I used to think of Billy Wilder primarily as a very witty, literate screenwriter who made sophisticated, Lubitsch-like films. But re-watching Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17 recently, I was reminded again of how hard-edged Wilder’s sense of humour is. Of course, there was never any denying that he made some very cynical movies (most notably Ace in the Hole, which anticipates the evils of today’s media in its story of a reporter exploiting the situation of a man trapped in a cave). But because Wilder is such a clever writer who constantly comes up with lines that make you smile, and because his dialogues are so layered and fast-paced, requiring full concentration, you can sometimes lose sight of how dark some of his material is.
Take Stalag 17, a film about American prisoners of war in a German camp (or stalag) a few months before the end of the Second World War. The main plot involves their realisation that there’s a stoolie in their midst who smuggles information to the camp commandant; the finger of suspicion points at the unsocial Sergeant Sefton (played by William Holden) who spends much of his time trading with the Germans for special privileges (a few dozen cigarettes in exchange for a precious egg, for example).
The effect of this film is different from that of the obviously absurdist anti-war comedies – movies like Altman’s M*A*S*H* and Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. The deliberate, over-the-top lunacy of those movies paradoxically makes it easier for us to see how serious-intentioned they are. Army surgeons cracking jokes while digging about in the bleeding innards of their doomed patients? Mushroom clouds spreading gracefully across the earth’s surface while a gentle Vera Lynn song plays in the background? How can this not be ironical? But Stalag 17 is harder to figure out, because its tone is more realist and because, in a couple of scenes, it steers close to making POW life seem like one long buddy picnic. There are Christmas trees, there is much hurrahing to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”, there’s a bit of fooling about with a genial prison guard, a bit of volleyball, and some ogling of the Russian women prisoners across the barbed wire.
Consequently, you might think this film is a bit flippant or at least that it’s somewhat sanitised (which it probably is, but that has more to do with the fact that it was made in 1953 than anything else). After all, when we think of Nazis as captors we reflexively think about the horrors of the concentration camps: we don’t think about the fact that the Germans would probably treat white American POWs towards the war's end at least marginally better than they treated the Jews. (In this case, being too nuanced is a step away from being callous. There’s something distasteful about a film depicting a German prison guard as genial, even if a few such men might actually have existed.) [Note: for a clarification of what I'm trying - unsuccessfully - to say here, see Feanor's comment and my reply to it.]
But despite its few instances of soft-pedalling, Stalag 17 is a very thoughtful movie. It never really allows us to forget its opening moments, when two prisoners are coolly shot dead by German guards while trying to escape, their bodies left to lie in the slush the next day while the camp commandant smilingly explains that “fortunately your companions did not get very far – they had the good sense to rejoin us”. And there are, in fact, a couple of scenes that seem to point the way forward to M*A*S*H*, which was made 20 years later in a more permissive Hollywood. In one scene, after the prisoners are given copies of Mein Kampf to read, they stick Hitler moustaches on themselves and make faux-speeches in a pidgin language that combines random German words (or German-sounding words) with American slang. “Everything is Gesundheit, Kaputt and Verboten! Is all you indoctrinated? Is all you good little Adolfs?” (Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John would have been proud.) In another scene, one of the men receives a thinly disguised Dear John letter from his wife, informing him that she found a baby on her doorstep, that it has her eyes and nose, and that he must believe her.
The execution of the two wannabe escapees is filmed matter-of-factly, much like the gangland massacre scene in Wilder’s Some Like it Hot - there’s no underlining the tragedy of the moment, no stretching it out or dolling it up with sad music; that’s not the Wilder way. And there’s an immediate cut to a shot of Sefton, collecting his winnings – a pile of cigarettes – because he’d bet the other prisoners that the two men wouldn’t make it out of the forest. Naturally this isn’t the sort of thing that would endear him to the others, but he’s only measuring the risks and being practical. As he tells the other prisoners, “Let’s say you DO escape this place and get back to the States. They’ll just ship you out to the Pacific, put you on another plane, you’ll get shot down again and end up in a Japanese prison camp this time. Well, I’m staying put and making myself as comfortable as I can.”
It’s an impressive anti-war speech, but in the context of the story it also indicates a selfishness in Sefton’s personality. Subsequent events allow him personal growth. When he finds out the identity of the real stoolie, he’s in a position to milk the knowledge for personal gain, but he makes another choice instead. And it’s typical of Wilder’s style that this is depicted as unsentimentally as possible, without turning Sefton into the Hollywood Hero who saves the day.
P.S. More on Wilder’s wry treatment of death. My Sunset Boulevard DVD has audio commentary by Ed Sikov, who wrote a book about Wilder, and from it I learnt that the original opening of the film was a scene set in a morgue, where the corpse of Joe Gillis (the movie’s leading man, also played by William Holden) engages in conversation with other dead bodies. But during a preview screening, audiences laughed so hard at this scene that Wilder had to come up with something different: hence the macabre yet beautiful shot taken from the bottom of the swimming pool in which Gillis’s body floats as policemen try to fish it out and newsmen take photographs.