A United States congressional envoy flies over bombed-out Berlin, its members on their way to the East German city to evaluate the morale of occupying American servicemen. Looking down at the devastation with a sardonic tourist’s detachment, one of the investigators dryly remarks, “Well, that’s rough doing. That sure is rough doing.” It’s a passing comment, but it effectively sets the tone for Billy Wilder’s 1948 Paramount release A Foreign Affair, a film that, incredibly and rather boldly, finds not only comedy amongst the devastation, but also a charmingly fanciful love triangle as well.

Americans may have won the war, it is said at one point in the film, but they mustn’t lose the peace; and the potential for “moral malaria” is foremost on the mind of Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), the congressional troop’s female representative. She sees past the pomp and pretense of their arrival and instead concentrates on the omnipresent black-market bartering, the loose fraternising between the sexes and some of the more underhanded aspects of the current operation, all of which are presented with jaunty good humor throughout the film. Touring the war-torn residue and witnessing the unsteady progression of socioeconomic reconstruction, the legislators casually quip about the conditions, but the note-taking Phoebe is thoroughly appalled. As fastidious as she is, however, she does not recognise that one of the prime instigators of the disreputable goings-on is army captain John Pringle (John Lund), who is essentially enlisted to serve as her guide and who will soon serve as the object of her blind affection. Her skepticism is emboldened when she enters a popular cabaret where enticing torch singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) performs her nightly routine. As Phoebe grows increasingly cognisant of what takes place in Berlin’s behind-the-scenes realm of recreation, an instant antagonism is born between her and Erika, the perceived embodiment of the region’s degeneracy. For his part, John is stuck between these conflicting lady leads, playing along as straight-facedly as possible – for he has been harbouring ex-Nazi Erika in what’s left of an apartment building and engaging in an illicit relationship with her, brushing aside his fräulein sweetheart’s unsavoury past even though she gives him an offhand “heil” salute and refers to him as her “new führer.” Observing an image of Erika kissing Adolf Hitler’s hand and whispering in his ear, John asks his “gorgeous booby trap” – as something of an insignificant afterthought – “How much of a Nazi were you?”

While there was some doubt about Dietrich’s participation in A Foreign Affair – since her turn in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), the icon of prewar Germany had vehemently spoken out against what befell her native land under Hitler, and Wilder wasn’t sure she’d be keen on playing such a dubious figure – the luminous actress nevertheless approaches the role with a spellbinding, ravishing flair. Singing a number of songs closely tied to the film’s plot (lyrics by Friedrich Hollaender), Erika boasts an effortlessly swaggering provocation that is transgressive, nefarious and instantly attractive; in other words, it’s quintessential Dietrich. This puts her in stark contrast with Arthur, whose Phoebe is indignantly puritanical and looks and behaves curiously like the German feminine ideal; she is, in fact, at one point mistaken for an alluring local strudel. Arthur, who came out of retirement to appear in the film but felt Wilder favoured Dietrich throughout the shoot, functions in the same intertextual fashion as her Berlin-born counterpart, banking on the comfortably pure impression cast by her own prior work. But as she comes out of her cast-iron shell (aided by a healthy dose of champagne), Phoebe reminisces about her home state of Iowa, and the progressive crack in her hardened veneer testifies to the complexity of characterisation frequently evinced in Wilder’s cinema. Although it’s hard for Lund to keep up with the dexterity of his female co-stars, his John is equally multifaceted. Per Wilder: “As for the GI, I shall not make him a flag waving hero or a theorizing apostle of democracy. As a matter of fact, in the beginning of the picture I want him not to be too sure of what the hell this war was all about.”1

Wilder had lived and worked in Berlin prior to the war, emigrating to the US as Hitler’s rise became frightfully apparent, and he was deeply distraught by what became of his cherished city. Tasked with aiding the renovation of the German film industry, Wilder was to engender films that were diversionary and entertaining while also promoting a democratic agenda and the justification of foreign-policy pronouncements. Working from a script by himself, Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen, and benefiting from the assistance of Germany’s powerhouse producer Erich Pommer, Wilder shot a considerable portion of A Foreign Affair on location, instilling in the film a scenic poignancy. Against this backdrop of postwar ruination, though, Wilder’s direction is clean, precise and subtly stylish, with a depth and detail enlivened by Charles Lang’s cinematography (Lang received an Oscar nomination for his work, as did Wilder, Brackett and Breen for their screenplay).

As accomplished as the film is, however, the pointed cynicism of A Foreign Affair left a taste not palatable to all. It was denounced by politicians, and many questioned Wilder’s decision to make a comedy about Allied profiteering and misconduct. With jokes about a young boy’s penchant for drawing swastikas on every possible surface, a flippant aside about gas chambers and sarcastic remarks concerning rehabilitation and reeducation (at least the children don’t have to worry about breaking windows when they play baseball), the film’s comic incongruity and ambiguous landscape of nostalgia, suspicion and desperation is indeed a mischievously murky conception. But despite the pervasive death and despair, and forgetting (as the film often does) the gravity of the era’s politically fraught ramifications, these oppositions give way to a humorously hesitant chemistry and unearth a flourishing romance. It’s an outrageous juxtaposition, revealing the best of what Wilder had to offer.

• • •

A Foreign Affair (1948 USA 116 mins)

Prod. Co: Paramount Pictures Prod: Charles Brackett Dir: Billy Wilder Scr: Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen, Billy Wilder Phot: Charles Lang Mus: Friedrich Hollaender Ed: Doane Harrison Art Dir: Hans Dreier, Walter H. Tyler

Cast: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell, Peter von Zerneck, Stanley Prager, William Murphy

Endnotes:

  1. Elaine Lennon, “Billy Wilder’s Berlin Women: A Foreign Affair (1948),” Offscreen 19.3 (March 2015), https://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.