Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Foreign Affair- (1948) Dir- Billy Wilder

What I remember:

Another discovery from my college years, "A Foreign Affair" was probably the 6th or 7th Wilder film I'd seen. I had never heard of it, and none of the great Hollywood or New York critics ever mentioned it. I was already a big fan of the little Austrian's work; particularly "Some Like It Hot" and "Double Indemnity". Guessing that it's lack of inclusion in the pantheons of my trusted critics of the time (Kael, Canby) was due to it being the lesser work of a cherished auteur, I had lowered expectations. 

To say that I was astonished by just how unique and powerful this film was would be a gross understatement. Just that opening sequence alone, with the Congressmen arriving in Berlin and seeing the devastation, seemed so frank, so much like a documentary. It was simply not a common thing in a Hollywood production of the day. Wilder's connection to Central Europe was evident. He was one of Tinseltown's refugee corps, along with his mentor Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang and so many others; Jews who got out before the ghettoes and the camps. And yet, the Continent still called out to them. 

Wilder's cynicism was never so evident as in "A Foreign Affair". Captain Pringle's relationship with Erika Von Schluetow is a symbiotic mess of self service; his romancing of Rep. Phoebe Frost is even worse. The two GI's who are blatantly trading chocolates for sex with young starving frauleins are simply reprehensible. 

Somehow all this bad behavior and postwar horror gets wrapped around a delightfully funny romantic comedy. At the center of it are two brilliant performances by the great Jean Arthur and the stunning Marlene Dietrich. There is nothing like "A Foreign Affair", and I doubt we will ever see it's like again. 

After re-watching:

“If you give a hungry man a loaf of bread, that's democracy, if you leave the wrapper on, that's imperialism.”— Congressman Pennicott


Priggish Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is part of a delegation sent to monitor the morale of American soldiers in postwar Berlin. Upon arrival, the devastation and depravity of the situation is immediately apparent. Complicating matters is the presence of Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who is an Iowan like Frost, but has succumbed to the postwar atmosphere. His affair with a local chanteuse (Marlene Dietrich) who was once the paramour to a Nazi bigwig, is a compromising position that he must hide from the committee. 


The main reason why you’ve probably never seen this film is that it was somewhat quashed by both it’s studio, Paramount, and then years later by some television stations that could have shown it. It’s depiction of American Servicemen was deemed offensive, casting a negative pall on our heroes. Yet the film itself makes the point that these men were recovering just as much as the continent they occupied. War unleashes an animalistic tendency in mankind, and it is not just limited to violence. So we can look away when necessary if our boys take advantage of the situation by parlaying their candy and cigarette rations into some action of the sexual kind.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not condoning the coercion into prostitution of women in a desperate situation. Yet that was the reality of postwar Berlin, and I applaud Billy Wilder for showing it in stark realism. “A Foreign Affair” came out the same year as “Bicycle Thieves”, the bell-weather of Italian neo-realism about a desperate father and his child in postwar ravaged Rome. 

I was correct in recalling that “A Foreign Affair” seems on the surface to be a typical romantic comedy, but Wilder’s use of real footage shot in Berlin as rear projection for most of his Hollywood-shot scenes adds a sense of documentary to the proceedings.These shots don't look much different than the current video we see of Syrian cities that have been pretty much leveled.

Wilder’s contempt for the Germans is also very evident. “They burned most of my family in their damned ovens!” he has been quoted as screaming. “I hope they burn in hell!” The way he has the bureaucrats and wait staff sucking up to ex-Nazi honchos despite the new order is his little reminder that, yes, you may feel sorry for these people going through this nightmare, but let’s remember that this punishment is about half of what they really deserve. 

The question now arises, does this juxtaposition work? Do the filmmakers pull off the realistic rom-com, do they make it entertaining, and also believable? Do they help us to understand the issues our servicemen had to deal with in the rubble of a once great city? I think a resounding “yes” is in order. Of course, in tone it is nowhere near as close to a documentary as “Bicycle Thieves”, and that is by design.


Our spoiled contemporary eyes are used to digital effects beyond our wildest dreams, and also spare-no-expense film budgets that allow location filming in incredibly remote and/or spectacular places. A film like this, with so many rear projection scenes, looks so incredibly fake nowadays. If you can get past that bias, try to imagine what it must have looked like back in the 1940’s. Wilder couldn’t really shoot the dramatic scenes in Berlin, the cost would have been prohibitive. Considering these limitations, it is a fantastic job of combining the footage of the ruins with the studio reels. 

As always, Wilder will throw in brilliant little jokes for the benefit of the hipper audiences. As Pringle drives through the rubble to visit Erica in her crumbling apartment, he is whistling “Isn’t It Romantic”. The score even picks up the theme. This isn’t exactly like being on a gondola in the moonlight! 

Whistling is a nice leitmotif throughout the film; we know Pringle is starting to fall in love with Frost when he is whistling “Shine On Harvest Moon”, an "American as apple pie" standard. 

Wilder also has Colonel Plummer (Millard Mitchell) sporting a physical tic; when perplexed, he rubs the side of his nose with his middle finger. A few times it does look like he is flipping people off. The timing of these gestures are hilarious. 

Wilder and Arthur combined beautifully to portray the methodical Frost and her transformation from stick-up-the-ass bureaucrat to besotted teen. In the opening scene, the congressmen are gawking from their plane at the bombed out city, and when one of them beckons Frost to come look, she anally puts away her writing and notes, placing bags within bags, the camera staying with her to the annoyance of the audience. Oh my God, you say to yourself, just get up and look, woman!
Later when she has fallen for Pringle, she literally floats up the stairs to her room. 

Lighting plays a huge factor, not just in the narrative but also as a character enhancer. Dietrich is lit like a movie star for most of the film; her natural glamour is luminous. Arthur is lit like all the men, that is, until she falls in love. Suddenly, focus grows softer, her eyes shine, her lips seem fuller. It’s not terribly subtle, but it is effective. 

Wilder’s choice to use Friederich Hollaender as composer and accompanist for Dietrich’s songs was beyond inspired. The composer of the songs for Von Sternberg’s “Blue Angel” returns with some great Cabaret music for the nightclub scenes. The best is “Black Market”, sung in English, and acted to perfection by the great chanteuse. The lyric captures the desperation in Berlin:

“I’ll trade you for your candy, some gorgeous merchandise
My camera, it’s a dandy! Six by nine, just your size!”

Soon the lyrics start to suggest the market that’s at the heart of the film…the flesh market:

“Come and see my little music box today
Price? Only six cartons. Want to hear it play?”
“I’ve got so many toys,
Don’t be bashful, step up, boys!”

1948, people! This is advanced, mature and risqué to say the least. We have come to expect nothing less from this genius.

Another song, “The Ruins of Berlin” has a perfectly timed line sung by Erica as her former lover, Nazi big wheel Hans Otto Birgel, appears from the shadows of the club while she croons “They won’t return, the phantoms of the past”. Just brilliant!


Dietrich is always herself, and we love watching her. She is hyper-sexual, with her deep voice, swaying hips, high cheekbones and sleepy eyes all in contribution. 
She never hid from the press or public just how liberated she was. I think the joke goes: She was a tri-sexual. She’d try anything.

Wilder’s adoration of Marlene is apparent from her first scene, when she is madly brushing her teeth, while Pringle waits to show her the booty he has brought. He makes fun of her, and she turns and spits the toothpaste in his face! In one quick moment, she shows us that Pringle may think he’s in control, but she is calling the shots. She does not look glamorous yet, but you can tell it’s coming. 
When you see her next, she is singing in the club, and it’s simply riveting. As she sing-speaks the lyrics, her face and body movements tell the story in complete harmony. Nobody did this as well. This is the true definition of a movie star; she dominates the screen whenever she is on it, no matter who is opposite her.

I have always been a big fan of Jean Arthur, from her work with Frank Capra through her role as Calamity Jane to this movie. My understanding is that she would get so worked up that she'd vomit before filming every big scene. This is probably a stretch, but I like the idea of that kind of commitment! I think I’ll try that before every big concert. 

Naw, I think my habit of napping before the show sounds like more fun.

Arthur has a knack of making the most dichotomous characters seem real, and this talent helps her enormously in “A Foreign Affair”. There isn’t a moment when I find her transformation false, and in lesser hands it really could have been a disaster. There’s a great shot of her, when she finds out that Pringle is still carrying on with Erica, and Wilder has her profile in silhouette. You can’t see her face, but just the angle of her head fills you with sorrow for her. At 47, she could still embody all the emotions of a teen crush. 

Unfortunately, she is given one terrible line at the end; “For all my headaches, you’ll be my aspirin”. It’s awful, and they should have cut it from the movie. The rest of the script is so strong, they can be forgiven for that one misstep.

Lund, as the acute angle of the triangle, does his best. He’s not immensely talented, but he fills the role well. Yes, Cary Grant would have been better, but he was not available. Lund does “smarmy” well, and is convincing enough as a liar to sweep Frost off of her feet. 

Millard Mitchell’s Col. Plummer has much of the best dialogue throughout; in particular his tough guy narration for the congressmen as they tour the ruins is on point. It’s as much for the American audience’s sake as it is for the characters. Many of them had no clue just how devastated Germany had become, and some might feel guilty. He makes sure that you remember why we had to do this, and that these are just desserts.


OK, full disclosure…this was more like 5th or 6th look, but I really wanted to share my love for this unheralded masterpiece. Catch it if you can on TCM. I believe it’s in a regular rotation. You won’t be sorry. 

On First Look: ✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭