Stalag 17

Stalag 17

Why does she keep saying I don’t believe it? I believe it…! I believe it!

They say that laughter is the mask for our existential despair; to hide it from each other, more so from ourselves. Perhaps it is in this dichotomy that we can┬ácentrally situate Billy Wilder’s comedies. His dramas, especially Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole, are near-nihilistic. With A Foreign Affair we found Wilder’s sillier side exercised within the context of something much darker. Stalag 17 features the writer-director’s sharp humour within a German Prisoner of War camp, where escape (we soon find out) is impossible. Where better?

Make no mistake Stalag 17 is a hilarious film, one which features the nasty details of the POWs’ lives but also their charming appreciation for the little things, their solidarity, spots of childish innocence and hope which serve to movingly underpin the unpleasant reality – most directly when dealing with the bunker’s guard, simultaneous friend and foe. This solidarity is threatened by the realisation that there is a mole afoot. Suspicion falls upon individualist Sefton, the film’s model for war profiteers and capitalists. What follows is Wilder’s typically inspired storytelling. But the movie is not apolitical, as Wilder has a reputation for having been, or as he might have liked to have thought himself. A celebration of the most human values in defiance of (unblurred) fascist oppression, to a much greater extent than most American war movies, Stalag 17 is a masterpiece, a beautifully sculpted work of art that remains as valuable today as it was in 1953.