If you like Billy Wilder but haven’t seen everything he’s done, this is the film for you, a sparkling but typically sharp-tongued comedy-drama set in the last place expected in 1948 — bombed-out Berlin, rumored to be awash in corruption. Jean Arthur is the Iowa congresswoman out to clean up the town, and Marlene Dietrich a war survivor with a highly suspect past. Underrated John Lund is the Romeo with Captain’s stripes, brushing up on his (click) umlaut. And Millard Mitchell, of all people, steals the movie. Great cabaret songs by Friedrich Hollander, and an A-class commentary by Joseph McBride.
A Foreign Affair
KL Studio Classics
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 116 min. / Street Date August 6, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell, Peter von Zerneck, Stanley Prager.
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Original Music: Friedrich Hollander
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Richard L. Breen; adaptation Robert Harari, original story David Shaw
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed by Billy Wilder
Isn’t it interesting that the directors that made the most important, insightful Hollywood movies about postwar Germany were German émigrés? Both Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann had been part of a group of filmmakers that made the popular ‘city symphony’ comic romance People on Sunday in 1929. Both lost close family members in the Holocaust. Always the realist, Zinnemann beat the Italians at their own game, making an overpowering humanist statement about dislocated refugees with The Search, filmed in the ruins of Berlin.
Zinnemann wasn’t alone. Billy Wilder took part in the de-Nazification of the German film and theater in the American Zone, but he’d return to Berlin twice more, to make highly political movies. Everyone remembers his later film One, Two, Three, a raucous comedy with scattershot jokes about the divided city of Berlin. What makes the film amazing today is that Wilder was tossing around satirical spitballs about the Cold War, while the world was edging closer to a nuclear confrontation. But most people have forgotten an equally impressive Billy Wilder film made in the thick of the postwar reorganization of West Germany. Having graduated to the directing big-time with his Oscar winner The Lost Weekend, Wilder filmed some of 1948’s A Foreign Affair in the bombed-out city, even at the partly destroyed Brandenburg Gate.
A Foreign Affair is almost as daring as One, Two, Three, considering the situation. Berlin was a divided city, just as was Vienna in the later The Third Man; not only was the Iron Curtain coming down and talk of a new war escalating, back home in Hollywood anybody not waving the flag was considered suspect. Billy Wilder defuses these concerns (to a point) with comedy and satire, even though the supposed comic target is the hanky-panky fraternization and black market activities that were giving the military occupation of Germany a black eye. Wilder’s mentor Ernst Lubitsch had become somewhat controversial for making Hitler and concentration camp jokes in his 1942 To Be or Not To Be; Wilder steps on the same sore toes when he makes similar jokes in A Foreign Affair. A ‘de-Nazification’ officer interviews a father with a delinquent son, a little Hitler Youth punk who chalks swastika graffiti wherever he goes. The father wants the boy punished, to which the Army officer says, “what do you want me to do, throw him in a gas chamber?” Played as broad comedy, the scene has a pretty high potential to offend… but Wilder’s acid sense of humor couldn’t be suppressed, not even by his sophisticated writing partner Charles Brackett.
Wilder and Brackett shared credit for the wild but beautifully sculpted screenplay with Richard L. Breen. The highly conservative, stickler-for-detail congresswoman Phoebe Frost (audience favorite Jean Arthur) joins a committee visiting the American Sector of Berlin to investigate charges of immorality and black-market corruption among the occupation force. She’s bamboozled by the womanizing Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a fellow Iowan who is guilty of all the indecent transgressions Phoebe is out to stop. Pringle is protecting German national Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), a nightclub performer wanted by the U.S. Army for her previous romantic connections with the Reich high command, in particular an SS Commandant named Hans Otto Birgel (Peter von Zerneck).
Phoebe takes in Von Schluetow’s racy cabaret performance, and, alerted that an ‘Army bigwig’ is shielding Erika for amorous reasons, she suspects Pringle’s pragmatic commanding officer, Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell). Then newsreels surface of Erika hobnobbing with Hitler, which makes Captain Pringle reassess everything he’s done. Discovering that a romance is cooking between the congresswoman and her American officer, the devious Erika finds a way to compromise them both. But the big surprise comes when Plummer orders Pringle to make his dalliance with Erika public: the possessive Birgel is alive and well, and will hopefully come out of hiding to kill the Army’s ‘Love Commando.’
A Foreign Affair has a ball sending up foolish popular assumptions about the occupation and the behavior of soldiers far from home — soldiers from any country. Wilder takes direct aim at the BS message in wartime movies like The Human Comedy that G.I.’s spend their time eating boxes of cookies from home and singing songs around the campfire. He instead gives us an Abbott & Costello-like pair of dumpy dogfaces (Stanley Prager, William Murphy) who ride around Berlin on a bicycle, looking for die fraüleins to pick up, with candy bars as bait.
Wilder’s cynical comic sense comes through strong. Pringle and Erika share what passes for a rough sex life — she spits toothpaste in his face and he talks about beating her up. Erika lives in a bombed-out ruin; she’s nailed Pringle as her source for impossible-to-find items like soap and nylons, and hopes that he’ll take her to America. Erika laughs at Phoebe Frost, with her ugly hairstyle and lack of makeup, shooting merciless insults about hopelessly drab American women. It’s the only ammunition Erika has in her six-year fight for survival:
“Can you even imagine what it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians came in?”
Erika is big trouble for Captain Pringle and Phoebe Frost, but Wilder doesn’t soft-sell anything as he alludes to wholesale rape and mass murder.
Wilder doesn’t quite balance his official message — the occupation is sane and constructive, so butt out, critics — with jabs at Phoebe Frost’s prudishness, and the much more exciting images of high times at the Lorelei nightclub. Russian soldiers take breaks from drinking to toss people at the ceiling, including Marlene Dietrich. Friedrich Hollender contributes three excellent songs for Dietrich to sing in full Weimar Cabaret style: Dietrich never looked or sang better. One song “Black Market” extolls the seductive necessity of corruption in a city where people are starving. The tune “The Ruins of Berlin” is a post- Twilight of the Gods anthem. Wilder makes it rise to a high dramatic pitch as the SS fugitive Birgel emerges from the shadows to shoot his rival John Pringle.
Wilder and Brackett’s ability to make jokes pay off, or repeat, or be echoed by similar jokes, gets a good workout. We also see some nifty transitional touches, like the ‘target’ that Col. Plummer traces onto a foggy window, to show Phoebe that Pringle is in grave danger. Wilder allows the image of the target to linger across the dissolve to the nightclub, to float right above Captain Pringle’s heart. For a crucial dramatic scene in his later Sabrina, Billy Wilder will make some elevator lights perform a similar symbolic transition.
A Foreign Affair is no less brilliant than any of Billy Wilder’s other comedies, but it had some problematical issues. Wilder’s coarse humor and refusal to mollify Hollywood gossip mavens was well known, and the whole town listened when Jean Arthur complained that the director had cruelly made her look terrible against the fashion-plate Dietrich. Sensitive about her age, Arthur backed away from acting and made only one more movie, George Stevens’ visually glorious Shane. Even though Arthur took back her protest when she saw the movie (and she’s supposed to be playing a sexless woman named ‘Frost’, after all) Hollywood critics pegged this as an early example of Wilder of being cruel and brutal to his leading ladies. Wilder’s heroines frequently go through terrible emotional ordeals and several try to commit suicide. Idiot critics couldn’t separate Wilder’s scripts from his often tasteless wisecracks, and it’s true that some of his devastating zingers were uncalled-for. The truth is that when actresses Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine were supposedly being brutalized by a sadist, Wilder was giving them some of their best roles. In this film, Phoebe Frost’s rendition of her campaign song “Ioway” is just as arrestingly good as Dietrich’s cabaret act.
A Foreign Affair was considered a failure and was once a hard-to-see title in the Paramount library. It was part of the pre-1949 Paramount library sold to MCA in the mid-’50s, so has been controlled by Universal all this time. Was it too hip for the house in 1948? Or was its political attitude too flippant? The movie slams the German reconstruction and hints at the survival of the Nazi past, a movie theme that was discouraged when Hollywood went conservative and decided to tow the line in the Cold War propaganda effort.
Following Zinnemann and Wilder, writer-director George Seaton made yet another in-the-ruins drama, a Fox picture called The Big Lift. A GI working the Berlin Airlift is taken for a ride by a needy but equally predatory German woman, who wants to use him to rejoin her husband, a German POW in an American prison camp (four years after the victory? I thought only the Russians did that). Seaton’s film has become relatively obscure as well, despite starring Montgomery Clift. The sticky issue of the survival of Naziism suddenly disappeared from screens, replaced by Cold War fantasies about sneaky Russians. At least one already-finished movie about a postwar Nazi conspiracy was re-shot to swap out the German villains for Russian communists. Wilder’s comedy about morale in the conquering U.S. Army reached a lot of people with no sense of humor about such things. What about our image abroad?
Lovers of Billy Wilder like to point out ‘Wilderisms,’ defined as little jokes or themes that repeat from movie to movie. The key thrown from a window in A Foreign Affair is only partly connected to the two kinds of keys in The Apartment, while a telltale chocolate cake is a brilliant ‘Lubitsch touch’ that develops both the romantic and black market themes. Phoebe’s frigid ritual of putting away her pens and notebooks in nested valises, reminds us of the ‘lady with the alligator purse’ in Hitchcock’s Marnie, but also the marvelously ritualized funeral clerk in Avanti. At one point John Pringle criticizes Erika’s doubtful compassion, saying “That’s mighty white of ya.” We’re accustomed to frowning at that archaic racist remark, but is Wilder using it on purpose, to comment on the Nazi character?
A ‘win the war but lose the peace’ wisecrack shows up again in One, Two, Three but the story of Phoebe, John and Erika doesn’t pull in cultural references for their own sake… except when we discover that a childlike Russian soldier both knows and worships Mickey Mouse. For all his fun with Love Commandos and wicked Nazi seductresses, Wilder never lets go of the grim reality of his subject matter. The extended opening, with the congress committee flying over what seems an endless landscape of skeletal Berlin ruins, is so awful as to make Phoebe Frosts gasp in disbelief:
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of A Foreign Affair is a very good encoding of a film that apparently wasn’t treated well in the migration from Paramount’s vaults to those of MCA. The print shown at the first FILMEX’s Billy Wilder Marathon (at about 4 in the morning) was terrible. 16mm prints have just been okay, and a TCM Vault DVD from 2012 was only ‘pretty good.’ Most of Affair looks good and all of it sounds great, but fine scratches show up in at least two places — parts of a reel looks as though they had to come from dupe materials.
It doesn’t hamper our appreciation one bit, as Charles Lang’s cinematography is brilliant throughout. The nightclub scenes evoke Hollywood of years earlier, although Dietrich has evolved into a more self-aware, worldly persona; she’s the only German-born Hollywood actress who could play a Nazi and not risk being wrongly associated with the Reich. I mean, seriously, she’s shown trading happy-talk with Adolph — extremely edgy stuff for 1948, and in a part-comedy? We instead feel a chill of what the world lost when the Nazis destroyed the Weimar culture. Although a great deal of second-unit work was filmed in Berlin, the work of Paramount’s process department to put John Lund at the Brandenburg Gate, etc., is near-flawless. One show of Pringle in a jeep moves the camera and changes angle as he pulls away from a curb, and everything matches.
The commentary on The Foreign Affair is a real winner by critic and author Joseph McBride, a genuine authority on classic Hollywood and its intersection with history; just in the last year we’ve heard him on another Billy Wilder comedyas well as an insightful piece on documentaries of WW2. McBride knows precisely where Affair came from, with Wilder’s non-publicized work for the government in postwar Berlin. The director must also have been frustrated to realize that the atrocity film he compiled, Death Mills, was just too horrible — good only to traumatize normal people or entertain sadists. McBride says that de-Nazification of the Berlin theater was less than fully effective because the Allied command was eager to sign up former German and military ‘police experts’ to target the new communist foe.
McBride gets into the Dietrich-Jean Arthur issues. Having interviewed Ms. Arthur extensively, he knows why she quit the movies. He especially knows the politics of both the Berlin situation and Hollywood just after the war. He says that Paramount reacted to some nasty reviews, lost faith in the movie and dragged their feet promoting it. As always, McBride is a very good listen, throughout.
The theatrical trailer included is really a teaser. It’s just terrible, an ‘international appeal’ thing that could be for any movie. Perhaps that’s another undiscussed reason why A Foreign Affair didn’t click with audiences — the title itself sounds too generic. But I can’t suggest anything better: ‘The Ruins of Berlin’ doesn’t sound like a romantic comedy.
We now hotly await the other MCA-owned Paramount Wilders of the ’40s — The Major and the Minor is en route from Arrow Academy in September, and The Lost Weekend is only available in Region B. The great Five Graves to Cairo would seem to be next. If a disc of Wilder’s Bing Crosby movie The Emperor Waltz appeared, I’d give it another chance… or maybe I wouldn’t.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Foreign Affair
Video: Very Good +plus
Supplements: commentary with Joseph McBride, teaser trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 6, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson