Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Stalag 17 (1953, Wilder)

A sort of Inglourious Basterds (2009) of its day, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) is the closest thing to a masterpiece that I watched in recent months. I’m a big Wilder fan and yet I never got to watch this particular movie until yesterday. I ended up absolutely stunned.

A very untypical P.O.W. camp movie – I wonder if Andrzej Munk saw it before making his Eroica (1957)! – this is an outrageous comedy and a dead-serious war drama at the same time, with some Red Scare overtones to it, too (it was made two years after the second series of Hollywood HUAC hearings, one year before On the Waterfront [1954], and it’s all about finding out who the barrack stoolie is). The film is a masterful balancing act; it merges comedic irreverence towards its subject matter with an ability to convey all its weight at the same time. The inmates’ loneliness, the shortages of every possible good, the constant fear of betrayal – it’s all there, and the comedy serves both us and the characters: they use it as a desperate measure of keeping their wits (funny how similar MASH [1970] is its strategy). In a scene of incredible directorial audacity, Wilder even pulls off some slapstick involving splashing paint into a Nazi soldier’s face – this is a P.O.W. camp that becomes a three ring circus and then comes back to being a death trap again.

And in another scene of rare beauty all the guys are dancing with one another. This is not your contender for a Derek Jarman award for a Gay Shot of the Year – there’s no indication of any queer sensitivity at play. Rather, it’s a gentle indicator of longing for human touch and a measure of graciousness in a life defined by scarceness and fear.

William Holden (bearing an uncanny resemblance in this particular role to a Polish film critic Jakub Socha, by the way!) is great as the lead, and yet he rarely takes the center stage – he’s a marginal and yet vital presence.

A great movie, which galvanized me back to my cinephile life after suffering the deplorable depths of a Polish Copernicus cartoon, The Star of Copernicus (2009). This one is not going off my emergency DVD shelf for a long time.

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