I grew up with Hogan’s Heroes reruns on our Magnavox analog television. In fact, at one point it was my favorite show because it had such a colorful cast, it was perennially entertaining and utterly goofy to the extreme. But others have understandably decried the show because they see it finding humor in something that is not very funny. They contend it was making light of the Holocaust and WWII on the whole. Although I do believe this is an oversimplification and I don’t have time to tackle it right now, it’s still an important dialogue to have. I will defer to others for the time being.
The point of discourse I want to take up is Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 because it’s obvious there would be no Hogan’s Heroes without this P.O.W. comedy-drama. The plots, even the characterizations, are eerily similar, close enough to prompt plagiarism lawsuits. But the difference is Hogan functions as pure zaniness carried by the strength of its ensemble where the Germans are utter buffoons. That’s the hallmark of characters like Sergeant Schultz (John Banner) and Kommandant Klink (Werner Klemperer) who are both lovable imbeciles. They will never be allowed victory over Hogan and his allies.
In Wilder’s hands, a P.O.W. camp is silly and light-hearted at times, yes, but it’s also equally dark and cynical. Because what would a Wilder picture be without some pointed comic venom? Two obvious points of reference would have to be the wartime comedy directed by his idol Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be (1942), which some would argue employs morbid humor. Then there’s Grande Illusion (1937) starring Erich von Stroheim (featured in Sunset Boulevard) as a prison camp commander who can easily be contrasted with Otto Preminger’s Colonel von Scherberg. In both, you have those evident counterpoints of humor and tragedy exquisitely executed.
Stalag 17′s opening escape attempt of two men is snuffed out by machine gun fire just waiting to mow them down. It’s the definition of unsentimental and it is the first of numerous breakdowns in communication. There is a rat somewhere. There has to be.
Then, the picture is back to its belly laughs supplied most obviously by Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his tubby, scruffy buddy Animal (Robert Strauss). They spearhead all of the shenanigans, including a daring attempt to break into the prison camp of Russian women to sneak a peek. You see, Animal’s deeply broken up by his unrequited love for Betty Grable. They bicker with the resident Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman), another Hogan’s Heroes precursor, who good-naturedly chortles at all their ribbing. Surely this isn’t anything like how Stalags actually operated?
Wilder’s trademark biting wit is most fully realized in Sefton. For the part he was initially reluctant to take, William Holden donned a crew cut and scruff generally masking his normally dashing features. But this was hardly the aspect making him uneasy about the role.
Sefton is a textbook undesirable. He openly trades with the enemy in an effort to make himself as comfortable as possible. He bets a boatload of cigarettes the two fugitives won’t make it out of the camp and when it proves morbidly correct, he makes a killing.
Likewise, he’s the local wheeler-dealer, maintaining the Stalag 17 rat race turf complete with betting for all the servicemen. His other enterprises include a distillery — a flamethrower of sumptuous potato peel schnapps — and “The Observatory” where all the boys eagerly line up for a tantalizing look at the Russian delousing shack. Conveniently, he’s also the obvious culprit when a stoolie is suspected within their ranks.
It takes all kinds to liven up the joint and make it into a space with real drama to go along with so many lighter notes. We already mentioned Harry and Animal but the Barracks chief is the always reliable Hoffy (Richard Erdman), head of security is Peter Graves, Duke (Neville Brand) is the rough and tumble one who’s not squeamish about having a fist fight. There’s a blond brainiac, the catatonic one, the amputee who uses his spare space to sneak materials in and out of the barracks, and the nasally mailman with a voice to top all voices.
When a new prisoner named Dunbar (Don Taylor) gets brought in with his copilot (Jay Lawrence), who has a penchant for spot-on impersonations, they receive a hero’s welcome. After all, they helped to sabotage enemy armaments on their way to being captured. But the information leaks continue with their radio being confiscated and Dunbar being called in for questioning, due to his treacherous activities. The SS is coming to take him to Berlin for questioning. If he’s ever going to come out alive the P.O.W.s must make a last ditch effort to try and get him to safety.
Meanwhile, Sefton gets a going over by the whole barracks, which is quickly overshadowed by Christmas in the camp complete with carols, dancing, and parading full of gaiety. It’s meant to lull us into a false sense of security as Sefton is put in his place and things are good again. It all conveniently diverts from something else. Sefton’s not the culprit. Someone else has been communicating with the Germans and tipping them off.
The final confrontation is when the film really puts it all on the line. We find out who the perpetrator is and Sefton’s vindicated in everything, even going out as a kind of hero. Except to the bitter end, he’s never redeemed as a human being. He’s as hard-edged and acerbic as ever and yet to the folks at homes, he’s who will be cast a hero because he did something brave. Holden was uncomfortable with this as much as we are as an audience but Billy Wilder was unflinching and ultimately right in creating this dissonance.
If anything, Stalag 17 as realized by Billy Wilder and his team is a reminder of the harshness and utter absurdity of war. This is how he conceives it — a man who lost his parents to concentration camps and was sent over to his former land to help rebuild it. He probably knew as much as anyone how horrible the Nazi atrocities were but to memorialize every attribute of the Allies as noble would not document the whole truth.
If Sefton’s the poster boy of the war, then we have to take a deep hard look out our ideals and what we stand for. Because, of course, he was the only one not taken in. Everyone else was so quick to accuse him and to see what they wanted to. It’s almost as if a film documenting an aspect of WWII was in the same breathe suggesting what was afoot with the red scare in the rising fury of the Cold War. Heaven forbid a person we don’t like or don’t agree with is not so easy to demonize as “other.”
It’s far too scary to concede they’re probably just like us. They just didn’t have the decency to hide it. Perhaps they’re better because they were not swayed by the clouded judgment of others.
So if I watch Stalag 17 and become turned off by this incongruity between the historical setting, the lightness in tone, and the shock of a generally unsympathetic lead, maybe it says more about my conception of the world than anything wrong with Billy Wilder’s admittedly incisive picture. It’s a scary admission to make but it just might be true.