A Foreign Affair
US (1948) Dir. Billy Wilder
They say all is fair in love and war, but never offer any advice for when the two happen to overlap. One could argue Shakespeare covered this with Romeo And Juliet but a spat between two families is not the same as global conflict. So, it’s over to Billy Wilder, possibly the only director in 1940s Hollywood with the grapefruits to ponder this issue.
Berlin 1948 and America is still occupying Germany, amidst the post-war rebuilding of the country. A small group representing the US congress arrive at the US base for a visit and get updates on the progress of the programme, among them Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), a very prim, by-the-book type from Iowa.
Having been mistaken for a German girl by two US soldiers, Frost is taken to a nightclub, Lorelei, where the star attraction is torch singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), a suspected lover of a high ranking Nazi during the war. With further rumours of a US officer protecting Erika, Frost assigns fellow Iowan Captain John Pringle (John Lund) to investigate the matter, unaware that Pringle is Erika’s lover.
Considered a lesser entry in Wilder’s oeuvre, A Foreign Affair is quite a gutsy film in how he tackles a subject like the fallout of war so soon after it ended by making a rom-com! And to set in the very country that started the war could be seen as boldness or sheer audacity, but having cut his teeth in the German film industry prior to the rise of the Nazi party, Austrian born Wilder has a connection others didn’t.
Remarkable still is Wilder being allowed to shoot his exterior shots in Germany, mostly in the Russian occupied zone, of the desolate city with its landscape of crumbling buildings, whilst the US government offered him their full assistance to make a film about the Allied Occupation. Along with regular collaborator Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen, Wilder developed this screenplay, based on a story by David Shaw.
A rom-com in this setting seems a little inappropriate but Wilder avoids going all out with the screwball staples that usually define the genre, allowing him to gently weave in a sharp tale about self-preservation and deception. In that regard, the laughs are light and pretty safe, but the script is brimming with Wilder’s trademark wordy discourses and loaded epigrams to provide the dangerous sardonic edge many of his films thrive on.
Frost is a typical Wilder woman – knows her own mind, isn’t afraid to speak it, and even though she values her independence, she has a yearning for love. She may stand out as trope at first, being the sole woman among a group of men and a prudish one at that, but the sight of her methodically packing her things away in a series of bags within bags is a great delineation of the sort of character we are going to be watching.
It might have been even funnier if she didn’t fall for Pringle, but since Frost is a like a dog with a bone and won’t let go until she has collared Erika, he tries the one thing to throw Frost off the track from discovering his malfeasance – seducing her. Things like pretending not to know Erika or claiming her file has been sent to another office does little to deter frost, so Pringle resorts to a little Iowan charm and one kiss later, Frost is putty in his hands.
Erika is the polar opposite of Frost – a stylishly dressed woman fully aware of the power and allure of her sexuality, confident in her actions and less prone to submitting to protocol or conscience. She represents an element of danger to Pringle as much as the exotic Teutonic appeal puts Frost’s plain Jane look in the shade, but there is an irony in that Erika is forced to live in a bombed out flat and rely on Pringle’s illicit hand outs and black market deals.
Dilemma strikes when a switch in personalities between the two women puts Pringle in an awkward spot. When Frost starts to embrace her femininity to woo him, suddenly his interest is piqued, but the depth of Erika’s past as a Nazi with personal connections to Hitler and increasing neediness in him prompts a rethink. But his mind may be made up for him when Erika’s Nazi lover suddenly resurfaces from the dark.
Only in Wilder’s hands could the tone shift from conventional fancy to dark, suspenseful drama with such imperceptible smoothness. The extent of the hardships the Germans have to endure under the post-Nazi regime is still rife with authority and control, deftly weaved into the story with a tacit sympathetic subtext to remind us how war continues to victimise even when over.
Some critics at the time felt the film as “unpatriotic” because of Pringle and other officers exploiting the German black market for their own gain paints a dubious picture of their honour, and we know how America reveres its military. The fact Wilder – an American citizen by this point – throws in some cheeky (literal) flag waving should have calmed the naysayers down but the script is actually very balanced in its politics and allegiances.
Tempted out of retirement, Jean Arthur is a delight as the stuffy Frost, thawing out with great awareness and comic presence in Pringle’s arms, courtesy of a less charismatic turn from John Lund. Marlene Dietrich’s irrepressible glamour naturally sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb as the sensuous and duplicitous Erika, but she is careful to give the role plenty of depth with it.
Labelling A Foreign Affair a “lesser” Billy Wilder work is to demean it somewhat. He may have made better and more famous films but all the key elements that made them so great are here too. Maybe “lesser known” is more accurate, though that doesn’t equate to being “worse”, which this new Blu-ray release should seek to rectify.