A Foreign Affair

Billy Wilder’s brilliant but underrated romantic comedy finally gets a Blu-ray release in the UK

It is 1947, the Nazis have been defeated, and Berlin lies in ruins, its surviving inhabitants shattered, starving, and living in the bombed-out shells of their former homes. Women sell themselves to occupying soldiers for candy bars, and those still loyal to the Third Reich lay low, waiting for the opportunity to escape or even strike back. The perfect setting for a powerful documentary or hard-hitting drama, perhaps, but a breathless Billy Wilder romantic comedy?

A Foreign Affair (1948) shouldn’t work in a million years, but the fact it does is down to two things: Wilder’s unmatched talent as a storyteller and superb performances from a versatile cast able to switch between the comic and the tragic in the blink of an eye. The director’s comedies often contained a generous dash of darkness – Stalag 17 (set in a German P.O.W. camp), The Apartment (featuring a suicide attempt) – but nothing quite like a film that mixes elements of farce and screwball with bad-taste gags about concentration camps and prostitution, and invites your sympathy for a Nazi who, at one stage, we see palling around with Hitler.

American congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is part of a committee on a five-day fact-finding trip to Berlin to gauge the morale of the US army, as it helps the German people rebuild after World War II. Prim, proper, patriotic, and Republican to her bootstraps, Frost believes a “moral malaria” has gripped her country’s GIs in the city and soon discovers soldiers fraternising with pretty fräuleins left, right and centre. Worse still, there’s a known Nazi sympathiser – Erika von Schlüetow (Marlene Dietrich) – singing at a local nightclub, who Frost suspects is being saved from prosecution by an American officer. She enlists her fellow Iowan, “certified heel” Captain John Pringle (John Lund), of the US Army’s “denazification” department, to help investigate, little realising von Schlüetow is his mistress and he her protector. Naturally, to complicate matters, the congresswoman falls in love with him.

I don’t know if A Foreign Affair is in quite the same league as Wilder’s most beloved pictures – the holy trinity of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960) – but it’s an awful lot closer than critics over the years have given the film credit for. A near-perfect blend of drama and comedy, light and dark, its sparkling screenplay (by Wilder, his long-time collaborator Charles Brackett, and Richard L. Breen) contains gags that will make you laugh out loud, and at least one in such dubious taste it could be enough to put you off the film there and then. Some of it is shot like a straight-up noir; particularly when the plot to entrap a senior member of the Gestapo takes centre stage towards the end of the film, while the footage of Berlin’s ruins (initially viewed from the air in A Foreign Affair‘s opening scene) is genuinely haunting. Friedrich Hollaender, who composed ‘Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)’, sung by Dietrich in her breakthrough hit The Blue Angel, contributes three songs – including the innuendo-packed ‘Black Market’ – all of which are exquisite.

When we first see Dietrich’s Erica take the stage at the Lorelei nightclub, it is like watching the queen of an alien race walking amongst puny humanity for the first time. Sparkling in a sequinned dress, imperious, mesmerising; this is every inch the von Sternberg version of the iconic actress we fell in love with in the likes of Shanghai Express and The Devil is a Woman, made even more extraordinary by age and experience. In some respects, Erica is the personification of Berlin – the war has reduced her life to rubble and, with the help of a friendly American, she is trying to rebuild, only shaking off the past is proving desperately hard. Towards the end, in an emotional scene with Frost, her character delivers what is practically a monologue about her travails, returning to a simple phrase – “I kept going” – again and again. It’s incredibly powerful and immediately humanises her.

Indeed, Wilder gives Dietrich many of the best lines. I loved her description of Frost as a “funny little woman with a face like a scrubbed floor”, and her off-hand excuse for being a Nazi – “Women pick up whatever is in fashion and change it like spring hats” – is every bit as good. In truth, though, it’s Arthur that does most of the comic heavy lifting; hilarious as she pretends to be a German woman named “Gretchen Gesundheit”, when two GIs spot her snooping on them; even better when she gets drunk on champagne at the Lorelei club and leads the crowd in a rendition of her cornball election song. A Foreign Affair is a satire on American myopia as much as anything else, so while Frost is successfully defrosted over the course of the film, it only happens when she learns to see beyond small-town Iowa and shucks her buttoned-up morality. The congresswoman is seduced by Pringle, yes, but also by Berlin and, by extension, Erica too.

Wilder famously said of Lund that he was “the guy you got after you wrote the part for Cary Grant and Grant wasn’t available”, but the actor shows great versatility here, perfectly cast as the shifty army captain whose spiv-like moustache marks him as a bounder before he’s uttered a word. Lund has a gift for physical comedy – winking, nodding and sideways glancing his way through a tricky terrain of deceit and deception. But he also gets one of the film’s most startling bursts of dramatic dialogue as he shoots down Frost for failing to understand that soldiers, like him, are human beings too, badly affected by what they’ve done and witnessed during the war, and struggling in their new role as “salesmen of goodwill” (you’ll be unsurprised to hear the US Army hated A Foreign Affair). His relationship with von Schluetow is disturbing; there’s an element of self-loathing about it, even sadomasochism (she spits water in his face, he wipes it off on her hair, before offering to “break her in two”), as if a substantial part of him still views his lover as the enemy and, with good reason, doesn’t really trust her.

One of the themes most satisfyingly explored by Wilder here is the dynamic between occupier and occupied; especially in terms of how one person’s hell can be another’s sort-of heaven. Amid the ruins and the suffering of Berlin, Captain Pringle is as happy as a pig in mud. At the beginning of the film, Frost brings him a homemade cake from his fiancée, Dusty, back home in Iowa, a place he hasn’t seen in four years and has no plans to return to. In fact, he cares so little for her, he even trades the cake so Erica can have a mattress. Born-survivor von Schlüetow is a woman who hints she was raped when the Russians poured into the city to end the war, who lives in an apartment held together by spit and willpower, and for whom a tatty, second-hand mattress is some kind of luxury. For all her supposed hold over Pringle, Erica really isn’t the one with the power in their relationship.

A Foreign Affair perhaps flirts with bad taste a little too often for modern sensibilities (jokes about Hitler are only permitted these days if they come with a side order of twee sentiment and are clumsily presented as “anti-hate satire”). But if anyone is allowed to make off-colour gags about the Nazis, it’s Wilder, an Austrian Jew who fled Berlin in 1933, and who lost three of his relatives to the Holocaust, including his mother. The film, I think, illuminates a fascinating conflict within him – the director hated what the Third Reich did to Germany and, even after seeing Berlin razed to the ground, felt its denizens deserved little sympathy. But, as a dramatist, he populated his pictures with people both complicated and compromised, full of contradictions and shades of grey. It’s that frisson – between Wilder’s reality and his fiction – which makes these characters and their lives transcend comic caricature and prove so compelling.

Film historian Joseph McBride, who has written books about Orson Welles, Frank Capra, and John Ford (amongst others), has forgotten more about American cinema than the rest of us will ever know, and his superb commentary reflects that. Now in his seventies, McBride interviewed Wilder, hung out on the set of The Front Page, and was good friends with Arthur. And it’s his affection for the actress that makes this so special.

Always “terribly neurotic” (according to Capra), Arthur was anxious about acting, reportedly throwing up on set and refusing to watch the films she’d made. She quit Hollywood just before World War II, furious about the predatory behaviour of Columbia bigwig Harry Cohn, only returning for A Foreign Affair and then, finally, for Shane (1953). McBride has a bunch of great stories involving Arthur – about her on-set rivalry with Dietrich, how she considered murdering Cohn (really!), and a classic about a phone call she made to Wilder years after making the film. I listen to a lot of very good critics’ commentaries, but McBride’s up-close-and-personal insider knowledge puts most of them firmly in the shade.

Kat Ellinger’s video essay (23 mins) offers a crash course in the early lives and careers of Wilder and Dietrich, touching on their friendship in Berlin, the move to Hollywood (Dietrich in 1930 to star in Morocco, Wilder three years later fleeing Hitler), and their eventual collaboration on A Foreign Affair. Using quotes from multiple sources, she also paints an immersive picture of life in Weimar Berlin, a city awash with sex, drugs and boundless creativity.

An excerpt (10 mins) of Wilder from a documentary – Billy, How Did You Do it? – sees him discussing going back to bombed-out Berlin after the war (“Indescribable”) and his kinship with Dietrich (“Berlin and Dietrich are one”). It’s interesting enough but only really acts as a teaser for the full, three-part film, which is available as an extra on Eureka’s Blu-ray of The Lost Weekend.

Elsewhere, there’s two radio adaptations of A Foreign Affair (both around an hour in length); the first from March 1949, featuring Dietrich, Lund, and Rosalind Russell as Frost. Wilder introduces the show and makes his “acting” debut as a German waiter. The second version is from two years later, with Dietrich, Lund, and Lucille Ball stepping into the role of the congresswoman. This version boasts a slightly rejigged script, with Wilder only appearing at the end to wrap up the show. I’m always impressed with these adaptations, which often have only half the time to tell the same story in a non-visual medium. They are a masterclass in economic writing and storytelling.

The accompanying 24-page booklet contains two strong essays, by Australian film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (writing about the way in which Wilder subverts female stereotypes in A Foreign Affair) and Richard Combs (who takes a deep dive into some of the film’s themes and ideas). A hilariously cheesy trailer rounds out a superb disc, while the decision to release the film on what would have been Wilder’s 114th birthday (June 22) is a pleasingly respectful touch.

A Foreign Affair is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment


Updated: Jun 23, 2020

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