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Film / Stalag 17

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"There are two people in this barracks who know I didn't do it. Me, and the guy that did do it."

Stalag 17 is a 1953 American war dramedy movie set inside a World War II German POW Camp, directed by Billy Wilder and featuring an Ensemble Cast that includes William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, and Sig Ruman. Adapted by Wilder and Edwin Blum from the hit Broadway play of the same title, which was based in turn on the real-life POW experiences of authors Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski.

The film opens with the narrator, Cookie (Gil Stratton), recalling life in Barracks 4 of Stalag 17 — a Luftwaffe POW compound "somewhere on the Danube" holding 630 sergeants from various U.S. flight crews — and in particular the attempted December 1944 escape of two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, whose capture and death lead the rest of the POWs to suspect that there's a traitor in their midst who tipped off the Germans. The primary suspect is one J.J. Sefton (Holden), a cynical scrounger who employs Cookie as his lackey and whose caustic attitude and self-centered opportunism rankles the rest of the barracks.

The film is built on a double allegory: the same paranoia that causes the POWs to target Sefton had 1) enabled the Nazis easily to scapegoat the Jews and 2) prompted Hollywood to institute a blacklist shortly before the film's release scapegoating left-leaning scriptwriters, performers, and others.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Colonel von Scherbach makes light-hearted speeches to the prisoners:
    All right then, gentlemen, we are all friends again. And with Christmas coming on I have a special treat for you. I'll have you all deloused for the holidays and I'll have a little Christmas tree for every barrack. You will like that.
    • And he says this while the bodies of Manfredi and Johnson lie in the mud in front of him.
    • Sergeant Schulz may claim to be your friend. But he's not.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Averted with Punch-Clock Villain Schulz. His reaction to all the prisoners mockingly dressing as Hitler is a muttered "One Führer is enough."
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Harry Shapiro.
    • Possibly Duke, as he says "Shalom, boys," to Manfredi and Johnson before their escape attempt.
  • Anti-Hero: Sefton's an obnoxious jerk who seems to enjoy taunting the others with the goodies he gets from his black-market trading. But he's an American at heart.
  • Artistic License – Military: Schulz is referred to in dialogue several times as holding the rank of Feldwebel, but the costuming department has given him the uniform of an Unteroffizier, a much lower rank.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: How Harry and The Animal nearly get a peek into the Russian Women, until the guard wises up. Who knows, maybe the guard opening the gate was actually a Bavarian...
  • Berserk Button: Duke (understandably) gets really pissed when Sefton strikes a match off his beard stubble.
  • Better the Devil You Know: Invoked by Schulz, who points out that as much as the men of Barracks 4 may dislike him, if they make him look bad by disobeying his orders they could end up with someone who doesn't even try to play nice with them like he does.
  • Big Bad: Price, The Mole sabotaging the prisoners' clandestine resistance efforts and escape attempts, and using Sefton as a scapegoat.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • After the other prisoners beat Sefton up thinking he was a traitor, Sefton explains the bruises to the Geneva Representative by saying that he was playing pinochle.note  The representative knows it is a lie, but without Sefton saying anything else he cannot do a thing about it.
    • A POW gets a letter from his wife claiming she just "found" a doorstop baby that happened to look just like her.
    • The entire Geneva Convention visit is a farce, with the guards ordering the prisoners to say they were being treated well, while putting forth a sham of acceptable conditions. The only thing of importance mentioned, the status of Lt. Dunbar, is something the camp officials would have eventually told them anyway. Huffy just made sure they get news sooner.
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Price is the designated security guy who greenlights all of the POWs' secret projects. And he's the mole.
  • Book Ends: A prison break opens and closes the film. During both, a man with a bundle tied to this ankle is shot at.
  • Celeb Crush: Animal's obsession with Betty Grable; he's got pinups of her all around his bunk, and even drinks himself drunk when he finds out she married an orchestra leader. We also have:
  • Chekhov's Gun: The ping-pong balls they get from the Red Cross truck end up being used by the sergeants to creat a smoke screen so they can rescue Dunbar from the Gestapo.
  • Chromosome Casting: Save for the barely-glimpsed female Russian prisoners, all the characters are male. Justified by it being set in a POW camp, during an era when most all military personnel were male.
  • Clear My Name: All of Sefton's wheeling and dealings with the Germans comes back to bite him, as it makes him the perfect guy for the mole to put all the blame on. Oddly enough he doesn't really complain or care about it and even uses the animosity in his favor while he works out who the real mole is...ironically saving the Stalag in the process.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: A mistake which ultimately does The Mole in.
    Sefton: When was Pearl Harbor, Price, or don't you know that?
    Price: December 7th, '41.
    Sefton: What time?
    Price: Six o'clock. I was having dinner.
    Sefton: Six o'clock in Berlin. They were having lunch in Cleveland.
  • Crappy Holidays: The prisoners do their best to make Christmas enjoyable, but they're still stuck in a miserable POW camp with no end to the war in sight.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Shapiro and Animal come up with a plan to get access to the Russian women's camp: pretend to be on a detail to paint a line in the road. Amazingly enough, the guards at the gate fall for it, opening the gate and waving them through. It isn't until they are outside the women's shower that a guard realizes what's going on and sends them running back to the barracks.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: The wonderful excuse Sefton gives to explain his injuries from his bunkmates beating him is to say, "Nobody beat me. We were playing pinochle. It's a rough game."
  • Deadpan Snarker: A good chunk of the cast, including Sefton, Shapiro, Animal, and Marco. Really, the whole camp is pretty much a World of Snark, with even von Scherbach and Schulz getting in on the action. This is justified since most of the cast are either prisoners or guards who aren't happy to be where they are but don't have the option of using physical violence (unless things turn deadly serious.)
  • Death by Irony: Once the identity of the mole is revealed once and for all, Sefton uses him to act as a diversion so he and Dunbar can escape. The POWs tie tin cans to the mole and throw him out of the barracks in the loudest manner possible, thus drawing the attention of every guard, watchdog, and machine gun tower in the camp, which proves to be very lethal.
  • Defiant Stone Throw: Defiant Ocarina Throw. During the Colonel's Affably Evil instance above, Animal throws Joey's ocarina in the puddle to dirty the Colonel's precious boots.
  • Doorstop Baby: A POW gets a letter from his girlfriend saying she found one that just happens to have her eyes and nose.
  • Dramedy. It fits, but see Mood Whiplash, below.
  • Dumb Struck / The Speechless: Joey, as he's suffering from severe combat fatigue (or, as it's more commonly known today, post-traumatic stress disorder).
  • During the War: It takes place in 1944 near the Danube River in Germany.
  • Every Man Has His Price: When offered silk stockings and 400 cigarettes in exchange for the identity of the spy in the barracks, Schultz can been seen seriously considering the offer for a few seconds before rejecting it.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Many of the people in the camp are short-tempered and/or jerkasses, but all of them are shocked when they hear Manfredi and Johnson being executed.
  • Evil Is Bigger: 6' 3" Price is taller than everyone else in the camp
  • Evil Is Petty: After getting muddy water splashed on his boots, Col. von Scherbach cancels the miniature Christmas trees he was going to put in each barracks and orders that the delousing showers be done with ice water.
  • Failed a Spot Check: No one in the bunker noticed the light over the chessboard changing lengths from being tied up to hanging free, and so missed that this was how the spy was contacting the Germans.
    • Due to the lights being turned off (ironically because of the fake air raid they staged), Schulz and the mole don't notice that Sefton is still in the barracks, hiding behind a blanket.
  • Fake American: In-universe example. Price is actually a German who lived for many years in the United States and thus speaks fluent English and can fake an American accent. This makes him very effective as an infiltrator.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Cookie acts as narrator, though he is not the main character.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Cookie uses the word "schweinhund" to describe Schulz; schweinhund (literally "pigdog") is the German equivalent of calling someone a bastard.
  • Foreshadowing: In the scene where Sefton is lying back in his bunk while the other POWs are gathered around ready to pounce on him and beat the tar out of him — note which one of them gives the signal to start the beating. It's The Mole.
    • There are other little subtleties as well that hint as to who The Mole is:
      • During the opening scene, everyone that the spotlight touches recoils from the light except the spy.
      • During the initial bet of how far Manfredi and Johnson will make, when Sefton bets they don't make it out of the forest, everybody just glances at him, but notice who snaps his head towards him? The Mole.
      • Also notice that he's also the one who asks Sefton, "How come you were so sure Manfredi and Johnson wouldn't make it out of the forest last night?"
      • And, he's also the one who half-jokingly asks Schulz the following morning, "You guys have some machine gun practice last night?"
      • And, when Marco says the barracks is jinxed and lucky to be getting the radio, he says, "Don't worry, we'll take care of it."
      • When Dunbar is taken away by von Sherbach, much to Bagradian's surprise, he's also the one who's quick to offer, "You two must have shot your mouths off all the way from Frankfurt to here!"
      • When they come up with the plan to rescue Dunbar, the mole is the only one who's afraid of the SS.
      • Joey stares vacantly as they beat the wrong suspect, but smiles when they catch the real one.
    • When telling the story about the train, Dunbar says offhandedly, "We're all Americans here, aren't we?" They aren't!
  • Freudian Excuse: Schulz is convinced that Joey is "fooling us with that crazy business", though in Joey's defense, Hoffy retorts with, "Oh yeah, how would YOU like to see the guts of nine pals splattered all over YOUR plane?"
  • Funny Background Event: When von Scherbach is making the phone call to Berlin to tell them that he has the saboteur, the guard behind him comes to attention for the duration of the call.
  • Gargle Blaster: Sefton sets up a still and makes a potent alcohol using potato peels and a few threads for flavor. When Shapiro complains about it, Sefton points out the low quality of the ingredients and says his only guarantee is that your won't go blind from drinking it.
  • Gratuitous German: In their mock Nazi rally, Bagradian is simply yelling every German word he knows (the script simply says Harpo Does Something Funny).
    Bagradian: Czechoslovakia und Poland — kaput! Und der Fräulein mit der Glockenspiel und der Bustenhalter — verboten! Und der Apfelstrudel mit der Liederkranz — Gesundheit! Everything is Gesundheit, kaput und verboten!
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Animal and Duke.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "…and we'll all feel gay, when Johnny comes marching home!"
  • Heroic BSoD: Joey maintains one throughout the film. Except when The Mole is caught and about to be killed. He smiles then. He also looks shocked and a bit happy when he gets a new ocarina.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Shapiro and Animal are almost always next to each other, always scheming something to see the Russian female prisoners, always betting together, and act like a married couple.
  • Hilarity Ensues: Pretty much any scene involving the dynamic duo of Shapiro and Animal.
  • I Am Spartacus: At one point Animal splashes mud on von Scherbach's boots. Not seeing who did it, von Scherbach demands that the guilty party step forward or all would suffer, which Animal does...followed by the rest of the POWs.
  • I'm Your Biggest Fan: When a drunken Animal dances with Harry thinking he's Betty Grable, he tells "her" about how he's seen every movie she ever made — six times — and is always so fixated on her that he won't even open his bag of popcorn.
  • The Infiltration: One of the prisoners is actually a German spy who has been inserted into the POW barracks to glean intelligence.
  • Irony:
    • Price tells everyone that he wants to help Dunbar escape because of the security slip-ups under his watch. Once outed as the mole, he unwillingly helps Dunbar escape by being used as a decoy.
    • Once revealed, the spy attempts to get to the commandant's office. He avoids being shot by the towers, but is killed by a guard emerging from the office.
  • Jerkass: Sgt. J.J. Sefton. With the exceptions of Cookie and Joey, he sees everyone in the compound as simply an opportunity to get resources to trade for goods. This comes to bite him in the ass in the beginning of the story; when he barters with the German guards using the cigarettes he won from a bet involving a botched escape attempt, he is suspected of being an agent planted by the Germans. He eventually becomes a Jerk with a Heart of Gold when he decides to help save Dunbar and gives what's left of his stash to Cookie. Sefton defends this view because his first week in a prison camp netted him lost clothes, and bruises when he tried to do something about it. Being out for himself did him better...
    • Harry Shapiro has his moments, given his fondness for cruel jokes. He asks Animal what he wants for breakfast, offering a wide variety of delectable breakfast foods, when of course they are just getting cold potato peel soup, like every other morning.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Sefton is caustic, cynical, and self-dealing, but in the end he gets Dunbar out alive and rids the camp of one Nazi mole.
  • Large Ham:
    • Von Scherbach. The colonel goes through great effort to put on his shiny boots just to make a phone call (so he can click the heels together, ach so...).
    • Animal is also one of the largest members of the prisoners.
    • As is Bagradian, with his various celebrity impressions and so forth.
  • Leitmotif: The melody of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is a recurring part through the movie.
  • Military Moonshiner: Sefton runs a still among his various other moneymaking enterprises.
  • The Mole: The film's plot in a nutshell. Revealed to be Sgt. Price.
    • Mole in Charge: And he's Security officer for the whole barracks, allowing him open access to most any plots or information the men might have.
  • Mood Whiplash: The constant tonal shifts between broad comedy and deadly serious drama may put some viewers off.
  • More Hero than Thou: When the men were going to pull a man's dogtag out to select someone to save Dunbar, Price grabs it and claims this. He claims he wants to volunteer to atone for his lousy job as Security. Sefton picks now to do the big reveal.
    • Played for laughs when Harry volunteers immediately before Price, then clarifies that he's only volunteering to draw the dogtag.
  • Nobody's That Dumb: When the POWs start putting their plan into action to subdue the Gestapo and get Dunbar to safety, they begin pressing out into the compound in a hurry, to which Marco the mailman tells them to take it easy. "Remember, just because the Krauts are dumb, that doesn't mean they're stupid."
  • Not What It Looks Like: Sefton tries bribing Schulz into telling him who the spy is by offering him nylons and a whopping 400 cigarettes. Schultz rejects the offer just as the other denizens of the barracks walk in and interpret this as Sefton trying to trade for favors again. Sefton doesn't bother trying to defend himself, as the others have already made up their minds about him.
    • Really, most of Sefton's trades fall into this, as he tends to get a good deal right when someone has died or something has been confiscated from the barracks. He tries to convince the barracks that correlation isn't causation, but with suspicions and tempers flaring he is unsuccessful.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Schulz. He acts as though he's trying for an over-the-top Wacky Nazi trying to be pseudo-friends with the Americans. Actually, it's an effective cover so they don't realize he's running a spy inside the American barracks.
  • Oh, Crap!: The moment The Mole realizes that Sefton has proven to rest of the POWs that he's the double agent.
    • Manfredi and Johnson crawl out of their escape hole to see a German machine gun crew waiting for them.
    • When the guards announce lights out and Sefton is faced with an angry mob of men, in the dark, who all think he's the rat. They proceed to beat the shit out of him.
    • Harry gets a mild (and comedic) one when he realizes The Animal actually thinks he's Betty Grable while they're dancing.
    • Von Scherbach, when he sees they killed the mole and not Dunbar. And then Schulz, when Von Scherbach turns and shoots a Death Glare at him.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Duke, Blondie, and Animal are only refered to as such throughout the movie. Their real names are only mentioned during mail call: Musgrove, Peterson, and Stanilaus Kuzawa, respectively.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Von Scherbach is careful to avoid getting his boots muddy the entire movie, until he thinks that Dunbar has been killed. Then, he gleefully steps in the mud to examine the body.
  • POW Camp: The whole film is set in one.
  • Professional Wrestling: Schulz mentions to the prisoners that he did this in America before the war and plans to do so again when the war is over.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Schulz.
    (upon seeing all the prisoners with Hitler mustaches) "Bah! One Führer is enough!"
  • The Reveal / Bluffing the Murderer: When Sefton tricks Price into revealing when and where he heard about Pearl Harbor. "6:00. I was eating dinner," Price answers. Sefton points out that he'd only be able to do that if he lived in Central Europe, and not Cleveland like he said.
    • Well, that and Price was stupid enough to keep the hollowed-out chess piece in his breast pocket.
  • Right Under Their Noses: Harry and Animal attempt to sneak into the Russian women's compound by painting a white line on the ground and past the guard post. It works... for about 30 seconds.
  • Running Gag: Sefton using Duke's stubble to light his matches.
  • Sacrificial Lambs: Manfredi and Johnson die in the first few minutes of the movie.
  • The Scrounger: Sefton, although unlike many examples he's in it entirely for himself.
  • Selective Obliviousness: One of the POWs gets a letter from home from his wife, who writes to tell him about this beautiful baby just left on her doorstep. The guy wants to totally buy his wife's story, while the other POW he's reading the letter to just stares at the camera with an "I can't believe he's buying this" expression.
    (reading) "...and you'll never believe this, but she has just my eyes and my nose!" Why does she keep saying I'll never believe it? I believe it. I believe it! (less assuredly, after a Beat) I believe it...
    • Gets a Call-Back later in the film, as the same guy is shown knitting a pair of baby socks, then pausing to utter another "I believe it!" to nobody in particular.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Joey. He saw the guts of his squad mates hit his plane. He only appears happy when playing, getting a new ocarina, and watching as Price is caught and about to be killed.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Sefton in a nutshell.
    My first week here I lost my blanket, a carton of cigarettes, and my left shoe. Since then I've wised up.
  • Smart People Play Chess: The chessboard on the barracks table which is used as a secret mailbox for Price and Schulz.
    • Played with by Sefton. He says he doesn't play chess, but is the one who outsmarts the spy. He even demonstrates a Fool's Mate while claiming he doesn't understand the game.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Animal goes back and forth between being referred to as "Animal" and "The Animal".
  • Stealth Insult: Schulz is victimized by several of these.
  • Sycophantic Servant: Cookie is a mild one to Sefton, although less so when he thinks Sefton might really be the mole.
  • Take That!: In his Opening Narration, Cookie expresses his distaste for "those war pictures—all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines." Yes, those are all actual titles of other war movies.
  • Those Two Guys: Shapiro and Animal, natch.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: In variety.
  • Took a Level in Dumbass: Animal does this very briefly, after hacking on Sefton's moonshine, and pulling his cap down over his eyes; after Sefton remarks, "All the house guarantees is you don't go blind", Animal starts freaking out because he thinks he's gone blind. Even Harry remarks, "Blind? How stupid can you get, Animal?" before pulling his cap back over his head.
  • Verbal Tic: Marco the Mailman's "At ease! At ease!" in a high-pitched voice, with Animal echoing it back in a deep bass.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Price has one when everyone turns on him once he is revealed to be a Nazi.
  • Waxing Lyrical: Von Sherbach comments on the nasty weather, and says he wishes they could have a white Christmas, "just like the ones you used to know".
  • We Need a Distraction: In the climax, Sefton comes up with the idea of using Price as this so he can get to Dunbar safely and they can escape the POW camp.
  • Wham Line: In-universe. See The Reveal above.
  • Wham Shot: At the Christmas party, Price wanders away from the group. At first it looks like he just wants to be alone (either thinking of home or pondering the security troubles in the barracks), but then he glances at the light bulb...
  • Why Are You Looking at Me Like That?: A rare case of this being Played for Drama: when Von Scherbach takes Dunbar out of the barracks, Hoffy and the others yell at Bagradian and claim he must have let it slip about the "time bomb" Dunbar used to take out the supply train, to which Bagradian snaps that he didn't tell anyone until they got to the barracks. On that, everyone turns and looks at Sefton.
    Sefton: What's everyone looking at me for?
  • You Can Say That Again:
    Harry: I tell ya, Animal, those Nazis ain't kosher.
    Animal: You can say that again.
    Harry: I tell ya, Animal, those Nazis ain't—
    Animal: (angrily) I said you could say it again; that doesn't mean you have to repeat it!