Starring Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and John Lund
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Classic dark comedy set in post-war Berlin.
Billy Wilder’s career featured two important collaborations. In the early part, he worked with Charles Brackett, and, in the later part, he worked with I.A.L. Diamond. Both men co-wrote and produced (in Diamond’s case, co-produced) Wilder’s films. The collaboration with Diamond generated some of the funniest and most beloved comedies of all time, including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and One, Two, Three (a personal favorite of mine). His earlier collaborations with Brackett, including the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend and the classic Sunset Blvd., however, were darker. Their humor, if there was any, was of the gallows variety, their worldview cynical.
A Foreign Affair is illustrative of the Wilder-Brackett collaborations. While it’s undoubtedly funny, its humor is biting. And, despite its happy ending, the film as a whole has an air of desperation and inhumanity.
In the film, a congresswoman from Iowa, Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur)—her name indicative of her cold, businesslike demeanor—visits post-war Berlin with a congressional commission to investigate the morale of American military personnel stationed there. Miss Frost soon discovers rampant fraternization with German women, participation in the black market, and attendance at illicit nightclubs by American soldiers. Most damning of all, she learns that a high-ranking officer has been protecting his mistress, Erika Von Schleutow (Marlene Dietrich), a former Nazi collaborator/nightclub entertainer, from punishment. Miss Frost determines to ferret out this corrupt officer, and she requests the aid of one of her constituents, Captain John Pringle (John Lund), unaware that Pringle is her quarry.
The first scene in the film sets a bleak tone. The congressional representatives flying over Berlin look down on the destroyed city, the bombed-out buildings looking like crumbling lattice work. With these images Wilder presents of the actual city, we see the devastation wreaked by war. One of the key themes of the film is that the destructive force of war and the desperation that follows render traditional values and morals inadequate.
The film’s first joke exemplifies this idea. Pringle shows a pair of stockings he got on the black market to another soldier. The soldier laments that he has no one to give them to now that his girlfriend, Trudy, has left him for a Russian with a pound of rancid butter. We laugh, but, if we examine the joke, it’s horrifying. We’re laughing about the sexual exploitation of a young woman who was willing to trade herself for rancid butter.
However, the film does not create humor from these horrors insensitively. Just as a humorous sequence will build to a climax, the film reminds us of the tragedy. For example, early on, Miss Frost strays from the commission’s guided tour of Berlin when she sees two American soldiers trying to pick up German women with the offer of a candy bar. Pretending to be German, she accepts their offer, leading to a humorous sequence that brings the trio to a nightclub. There, Erika performs the haunting, poignant song, “Black Market,” which recounts all the things the Germans have been reduced to selling on the black market, from family heirlooms to other, more earthly commodities. (All three songs that were written for the film by Friedrich Hollaender—“Black Market,” “Illusions,” and “The Ruins of Berlin”—capture the devastation that the war has left in its wake.)
A Foreign Affair is dominated by its female characters. Both Phoebe and Erika are strong, complex individuals. They’re played with intensity by Arthur and Dietrich. (That neither actress received an Oscar nomination mystifies me.) Rarely in classic Hollywood films are leading roles written for actresses in their forties. (As with any generalization, there are notable exceptions—Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. for example.) Yet, this would be 48-year-old Arthur’s penultimate film. She wouldn’t make another for five years, Shane, her last. Dietrich, who was 47 in A Foreign Affair, had only three major roles after this one. But this film shows that the concerns of older women are every bit as interesting and relevant as those of ingénues. Their few scenes together are the highlight of the film.
Although the film is excellent as is, one change would have improved it. If Billy Wilder and William Holden had been brought together earlier, the actor would have been ideal as the always cynical, sometimes cruel, yet dashing and charming Captain Pringle. John Lund is adequate to the role, but he lacks the star-power of Holden, a quality that is needed to contend with the luminosity of Arthur and Dietrich.
Dietrich is literally luminous in this film. Cinematographer Charles Lang lights her much brighter than the dim surroundings. This technique gives the character glamour and mystique even when she’s doing something as mundane as brushing her teeth. Dietrich didn’t want to take the role at first. She abhorred the Nazis and didn’t want to play one. But Wilder convinced her.
In fact, Erika isn’t much of a Nazi. Her entire relationship to the party involves being the mistress of a high-ranking party member. She generates enough sympathy that we viewers definitely don’t want to see her sent to a labor camp, so Captain Pringle’s corruption seems less venal. Ultimately, Erika must make her case to Phoebe, and she does so with a captivating combination of dignity and weariness. She draws on the solidarity of womanhood recalling to her how difficult it was to be a German woman when the Russian Army came through Berlin. This reference to one of the most sadly prevalent aspects of war is daring for the time. The film carefully and not inaccurately puts the blame for the atrocities on a foreign army.
If I’ve made this film seem humorless, it’s because comedy is hard to describe. It’s easier to explain jokes that fail than to put into words why something is funny. Wilder is noted for bringing humor to tragedy. Being able to laugh at misfortune is one of the most essential ways of dealing with it. And the film is funny. It earned a Writers’ Guild nomination for Best Written Comedy. The screenplay also received an Oscar nomination as did Lang’s moody cinematography. A Foreign Affair is a complex and meaningful film. But it’s also an entertaining and enjoyable one.