A FOREIGN AFFAIR: Billy Wilder Returns to Berlin

April 21, 2023 - 2:01pm
Posted by Jim Healy

Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur in A Foreign Affair

These notes on Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, were written by John Bennett, a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison, the Cinematheque's Project Assistant, and a Programmer for the Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival. A 35mm print of A Foreign Affair will screen in the Cinematheque's regular space, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, on Saturday, April 22 at 7 p.m. Admission is Free!

By John Bennett

By 1945, Billy Wilder had three very different successes to his credit as a writer/director. He débuted with The Major and the Minor (1942), a mistaken identity farce, which he followed up with Five Graves to Cairo (1943), a cloak-and-dagger war film set in the Sahara. In 1944, he scored his biggest success yet with Double Indemnity, a steamy cause célèbre of passion and murder. The following year, barely before the VE Day confetti could be swept from the streets of jubilant cities, Wilder found himself in Europe at the behest of Elmer Davis, director of the Office of War Information. Wilder was tasked with helping to oversee the denazification of the German film industry in Berlin—a city to which he was no stranger. He had arrived in the glittering Weimar-era metropolis from Vienna as a young journalist in 1926, found his first work as a writer in the German film industry in 1929, and had fled for Paris by 1933 not long after Hitler came to power. Returning to Berlin, Wilder found a surreal atmosphere. Decimated buildings provided scant shelter for a war-harrowed population, and seedy black markets thrived in the shadows of singed architectural landmarks—and yet parties whose debauchery matched that of the bustling Berlin of the Weimar era raged on under the occupation of the armies of the Allies. This is the singular atmosphere that pervades 1948’s A Foreign Affair, one of the legendary writer/director’s most exquisite comedies.

After returning from Germany, Wilder notched yet another success. His drama on alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, swept the ’46 Academy Awards—Wilder took home Oscars for screenplay and direction, and the film won Best Picture. Riding this career high, Wilder (along with Charles Brackett, his screenwriting partner at Paramount) dove into A Foreign Affair. The film (like The Major and the Minor before it and Kiss Me, Stupid after it) bears all the trademarks of a tightly constructed romantic farce. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (representing Iowa’s fictional ninth congressional district) arrives in Berlin as part of a congressional delegation tasked with investigating the morality of the military stationed in the city. Hardly after the plane lands, she delivers a chocolate cake to Captain Pringle, a war hero who is one of Congresswoman Frost’s Iowan constituents—as well as one of the occupying army’s most decorated degenerates. When not feigning regimental propriety, Captain Pringle spends his time cavorting with Erika von Schleutow in her half-destroyed apartment. Erika enjoys a reputation in Berlin as a popular and alluring cabaret singer. Her reputation in the eyes of the U.S. authorities in Berlin is less glowing: she is suspected of having been the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi official who may still be alive and in hiding in the defeated city. In her quest to purge the army of immorality, Congresswoman Frost makes it her personal mission to track down the military figure suspected of supporting Erika and protecting her from military scrutiny. But this quest is complicated when Phoebe finds herself falling for Captain Pringle, who begins to romance the congresswoman to throw her off the scent of his postwar tryst.

These three character archetypes (the prig, the rake, the harlot) make for a classic sex farce. But Wilder and Brackett nuance these broad types by giving each the breathing room to plead the case for his or her behavior. If Congresswoman Frost is a prude, it’s because duty and professionalism keep profound loneliness at bay. If Captain Pringle is a cad, it’s because years of warfare have shown him a manic excitement that sudden peacetime cannot wholly replicate. If Erika is promiscuous, it’s because survival in a maddened world has necessitated it. The three lead actors give performances that help enrich the farcical archetypes. Jean Arthur, in her penultimate film role, lends the Congresswoman a rectitude that slips to reveal a heartbreaking tenderness. John Lund impresses both the smarm and charm of Captain Pringle (and his frequent slips of the tongue when lying to the Congresswoman are executed with great comedic subtlety). Marlene Dietrich delivers the quintessence of her trademark Teutonic sultriness; yet the smoky elegance of her superb cabaret numbers (written by Friedrich Hollander) belies a hardened sense of tragedy vis-à-vis her hollowed-out city. Within the framework of farce, each actor finds ways to convey the grimly serious, be it personal or political.

Indeed, A Foreign Affair’s brilliance lies in its careful balancing act of tones. The film is certainly a bona fide farce. But, like other American films made in the immediate postwar period (notably William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives), it conveys the lingering trepidations of a world catching its breath, of a world still not completely unmenaced by Nazism and political instability. The film revels in bawdy comedy, such as when two GIs mistake Phoebe for a Tirolese Fräulein and whisk her away to a sordid nightclub. Yet there are other sequences, such as Col. Plummer’s congressional tour of bombed-out Berlin, that are handled with striking sobriety. Later in the film, Phoebe’s heartbreak is depicted with aching compassion. At other times, the serious and the comedic converge in surprising ways. In one scene—as funny as it is unsettling—a young boy, still under the sway of Hitlerjugen propaganda, idly draws swastikas on any surface he can in Captain Pringle’s office as Pringle recommends denazification recreation clubs to the boy’s nervous father. Such jokes may seem like blasé treatments of horrible situations, but Wilder was in a unique position to make them. The rise of Nazism impacted him profoundly. As a Jewish journalist and writer, Wilder was forced to live the arduous existence of a refugee after 1933 in Paris and, briefly, Mexico before he was granted entry to the United States. More tragically, Wilder learned after the war that his mother, grandmother, and stepfather were all victims of the Holocaust. Yet despite this profound personal upheaval and loss, Wilder never abandoned his unwavering wit.

A Foreign Affair’s quality was widely recognized by the film community. Bosley Crowther, the influential New York Times film critic, lauded the film’s sophistication, and the Academy granted Wilder and Brackett a nomination for Best Screenplay (Charles Lang was also nominated for the film’s cinematography). A Foreign Affair was not met with uniformly glowing reviews in the wider world, however. According to Ed Sikov’s biography of the director, the Production Code office fretted over the film’s brazen lewdness. The Defense Department felt obliged to state that moral turpitude did not afflict the armed forces as much as the film would have audiences believe. The film was banned outright in Germany. Nevertheless, A Foreign Affair remains one of the best distillations of Billy Wilder’s sensibility: it meets the harshness of the world with a wry smile, a broken heart, and a dirty joke.