Until now, Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” has only been available as a BitTorrent download. But now thanks to Youtube, you can watch this fascinating 1948 film in 12 parts.
For those of who are unfamiliar with arguably one of America’s greatest director/screenwriters let me mention a few of the films he is associated with in either capacity: “Ninotchka”, “Double Indemnity”, “A Lost Weekend”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Stalag 17”, “Some Like it Hot”, and “The Apartment”.
In both his comedies and his serious dramas, you will often find a lead character, either male of female, who can be described as either a cynic or illusion-free. William Holden is the archetypal Wilder hero (or anti-hero to be more exact.) In “Stalag 17”, he plays J.J. Sefton, an American soldier in a Nazi prison camp (Stalag) and opportunistic black marketeer redeemed in the film’s climax through his leadership of the prison break. Here he is challenged earlier on by a fellow prisoner:
Duke: Come on, Trader Horn, let’s hear it. What’d you give the krauts for that egg?
Sefton: 45 cigarettes. Price has gone up.
Duke: They wouldn’t be the cigarettes you took us for last night?
Sefton: What was I gonna do with them? I only smoke cigars.
Duke: Niiice guy. The krauts shoot Manfredi and Johnson last night, and today he’s out trading with them.
Sefton: Look. This may be my last hot breakfast on account of they’re going to take that stove out of here, so would you let me eat it in peace?
This is the same moral universe of “A Foreign Affair”, another film taking place in Germany with a lead character in the American military trading on the black market. But unlike “Stalag 17”, there is not the same moral certitude with Nazis drawn from central casting. While “A Foreign Affair” is not quite on the same plane as “Springtime for Hitler”, it is a shocking attempt at screwball comedy with Marlene Dietrich playing Erika von Schlütow, an unrepentant Nazi cabaret singer. More precisely, Erika von Schlütow is not a Nazi ideologue, just somebody who played ball with the Nazis, just as J.J. Sefton did in Stalag 17.
Set in bomb-ravaged Berlin right after the end of WWII, the American military occupation forces suspect her of being the former mistress of either Hermann Goering or Joseph Goebbels. But now she has hooked up with Captain John Pringle (John Lund) who is protecting her. She tells him: “I have a new Fuhrer now: you. Heil, Johnny.”
In the opening scene, we see a DC-3 flying over a devastated Berlin (documentary footage) with a Congressional delegation that is charged with the responsibility of investigating troop morale. The question of the morality of occupation is very much on the mind of at least one of them, a leftist from the Bronx who tells his colleagues: “If you send a hungry man a loaf of bread, that’s democracy. If you leave the wrapper on, it’s imperialism”.
One of the investigators is Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), a Republican from Iowa and the only female, who is shocked by the open dalliance between American servicemen and German women that she spots on the streets almost immediately. Captain Pringle commiserates with her, even as he is planning to drop off some black market silk stockings later that evening at Erika von Schlütow’s bombed out apartment later that night. In addition to the stockings, he is also planning to favor her with a mattress that he bought on the street. She had been sleeping on bedsprings ever since an allied bomb wreaked havoc on her home.
In keeping with screwball comedy conventions, Pringle develops a romance with the Congresswoman and has to figure out a way to keep her from finding out about his German mistress who symbolizes the decadence she is determined to root out. Eventually, Phoebe Frost she learns that her moral certitude will not work in post-war Berlin and makes adjustments more in line with Pringle’s. In learning to get off her puritanical high horse, the Congresswoman goes through the same kind of evolution that Greta Garbo went through in “Ninotchka”. The 1930 film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch—the same team that wrote a number of films directed by Wilder including “A Foreign Affair”. Here’s a summary courtesy of Wikipedia.
Three Russians, Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach), are in Paris to sell jewelry confiscated from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Upon arrival, they meet Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), on a mission from the Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) who wants to retrieve her jewelry before it is sold. He corrupts them and talks them into staying in Paris. The Soviet Union then sends Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo), a special envoy whose goal is to go through with the jewelry sale and bring back the three men. Rigid and stern at first, she slowly becomes seduced by the West and the Count, who falls in love with her.
The three Russians also accommodate themselves to capitalism, but the last joke of the film is that one of them carries a sign protesting that the other two are unfair to him.
Wilder is not considered a political film-maker as the Wikipedia article on him reports:
Wilder’s films often lacked any discernible political tone or sympathies, which was not unintentional. He was less interested in current political fashions than in human nature and the issues that confronted ordinary people. He was not affected by the Hollywood blacklist, and had little sympathy for those who were. Of the blacklisted ‘Hollywood Ten‘ Wilder famously quipped, “Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly”. Wilder reveled in poking fun at those who took politics too seriously. In Ball of Fire, his burlesque queen ‘Sugarpuss’ points at her sore throat and complains “Pink? It’s as red as the Daily Worker and twice as sore.” Later, she gives the overbearing and unsmiling housemaid the name “Franco“
One wonders how he could have made such a comedy, even if he was determined to soft-pedal the politics that prevailed at the time. When he first started out, he wanted to make Marlene Dietrich much less sympathetic but found himself chafing at the expectations of the American taste-makers who were inclined to paint the Germans as monsters. No matter how tainted Erika von Schlütow is, she still compels our sympathy as a kind of Mother Courage figure who has simply learned how to adjust to whoever is in power.
Indeed, if there is any political message in Wilder’s film, it is that Germany had to return to its Weimar roots. Von Schlütow strikes one as a typical performer of the kind that was depicted in “Cabaret”. She might be amoral but she is not dangerous. Perhaps the ultimate message of Billy Wilder is that any ideology taken to extremes is bad, whether it is National Socialism or Phoebe Frost’s self-righteous Republicanism, a version of which is all too prevalent today.
In this scene from “A Foreign Affair”, Marlene Dietrich performs the song “Black Market” that will remind you of Joel Grey’s “Money Makes the World Go Round”. It also has special significance since Friedrich Hollaender, the pianist who accompanies her and who wrote the song and two others performed in the film, used to work with Dietrich in Weimar cabarets in the 1930s before the two fled Nazi Germany.