that opening escape attempt and later when the camp commandant, Colonel Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger), addresses the Americans. Unfortunate, he says, that the compound is short two men, but at least his record of no escapes from Stalag 17 has been preserved.
For the inhabitants of Barracks Four, Sefton’s apparent fraternization with the enemy becomes intolerable when he bribes the guards for a day in the Russian women’s barracks. He has to be the stoolie. Upon his return that night, he is badly beaten, bruised about the face and nearly crippled. He warns his assailants that they will have to dish out another beating when they discover the real spy.
Through the camp grapevine, it is learned that a recently captured Lt. James Dunbar (Don Taylor), who had been bunking in the enlisted men’s barracks, is to be taken next day to Berlin for interrogation by the SS. (As pointed out in The Great Escape, it is fortunate that WWII Allied POWs in Germany were overseen by the Luftwaffe, not the brutal SS, though the uniforms in Stalag 17 show incorrect Luftwaffe attire.)
In a clandestine night scheme, the prisoners abduct Dunbar as he is being escorted to a waiting car for Berlin. His hiding place is known only to “Hoffy,” not even to security chief Price, who, it turns out, is the spy. Underdog and presumed traitor, Sefton trips up Price regarding the time of Pearl Harbor and pulls from the man’s pocket a black chess queen, one of an alternating pair, hollowed out to contain a message.
Sefton had noticed the changes in the light bulb cord above the chessboard: sometimes it inexplicably swayed, other times it was kinked. Once when the prisoners were rushed to the trenches during an air raid, Sefton hid among the bunks and overheard a conversation—in German—between Price and the guard Schulz (Sig Ruman). To what is now a captive audience, Sefton explains that whenever there was a message, Price would put a kink in the cord, a cue for a black queen switch by Schulz, the “mailman” between Price and Scherbach.
Duke’s comment, “Brother, were we all wet about you,” symbolizes the immediate change of the men’s opinion about Sefton, and barracks chief “Hoffy” approves his volunteering to guide Dunbar out of the camp. After giving Sefton time to reach Dunbar—hidden inside a water tower—Price, tin cans tied to his ankles, is thrown into the compound to create a diversion. He draws fire from the watch towers, and, amazingly, the German expend much ammunition before they are able to kill him.
Scherbach and Schulz, swagger out, proud that they have killed yet another escapee and preserved the commandant’s perfect record. When they turn the dead man over, face up, it’s not the victim they had expected.
In the film’s final scene, “Cookie” lies in his bunk whistling “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” the theme of Stalag 17. It occurs in the main and end titles and also as source music when the prisoners march around the barracks singing the song. Franz Waxman, credited with “musical settings,” is little more than an arranger, though he won an Oscar three years earlier for scoring another Wilder film, Sunset Blvd.
Although William Holden shows a greater range in his two other Oscar-nominated performances, in Sunset Blvd. and Network, the character of J.J. Sefton in Stalag 17 is quite different, basically an unlikable, negative guy, with none of the paraphernalia of the leading man. Perhaps this playing against type earned him his only Oscar. He is excellent. Wilder would use him again in the first version of Sabrina and in the unfortunate Fedora, which closed the Holden-Wilder collaboration.
Holden’s only serious acting competition in the film comes from Otto Preminger. Although they appear together in several group scenes, there are no face-to-face confrontations, which might have been something of a challenge to Holden, up against a master scene-stealer like Preminger. It’s not only the German’s sheer physical presence, but the accent, his broad gestures, his arrogant stance, the way he rolls his eyes. Certainly such a lightweight as Don Taylor hasn’t a chance, as when Scherbach attempts, through sleep deprivation, to learn how Dunbar sabotaged an ammunition train.
In this same scene a bit of subtle comic relief occurs. Scherbach has put through a request for a phone line to Berlin. While he waits, he complains to Dunbar about being forgotten as a mere prison camp warden and has his aide slip on his jackboots. When the call comes through, he salutes and clicks his heels—the reason for putting on the boots—and after he hangs up, the boots come off.
Another outstanding performance is Sig Ruman’s as Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz. At one point, “Cookie,” in his narration, remarks, “I understand the Krauts had a composer way back with the ‘Johann Sebastian’ in it, but I can tell you one thing: Schulz was no composer. He was a schweinehund.” Much of Ruman’s part is played for laughs, but he is, after all, that dark “mailman,” in his own way a spy. Ruman had similar roles in numerous WWII films, including a German train conductor in the Errol Flynn-Ronald Reagan caper Desperate Journey, another blend of drama and comedy.
The great Billy Wilder was about a third of the way through his career at the time of Stalag 17, and he gathered around him, as usual, the best possible artists. Besides his co-screenwriter Edwin Blum, the cinematographer was Ernest Laszlo, best known for his work with Stanley Kramer, and film editor George Tomasini, who worked on nine of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. In addition to Holden, Oscar nominations went to Wilder and to Robert Strauss for Supporting Actor, neither a winner.
Before he had left Barracks Four, Sefton had delivered, if not his final line, then clearly an appropriate valediction—from his viewpoint, anyway: “If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we never met before, understand?” But to slip out of the dramatic back to the comic for the final scene, “Animal” does him one better, perhaps. When the barracks residents discuss whether Sefton and Dunbar will get away and Shapiro wonders why Sefton volunteered, “Animal” muses, “Maybe he just wanted to steal our wire cutters. Ever think of that?”