Monday, 28 March 2011
Stalag 17 may not have a lot to say about the Nazis, but it has plenty of insights into human nature
Stalag 17 is a Prisoner of War film that often gets overshadowed by younger, flashier films like Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. There aren't any motorbikes or big explosions, it hasn't found a place in pop culture and doesn't have a special edition DVD. And yet it has something very different to say about the POW experience that definitely makes it worth watching. And worth watching unspoiled, at that, so be warned I have to give things away in this article.
Set in a German camp towards the end of the war, the story focuses on the inhabitants of a single barracks. It's fittingly claustrophobic, and it's very easy to see how the script would have worked in its original form as a play. We never see the wider area the camp is in, giving an impression of almost total isolation.
Strangely for a POW film, the Nazis are almost irrelevant. With very little effort you could transpose the whole thing to Shawshank, and though you would lose some of the parallels and subtler points the film itself would still stand. This is not a film about the Nazi regime, or the Holocaust, and it doesn't even have very much to say on World War II. Fundamentally, this is a film that asks what happens when you confine and isolate a group of people and give them a reason to distrust each other.
In this case, what happens is they find someone to turn on.
Every time the men get Red Cross packages you have to think up some angle to rob 'em
William Holden won an Oscar for his portrayal of Sefton, the scapegoat, and he thoroughly deserved it. Sefton is a complex and bitter character, and from the start it's very easy to see why his barracks-mates don't like him. The film opens with two men escaping from the camp, cut with the scene back at the barracks. As the prisoners wait tensely, they speculate wildly about how far the escapees will get. Sefton not only suggests they won't get beyond the boundaries of the nearby wood, he runs a book on it, and collects his winnings when they hear machine gun fire. When challenged, he simply offers the men the chance to double their bet.
As Sefton himself says the next morning:
The first week I was in this joint, somebody stole my Red Cross package, my blanket, and my left shoe. Well, since then I've wised up. This ain't no Salvation Army - this is everybody for himself, dog eat dog.
He makes deals and greases palms in order to give himself as comfortable a time as possible, and although he isn't actively unkind, he is unnecessarily callous. When it becomes apparent that there may be a spy in the barracks, he is an instant target for suspicion - and the more things go wrong, the more certain the prisoners become that Sefton is selling them out. The campaign against him begins with remarks and jostling, escalates to taking his things and culminates in a mob dragging him from his bed and beating him.
One of the interesting things here is that it isn't the real spy who leads the attack. When choosing a title for this article I was torn between Stalag of the Flies and Playground 17; either way, the film makes a convincing argument that adults are closer to savagery than one might think. It's an ugly contrast to the camaraderie one might normally expect from a war film, especially for such an early one (made in 1953, it even pre-dates The Dambusters). And it makes The Great Escape look like The Great Boarding School Adventure.
Sefton: And let's say you make it to Switzerland. Let's say to the States. So what? They ship you out to the Pacific, slap you in another plane and you get shot down again, only this time you wind up in a Japanese prison camp! That is, if you're lucky.
I have to admit, Sefton has a point... a few years later, Holden was in The Bridge on the River Kwai. However even Shears isn't as cynical as Sefton.
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Then droppen Sie dead!
And yet, this film is also utterly absurd. When two characters manage to break into the Russian women's compound simple by walking along painting a line down the pathway, it's a cartoonish piece of humour. Likewise when a German officer gets so involved in a game of volleyball that he hands his gun to a prisoner. It's the contrast between the slapstick and the bitter core that gives the film so much of its power. It's been criticised for being an unrealistic depiction of POW life, but that seems to me to be a very deliberate choice. It's certainly not naivety about the realities of camp life - the authors of the original play were POWs themselves. Rather, by exaggerating the absurdities they emphasise the dark focus of the story - the conduct of the prisoners. They also set up two lines of parallel humour - the slapstick, and the gallows.
Had they removed the slapstick and attempted to faithfully reproduce POW life, this film would have ended up focusing unavoidably on the Germans, or at least the captor-captive relationship. This way it’s possible to foreground the prisoners alone, and focus on their dynamic. This wouldn’t work with every war, but with WWII it is safe to assume a base level of knowledge (particularly as it was very fresh in the memory when the film was made). When there is controversy in the camp over the Russian women’s shower block, no one needs to spell out the Holocaust reference. And for what it’s worth, the camp guards of Stalag 17 are considerably more brutal than those of The Great Escape. No one’s put in the Cooler here.
The Germans know... you told them
The reveal for this film is done in stages. For quite a long time, the audience sees no proof of Sefton's innocence, although we’re never really asked to believe that he’s the guilty man.
The mechanism for the spying is revealed quite early on, with messages being hidden inside a chess piece for the warden, and a knot being tied in the hanging light-bulb as the signal a message has been left. It’s neat enough and makes for significent shots lingering on the lightbulb and chess set. However it's not until after Sefton's beating that the spy is actually revealed to the audience. We're not given clues, either - right until revelation, it could plausibly have been any of them. This isn't the sort of whodunnit where the audience is expected to work it all out - rather, we're left almost as powerless as Sefton.
The film also doesn't really invite speculation. There are no lingering shots on characters as they are evaluated (just a quick run down of named POWs near the beginning of the film), no overtly suspicious actions, no conscious red herrings. The film simply progresses until the big reveal suddenly comes. It happens for the audience first, and immediately adds another dimension to the film, both in observing the spy's interactions in the barracks and evaluating what's already happened. In the same scene Sefton is seen noticing the lightbulb swinging for the first time, and from then on he begins to work out the plot and eventually discovers who the spy is.
As a whodunnit one could call this unsatisfactory, given that it removes the audience participation aspect. However, in a film that concerns itself with the power of information and ignorance, the careful withholding of any kind of clue is interesting. Removing speculation leaves the audience powerless, which makes it easy to empathise with Sefton's battle against an unknown enemy.
Sefton's unmasking of the spy is also very good, and notable for not being drawn out. It's also the one time I've seen time difference used in a way that doesn't seem contrived, possibly because of the tension in the scene and the speed of Holden's delivery:
Spy [when asked when Pearl Harbour was]: December 7th, 41.
Sefton: What time?
Spy: Six o'clock. I was having dinner.
Sefton: Six o'clock in Berlin. [pause] They were having lunch in Cleveland.
Sefton unmasks the real spy just as the prisoners are debating who will help a Gestapo-bound Lieutenant escape; when the spy volunteers, Sefton intervenes. He then offers to take the mission on himself, because they now have a diversion.
His plan is for the prisoners to throw the spy out of the barracks in the dark, to be shot by the guards.
Sefton is now in control of the mob and is able to direct it at the real spy, but his solution is actually harsher than anyone else's. This contrasts sharply with his earlier challenge; 'What is this anyway, a kangaroo court? Why don't you get a rope and do it right?' To what extent the spy dies as military revenge for the deaths he has caused, personal revenge for the suffering he has caused Sefton or simply for pragmatic reasons is left to the viewer to decide. However it is clear that Sefton's status as a victim does not give him automatic moral superiority.
This is a consistent strength of the film - it never falls into the trap of confusing 'nice' with 'right'. Characters utterly opposed to Hitler can be cruel or violent. Likeable characters can do seriously unethical things and moments of heroism can be shot through with pettiness. The Nazi warden can have a rapport with the prisoners, and at the same time be communicating with his informant.
If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let's pretend we've never met before’
If Stalag 17 has a message, it's that suffering isn't in itself virtuous. Flippant as it may be about the realities of POW life, the film never makes the mistake of dehumanising the prisoners. This is a tendency endemic in war films, and of course going further back to war literature. It’s easy to portray mass victims as a homogeneous group of martyrs, whether they die in the Holocaust or the trenches. It’s easy to paint a picture of the noble POWs bearing their trials with a stiff upper lip and emerging as better men.
Sefton doesn’t leave the film a better man, and the deliberate parallels drawn between the beginning and end of the film serve to emphasise this. The audience might be rooting for him, but he’s still as misanthropic as ever. His final act of helping the Lieutenant escape is tied irrevocably with the murder of the spy, and it’s never quite clear why Sefton volunteers. Is he secretly a hero, is he desperate to escape or does he simply want to remove himself from the barracks-mates who nearly lynched him?
Maybe he just wanted to steal our wire cutters. You ever think of that?