The film version of Stalag 17 (1953) was ostensibly based on the highly successful Broadway production of the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. However, in his usual style, Billy Wilder rewrote a substantial amount of the original material as he transformed it from play to film. Working with Edwin Blum, Wilder created a story that transcends the comedic mystery upon which it is based. In this essay, I point out some of the philosophical implications of the film including my claim that it may be read as an exploration of the societal factors which often result in the forms of “scapegoating” which occurred both during the Holocaust and in the period of McCarthyism which was taking place in America at the very time the film was made and released.
The film begins with voice-over narration, a favorite Wilder device. Cookie (Gil Stratton), our narrator, complains about all the war movies that focus on the successful heroes, the “flying leathernecks”. Why not have a war movie about the other “real” participants in war, he asks, the losers, the guys who were shot down and spent their war in prison camps? Wilder thus signals that this is going to be a different kind of Hollywood World War II film, not the standard G.I. Joes overcoming adversity in order to defeat the inhuman evil Nazis or Japanese.
Cookie is one of Wilder’s losers, a meek weakling who latches on to William Holden’s Sefton as protector. Like so many Wilder protagonists, from Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944) to Joe and Jerry in Some Like It Hot (1959) or C. C. Baxter in The Apartment (1960), Cookie and Sefton are outsiders, pushed around by forces beyond their control. While Cookie deals with his fears by becoming Sefton’s slave, Sefton himself is a cynical wheeler-dealer, always looking to play the odds in a game that usually favors the house.
Sefton confesses at one point that he wasn’t always this way. He admits that when he first arrived in the barracks he was naive and trusting. But he soon discovered that he had entered a dog eat dog world where only the strong and the clever survive. If he couldn’t be the first, then he’d surely be the second, even if that meant making deals with anyone he could, including the enemy.
Throughout the film, the other Americans in Barracks 4 see Sefton and Cookie as scum, worthless connivers who would trade anyone for an egg or a bottle of wine. As the film progresses, their opinion of Sefton drops even lower, he is no longer just an unprincipled trader, he is a real traitor who sold out Manfredi (Michael Moore) and Jonson (Peter Baldwin).
The American who best represents the average guy’s attitude towards Sefton is Neville Brand’s Duke. He is the one who always says what the others are thinking about Sefton, and when the circumstantial evidence points to Sefton as the traitor, it is Duke who eggs on the lynch mob. In a way, the film can be read as a clash between rival philosophies, two dramatically different ways of viewing the world.
For Duke, Hoffy (Richard Erdman), and the rest of the gang, the world is an unambiguous place filled with obvious good guys and bad guys. As long as they act in the expected manner, the Americans in the barracks, including Price (Peter Graves), are all good and the Germans are all bad. The best and most trusted people are the ones who talk the best game, spouting patriotism and openly defying the Germans in doomed attempts to escape.
Sefton lives in a much darker world. For him, Stalag 17 is merely a microcosm of the world at large, a world of lies and pretense where slogans of freedom and equality mask a reality grounded in prejudice and power games. Sefton’s world is the world of the film noir (a genre Wilder helped to invent in Double Indemnity). Here, everyone is out for himself, the weak are at the mercy of the powerful, and the vast overwhelming majority is mired in a slave morality in which they accept the sugarcoated homilies of the powers to be. This attitude is perhaps best illustrated by Sefton’s contempt for Dunbar (Don Taylor). While Duke and the others see Dunbar as a hero for his clever and courageous act of sabotage, Sefton can only see the privileged son of a wealthy family, someone who was born with all the breaks. It is significant that Wilder makes Dunbar a lieutenant while all the other Americans are sergeants, a clear suggestion of class differences.
Otto Preminger’s Oberst Von Scherbach immediately recognizes this division. Like Erich Von Stroheim’s German officer in Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937), a film Wilder obviously admires, Von Scherbach is quick to recognize the class similarities between himself and Dunbar. He apologizes for putting an officer even temporarily in a barracks with lower class noncommissioned officers and, later, he is unsurprised to learn that an officer was responsible for the clever act of sabotage. On the other hand, the world has changed for the Germans since the World War I of Grand Illusion. Unlike the German officer of that film, when Von Scherbach invites Dunbar to his office to warm himself before the fire, it is not for a drink and cultured conversation, it is to torture him for information.
Von Scherbach clearly shares Sefton’s vision of the world. He tells Dunbar that his family once occupied a position of honor in German society, for generations they proudly and loyally served as officers in the Cavalry. But now, in the new world, technology has rendered them obsolete. He and his fellow officers have been reduced to bureaucrats and prison wardens. Where before his knee-high leather black boots were a sign of authority and rank, now he wears them only to be able to loudly click his heels when receiving orders from his superior over the phone. Desperate to regain a position of power, Von Scherbach has no qualms about torturing Dunbar for information, not for the sake of German patriotism, but solely to advance his own career:
Von Scherbach: You will be interrogated by the General Staff. When it comes to the part about your arrest, I’m sure you won’t forget to give me the proper credit.
Dunbar: I just want to sleep. I haven’t slept in three days!
Von Scherbach: You will remember the name, Scherbach, Von Scherbach!
Unattractive as he is, however, Von Scherbach is not a traditional Hollywood Nazi villain. He is clearly very intelligent and his sharp wit rivals that of Sefton. Like Sefton, Von Scherbach is just a cog in a big machine trying to survive and perhaps get a little ahead of the game. Sig Ruman’s Schulz is also presented in a more complex manner than the usual German villain. He too shows genuine signs of intelligence and wit, even allowing some political skepticism to show through. In an important scene to which we will return, the gang in Barracks 4 (significantly excluding Cookie and Sefton) put on fake Hitler mustaches to pretend that they are accepting Nazi indoctrination, without realizing that they have already accepted the American version. Faced with a sea of little Hitlers, Schulz mutters almost to himself, “One Furhrer is enough!”
When American television transformed Stalag 17 into the offensive sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, of course all the Germans became buffoons while the Americans acquired intelligence and cunning (as well as rank). But in the original, it is the Germans who are clever and the Americans who are gulled again and again. Von Scherbach, Schulz, and Price run rings around Hoffy and Dunbar, presumably their American counterparts in rank and authority. Dunbar’s sidekick Marko (William Pearson) may be good at doing impressions of movie stars but it never occurs to him that Price may be doing an impression of an American, even though he is well aware of the fact that it was his goading that led Dunbar to confess his role in the sabotage in the first place and the fact that there is a German spy in the barracks. Given that this confession led to Dunbar’s current predicament, it is monumental stupidity on his part to reveal the very information that he knows would condemn Dunbar to death as a saboteur simply in order to impress Price. Price’s flimsy justification for asking for this vital information should have been immediately suspect. What need for creating a fuse for a time bomb could Price possibly have while stuck in a POW camp?
The Germans’ spycraft is so ingenious that Sefton himself only uncovers the plot by accident when he happens to notice the shadow of the light cord while lying on his bunk feeling sorry for himself. Once armed with this clue, Sefton is only able to uncover the plot because he recognizes that the Germans are clever. Unlike Hoffy and the boys, Sefton has been making deals with the Germans so he knows that despite their differences, the Germans are people like any other, capable of all the usual human strengths and frailties.
In the end, Sefton takes out Dunbar not because of patriotism, heroism, or even a liking for Dunbar (during the escape he still rides Dunbar because of his wealth). Sefton does it because he finally likes the odds, and he knows he now must get out of the barracks. For Sefton, the only thing worse than being scorned as a traitor is to be cast in the role of the “Hero.” We see this transformation take place as Sefton reveals Price. When Sefton slaps Price and Price collapses, everyone in the barracks gasps. From this point on, Sefton will forever be seen as a savior, the one who finally outwitted the Germans. Just as Sefton did everything he could to reinforce the barracks’ earlier view of him as a louse, he clearly resents the budding hero worship which he sees growing in the eyes of the others. This point is driven home when Sefton lights his match using Duke’s stubbled cheek as a striking surface. Duke is appalled yet he smiles. Before, Sefton could do nothing right, now he can do no wrong.
Sefton wants no part of this and he makes it clear when he tells his companions in his last speech that he never wants to see any of them again. If they pass him on the street back home, he wants them to ignore him. He can’t stand the idea that he and they might pretend that they were once buddies and he was a great hero. Like the Nietzschean übermensch he clearly resembles, Sefton feels nothing but apathy for his fellows and all he wants from them is resentment.
At the film’s end, we are shown the reactions of those in the camp to the successful escape. When he turns over the body and sees that it is Price and not Dunbar, Von Scherbach looks at Schulz and just sighs. They both know life well enough to realize that their good luck had to end eventually. In that sigh, there may even be a sign that ultimately they realize that this is the beginning of the end.
Earlier, over the secret radio, we have heard details of the fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. The American prisoners despair over the news. On the other hand, Schulz crows over German battlefield successes, even suggesting that the way the war is going, he is likely to get to America before they do. But we in the audience know quite differently. Audiences of 1953 would certainly be aware that the Battle of the Bulge was the Germans’ last gasp before collapsing at the foot of the mighty Allied forces. In a few months the war in Europe would be over and Stalag 17 liberated. The power is about to shift and soon it will be Schulz and Von Scherbach who will be the outsiders looking up from the bottom of the heap.
The final shot of the barracks shows the renewed optimism of the Americans. Cookie lies on his bunk whistling “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” with the shining look of hero worship in his eyes. Where before he was barely tolerated by the others, now he will be the high priest of the new religion of Seftonism. He was the only one who had it right all along, despite the fact that the film has made it clear that Cookie’s earlier devotion to Sefton was based solely on self-interest, not an insightful recognition of Sefton’s sterling qualities. The king (Price) is dead; long live the king (Sefton)!
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Beneath the elements of the film we have just discussed lies an even more pessimistic subtext, one that goes to the very heart of the issues raised by the ascent of the Nazis. The fundamental question asked again and again since full public understanding of the degree and scope of the horrors of the Holocaust, has remained the same. How could this have happened in a supposedly civilized culture? – How could the German-speaking world of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Kant, Goethe, Mahler, and Freud have descended into such evil? Is there some fatal flaw in the German nature? Did an entire culture go mad?
Wilder gives us his answer in the structure of this film for the story of Stalag 17 is the story of Germany’s scapegoating of the Jews. As he presents it, however, it is the Americans who descend into mindless prejudice, with the Germans playing the role of the Allies after World War I. Like the Germans after Versailles, the American prisoners have been transformed overnight from a proud and autonomous people into losers oppressed and humiliated by their worst enemy. Their earlier prosperity and social order have been destroyed by defeat. Cut off from their traditional leaders, the Americans must live within a power structure which is externally imposed by conquerors who wish them to remain weak and leaderless.
Hoffy’s authority over the others is as ineffectual as that of the leaders of the Weimar Republic, and their economic status is similarly lessened. Unable to understand why their every attempt to reassert their autonomy fails (the capture of Manfredi and Johnson, the loss of the radio), they desperately cast about for some excuse, any excuse that will allow them to regain some of their dignity.
When Duke begins his campaign to scapegoat Sefton, the others are initially skeptical but tolerant of his attacks. No one steps forward to defend Sefton’s right to be different. As things get worse, they become increasingly open to Duke’s charges. After all, Duke argues, in the midst of their calamities, it is Sefton who always seems to profit, Sefton who knows all the angles. People like Sefton have always been the vermin capitalizing on the misfortunes of the “real” people, the deserving people. If things are going wrong, it must be Sefton who is the traitor, the one who is stabbing them in the back.
Sefton doesn’t even pretend to be like everyone else, and, if he did, we would all be able to see through the pretense. People like Sefton are all the same and they deserve whatever punishment we give them. It’s not enough just to exclude Sefton from the community, not enough to regularly insult him at the same time as you are voluntarily participating in his diversions such as mouse racing or gambling. Sefton deserves to have his property expropriated and used for the good of the whole community. We’ll trade his wine for the radio and he’d better not complain.
Finally, when things really go bad, just as the Germans did to the Jews, the responsible American leaders such as Hoffy give in completely to the Dukes and authorize a mass beating of Sefton without benefit of trial or an opportunity to present a defense. After the beating, we are told that Hoffy tried to exile Sefton to other barracks but no one else wanted him either (just as Germany was unable to find countries willing to take the Jews in the midst of the Depression). Had Sefton not revealed Price and things had continued to go badly, it was clearly possible that Hoffy and the boys might well have decided to execute Sefton for the good of the barracks and in just punishment for his crimes of betrayal.
How could the cultured Germans have allowed the Holocaust to take place? Wilder’s answer is to show us how a barracks of decent American boys could be lead to similar acts of prejudice during a period of a few months of relatively mild deprivation. After all, the conditions in Stalag 17 were not really very bad. While the food was not great, no one appeared to be starving. There were no signs of serious illnesses going untreated. Until they used it to hide the tunnel, the prisoners were given a stove and enough fuel to keep warm.
In other words, although by 1944 we know that the war was going very badly for the Germans, the prisoners were relatively well off, especially when compared to the condition of the average German during the twenties and early thirties. Although his tone is obviously sarcastic, we even somewhat believe Schultz when he professes his affection for his “boys.” In any case, their minor deprivations and the sarcasm of Schulz and Von Scherbach are small burdens to bear when compared to the imaginable suffering of the inmates of the quite different camps in places like Dachau and Auschwitz.
Thus, when the boys pretended to have become “good little Adolfs” in the scene mentioned earlier, they are much closer to the truth than they realize. Given Wilder’s history as a Jewish refugee first in German-speaking Europe and then in Hollywood, and the loss of his own mother in the Holocaust, he has the right to say what others might consider offensive; that anyone might act as the Germans did under similar or even lesser provocation. This is by no means a defense of the Germans. We will never know how much Wilder was affected by the facts of the Holocaust. He was clearly aware of what his own fate would have been if he had stayed in Vienna as his mother chose to do. Wilder is not defending the Germans, he is indicting the rest of us, especially those who smugly claim that the same could never happen here, not in the “good, old USA” with our acceptance of the Bill of Rights and the freedom to believe whatever one wishes.
It is significant to remember this film was made and released in the early 1950’s. It is no accident that the real traitor to American values was Price, the head of “security.” For, at that same time, the men charged with similar duties, i.e., the congressional members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was busy protecting American security by depriving citizens of their right to be different in very much the same ways as those depicted in the film. Like Sefton, however, Wilder is no hero. While I argue that this is very much the film’s real message, Wilder hides it under enough comedy and plot that he runs no risk of offending the Red-baiters. I guess he didn’t like the odds.