Monday, December 04, 2006

Stalag 9/11

Huffington Post
Chris Kelly
Stalag 9/11

George Bush has done some iffy things since seizing power, but the one that really hit me where I live was ruining Billy Wilder's Stalag 17.

If you're not into old movies, you should know that Stalag 17 is a cynical, fast-talking dark comedy set in a prisoner of war camp, kind of a cross between Grand Illusion and His Girl Friday.

Of course, if you're not into old movies, knowing it's a cross between Grand Illusion and His Girl Friday probably didn't help much. Let me start again...

Stalag 17 was a play written by two guys, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, who had been actual prisoners at an actual place called Stalag 17 in actual Austria during World War Two. (Think of Austria as kind of a cross between Switzerland and Triumph of the Will.) Billy Wilder made it into a movie in 1953 with William Holden and it's a really terrific piece of entertainment, full of interesting characters and snappy wised-up dialogue and cool plot twists and bravery and Nazis. And you don't have to take my word for it. Ask anyone else who's old.

Here's where President Bush comes in. While Stalag 17's prisoners are planning their escapes, and the Germans are trying to stop them, both sides keep referring to this dopey sort of rulebook called "the Geneva Conventions."

These appear to be rules about the fair treatment of prisoners - I dunno, not torturing them, for instance - and even the Nazis obey them. Weird, huh?

A lot hinges on them, as a plot gimmick, but the characters seem to take them for granted. Even though it's a war, there are still things you don't do. Which, if only for story purposes, explains why the movie isn't two hours of Otto Preminger holding William Holden's head under water.

(Otto Preminger? Nothing? Okay, think of a cross between Erich von Stroheim and... no, this is getting us nowhere.)

This isn't supposed to take anything away from the Nazis as the villains of the piece --you can see it in the kommandant's beady little burgher eyes that he wishes he could get around the Conventions - but the rules are the rules.

Even if the rules are - how did the Attorney General put it? - "quaint."

But here's the thing. If you accept that the Geneva Conventions are just an annoying formality, like recycling - and I guess we do now - it ruins the whole movie. There's no drama in it. Because the Third Reich isn't even trying.

The prisoners get mail from home. They get visits from the Red Cross. They aren't even kept in cages. No one hoods them, or electrocutes them, or pretends to execute them, or places them in a "stress position" or walks them around on a leash. At one of the darkest points in the story, one of them is forced to stand for a few days without sleep. Like that even hurts.

Don't the guards want their country to win? These guys -- the prisoners -- are all members of an organization (The United States Army Air Force) that not only is thinking of using weapons of mass destruction, they actually are. Night after night. From planes.

They have information that could save German lives. But no one seems to have given their interrogators the tools they need to get it.

And now my stomach hurts. Because sometimes even sarcasm can only get you so far.

In real life, the Nazis did commit atrocities against American prisoners of war. At Malmedy. At Mauthausen. That's why we hate Nazis. Because they were bad.

In real life, bombing Germany killed a half million civilians, but interned American and British airmen were generally treated according to the Geneva Conventions. They weren't systematically tortured. They weren't deliberately humiliated. They weren't held in solitary cells. International organizations were given their names and their families were informed of their capture. Their mortality rate was less than 1%.

And they were being held by the worst government on earth.

It's almost like the hippies at MoveOn have it backwards. When it comes to protecting his country, Hitler isn't George Bush.