DVD Review: Stalag 17
Release Date: March 21, 2006
· Billy Wilder
· William Holden
· Don Taylor
· Otto Preminger
· Robert Strauss
· Harvey Lembeck
by Jonathan Baylis
Published: March 19, 2006
"Stalag 17" is one of my favorite movies. Though it probably doesn't get mentioned on many Top 10 lists, I think it's one of the all-time best. Being a Billy Wilder film, it gets overshadowed by "Some Like it Hot" or "Sunset Boulevard" or "Seven Year Itch" or (another one of the director's best films). But Wilder did something ingenious with this film. He set a film noir mystery in a Nazi POW camp, featuring William Holden as his anti-hero hero.
The film begins with the killing of two American soldiers trying to escape from the Stalag. Apparently there's a traitor in the barracks, and the obvious suspect is the crafty Sefton (Holden) who doesn't make friends and, on the side, trades cigarettes with the Germans for fringe benefits. His bunk-mates are that film mainstay, a rag-tag group of misfit soldiers. There's the sad one, the funny one, the crazy one, the stoic one, the apple pie one, and the one that'll kick your ass for lookin' at him. These characters, originally conceived for the Stalag 17 play, were honed and sharpened with Wilder's wit and direction. Schultz (Sig Rumann) and Von Scherbach (Otto Preminger) are the Nazi foils for this band of military men, and are well-balanced between humoring their captors while planning their deaths -- they are Nazis, after all. Together, they weave comedy and pathos to create a well-rounded film experience. Will they finally succeed in escaping? Is Sefton really the traitor? Will Animal get to meet Betty Grable?
Wilder was clearly influenced by the father of all POW escape films, Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion" and Preminger does a good take on Erich von Stroheim (who was Von Rauffenstein in Illusion -- and who Wilder used in his "Sunset Blvd"!) Is there a genre that Wilder didn't tackle and succeed in? Noir, Drama, Black Comedy and then the POW Escape film? (Later, he would go on to conquer Romantic Comedy, Biopic, Courtroom Drama, Political Satire, and more!) William Holden displays the gritty, male bravado that would become his trademark through other films including "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Wild Bunch" and he got an Oscar for it, a role that we learn in the commentary that he didn't even want.
The DVD has minimal extras, including a commentary track and two docs. The commentary brings together a few cast members, now in their 80s. And though it may feel at first like they rolled the almost-dead out of the Hollywood nursing homes, it's a pleasant conversation between men that not only served on this set, but served in the War. And there's something about that great generation that demands respect. The conversation they had for the commentary might've been the same conversation they had when they met over 50 years ago, not a decade after the war had ended, swapping tales of how they made it out alive. The commentary is a bit sparse, but it's hard not to fall for the codgers when they're around. The making-of doc recycles a couple of stories from the commentary, but fleshes them out a bit and adds visuals of the actors and stills from the set. The better of the two docs focuses on the real survivors of Stalag 17. It was quite touching to hear their stories, and as a Jew, I felt especially moved when one vet spoke of how awful he felt about what the Nazis did to the Jews.
The film's an A of course, but the DVD is a B at best with such minimal extras. So let's just call it an A-minus.