STALAG 17 (1953)

stalag 17 poster

Billy Wilder was an Austrian born filmmaker/writer/director… and all-around cinema genius. Born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Austria, Wilder went from being a Viennese reporter to a free-lance writer in Berlin where he started working on film scripts in 1929. As Hitler rose to power, Wilder moved to Paris to direct his first film, as he feared his Jewish ancestry would threaten his existence in nazi occupied Germany. Via his film connections including friend Peter Lorre, he made a new home the United States. Once in the U.S. he found great success in writing and directing films. But it became a very personal film for Wilder when he made STALAG 17 (1953).

Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17
Robert Straus and Billy Wilder poke fun on the set of STALAG 17
Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger
Billy Wilder giving direction to Otto Preminger

His parents, Berl and Gitla Siedlisker died at the hands of nazis. He discovered that his stepfather had died at a concentration camp in 1942 and his mother was murdered a year later in another concentration camp, Plaszow. Additionally, his grandmother died in 1943 in a Jewish ghetto. While he generally avoided discussing this dark and tragic topic openly, this horrific tragedy no doubt left and imprint on his life. His successes grew with films across the 30’s and 40’s and into the 50’s. But it was during the early 1950’s with films like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and STALAG 17, Wilder felt free to take a more cynical, personal cause approach to his filmmaking.

STALAG 17 was originally a play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski which ran on Broadway, as directed by Jose Ferrer, for 472 performances. When Wilder took it the big screen, Paramount wanted to downplay the German negativity to avoid offending West Germany audiences, so they suggested making the German officers Polish. Wilder refused. And despite solid profits from STALAG 17 (1953), Paramount felt less generous in sharing to make up for the financial loses from ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), which experienced less than stellar performance at the box office. (A film that was ahead of its time and is much more appreciated today.) Wilder made this his last film with Paramount.

This story is based on reflections of the real experiences from Stalag 17B in a POW camp in Austria. The big screen version begins with a voice-over narrative, as several Billy Wilder films did. At the POW camp where the entire story takes place, we are introduced to a cast of characters from one of the barracks and the nazi guards:

William Holden… Sgt. JJ Sefton

Don Taylor… Lt. James Dunbar

Otto Preminger… Oberst von Scherbach

Robert Strauss… Sgt. Stanislaus “Animal” Kuzawa

Harvey Lembeck… Sgt. Harry Shapiro

Richard Erdman… Sgt. “Hoffy” Hoffman

Peter Graves… Sgt. Frank Price

Neville Brand… Duke

Sig Ruman… Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz

Michael Moore… Sgt. Manfredi

Peter Baldwin… Sgt. Johnson

Robinson Stone… Joey

Robert Shawley… Sgt. “Blondie” Peterson

William Pierson… Marko the mailman

Gil Stratton… Sgt. Clarence Harvey “Cookie” Cook

[Warning: the following Synopsis will likely contain spoilers…]

Stalag 17
Stalag 17 confrontation

The men have planned an escape for two of the prisoners. They all discuss the details of the route inside the barracks: from a secret opening under the stove, over to the latrine, to an underground path to a spot near the fence by the woods nearby. The men show a unified presence to support the escape plan – all but one, Sgt. Sefton. Sefton is a hard-core cynic and the camp’s unapologetic black market profiteer. Instead of a ‘good luck’ send-off, he immediately starts taking bets against the two men making it successfully out of the camp. He’s certain they’ll fail, claiming the odds are not in their favor.

Unfortunately, Sefton’s predictions ring true as the entire camp is called to the muddy yard the next morning and the Nazi Commandant displays the two dead bodies in the center for all to see. As punishment, the guards make them fill in the escape tunnel and remove their stove. They can’t figure out how the guards figured out their plan. Two more prisoners are added to this barrack, including an officer, Lt. Dunbar, that reveals to the group how he foiled the nazis via destroying an integral point of transport. Sefton knows Dunbar from his past; when he attempted but failed to make officer level. He makes verbal jabs at Dunbar for being a spoiled little rich boy who he suggests bought his way in to being an officer. At mail call, a prisoner on crutches with a missing leg is able to smuggle in a radio. They briefly listen to details of the troop movements, before guards approach and they hide the radio.

The men let loose in the barracks
The men let loose in the barracks
Shapiro and "Animal" combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance
Shapiro and “Animal” combat the Stalag 17 tension with their own Betty Grable dance

Nazi guard Sgt. Schulz announces a representative from the Geneva Convention will be making a visit soon. Just in time for Christmas, they’ll all receive a good delousing and new blankets. From the reactions its obvious they are expected to lie about their actual conditions during this visit and the blankets won’t be around for long. Schulz is one guard in particular the POWs enjoy teasing:

Shapiro: Hey Schultz, sprechen Sie Deutsches?

Sgt. Schulz: Ja?

Shapiro: Then droppen Sie dead!

another funny exchange…

Sgt. Schulz: How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns?

Lt. James Skylar Dunbar: We sort of hope you’d laugh yourselves to death.

Their secrets, including the radio and Lt. Dunbar’s recent maneuvers against the nazis continue to find their way into the guards’ knowledge.  Dunbar has been taken by Nazi guards and is being tortured to reveal more details. At this point, they know someone from inside the barracks must be a mole betraying them. The tension in the barracks are growing thick. From Sefton’s cynical attitude and his ability trade favors, they assume he must be the betrayer and all the men band together to beat him. Sefton maintains his innocence, keeping a low profile.

Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery
Sefton (William Holden) starts to make a discovery


a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle
a simple lightbulb is the key to the treason puzzle

But soon, during a Christmas celebration that is interrupted by an air raid, the mole slips up as Sefton stays behind and hidden when the real traitor makes his contact with Schulz, revealing how he exchanges information- via a lightbulb and the chess set pieces. Now that Sefton knows the enemy’s identity within the barracks, it’s not long before he finds an opportunity to reveal his true colors. It’s also the ideal time to show his own true character, as maybe not as much of a bad guy as all had thought, by helping Dunbar escape himself.

It’s in signature Billy Wilder fashion to tackle a subject like this, one so dark in reality (one that also must have been such a personal journey), and with complicated characters that are not so ‘black and white’ in morality.  But then he twists it so it’s funny and entertaining with his witty dialogue and characters that draw us in because they often surprise us in the end. He takes an anti-hero like Sefton and turns him into the most brave and honorable character by the film’s conclusion, despite himself.

He adds flavoring of characters like Shapiro and “Animal” who deliver the funniest moments throughout with their chemistry and friendship, Animal’s obsession with Betty Grable, and some profoundly real moments too. In example when Shapiro brags that his multiple letters received are love letters as a result of being so popular with the ladies, yet it turns out the letters are repeated overdue bill notices of his Plymouth being repossessed.  And in another ‘harsh reality meets dark humor’ moment, another POW reads his wife’s letter in which she reveals how a baby just showed up at their door and she chose to keep it- a baby that astonishingly possesses ‘her eyes and her mouth.’ He tells himself and his fellow bunkmate he believes it. Later on we see him speaking out loud, repeating that, “I believe it” as he tries to convince himself and wrestles with, struggling to see if this is something he can live with.

These are all heartfelt touch points that Wilder shares with us in his own, and very brilliant way. This review of STALAG 17 (1953) is my birthday tribute to Billy Wilder who was born 108 years ago today. It is shared with other brilliant Wilder films in the BILLY WILDER BOGATHON that Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and yours truly are hosting today. Here is the full list of participants.

kirk with billy big


20 thoughts on “STALAG 17 (1953)

      1. Your review really nailed why it’s such a classic. I’ve mentioned the film twice on my site, but I do need to review it really. It’s one of my dad’s favourite films.


  1. Great commentary on a film I’ve not seen for far too long. I am often surprised so many think this Wilder’s greatest, but you’ve refreshed my memory as to why.

    So far having a blast reading all the entries! Great idea you had, gal!



    1. Funny thing is, it’s been a while for me too. I chose it because it’s one of Gary’s absolute favorites and I felt like it deserved a re-visit. It possesses all wonderful Wilder traits that make his films so magnificent. Reading yours next! Thanks for hosting with me, sweetie!


  2. What alexraphael said ;-). Okay, this is one of those from my late Saturday night movie childhood and it really registers. Unlike most war movies in that it’s smart, cynical, and funny. Wonderful review, Kellee. 🙂


    1. Thanks so much, Michael! Stalag 17 is one of my hubby’s very favorite films so when I had such a hard time picking just one, I chose this. It definitely reflects the Wilder signature style in all the ways you describe.


  3. A terrific post on another of Wilder’s dark films (her had so many). Holden is great here as he is in his other Wilder directed film, SUNSET BLVD.l


    1. Thanks, John! And thanks so much for joining our blogathon- I’m still going through all of these wonderful entries, like yours. Holden was indeed terrific- this film represented the re-teaming of Holden and Wilder and confirms what a great teaming they truly were.


  4. This blogathon has been such a great tribute to Wilder, I’ve loved reading all the posts. Stalag 17 is one of his most underrated , and I loved your observation about ‘harsh reality meets dark humor’ – you see that in so much of Wilder’s work, and I think it’s that ability to touch on realism without alienating the mainstream that makes him so special. That and bringing us Some Like It Hot 😉


    1. Thanks so much Vicky! I’m just started to read the many amazing posts for this blogathon and it’s truly incredible how talented this man was, eh? He did have a knack for approaching some dark topics by balancing it with humor. Not an easy task to do and still find commercial and critical success as he did. Thanks again for joining our blogathon!


  5. Billy Wilder was really good for William Holden, wasn’t he? Stalag 17 is one of Holden’s best performances, in my opinion. Otto Preminger was perfect, the men in the barracks were so real … Wilder did another stellar job on this one. Excellent article about a favorite of mine, Kellee!


  6. A nice summary of the story and some sharp detail about the characters. Holden was at his cynical best in this role. I remember how unjust it felt to me when he got pounded by the other prisoners and he knew he was not guilty. The irony of the true guilty parties resolution made the outcome feel sweeter. Wilder had some great films on his resume, this one sometimes seems overlooked although it is clearly well loved by the readers of your site.


    1. Thanks so much, Richard! Appreciate the kind feedback. It’s true what you say about how this is often overlooked compared to the other Billy Wilder greats but frequently a fan favorite.


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