Thursday, April 7, 2022

“A Foreign Affair”: Billy Wilder 's Bittersweet Take on Post-War Germany

My Billy Wilder journey continues, as I work my way through Joe McBride's comprehensive Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge. This week I saw one of Wilder’s more unheralded triumphs, the 1948 A Foreign Affair. This dark romantic comedy stands out partly because of where it was filmed: in the rubble of Berlin, following the end of World War II. (At the close of his wartime service in the U.S. Army, Wilder was promised government assistance if he shot a movie in occupied Deutschland, thus giving a boost to the ruined German economy as well as to the revival of the German film industry.) A Foreign Affair deals, sometimes sardonically, with the Allies’ efforts to rebuild the devastated German capital. But its primary subject is, as always with Wilder, the vagaries of the human heart. Though Nazis, and their collaborators, are hardly looked on with favor in the course of the film, the occupying American army does not escape unscathed. And a visiting American congressional delegation on a fact-finding tour is treated with all the satirical thrust that Wilder can muster.

Jean Arthur came out of retirement to play Phoebe Frost, a strait-laced Iowa congresswoman bent on improving the morale of the occupying U.S. troops. When she strays from the official tour, she’s alarmed to find that young American servicemen, mistaking her for a blonde fraulein, are eager to canoodle. She’s also appalled when she observes that locals (especially attractive young women) are more than happy to bestow their favors on Americans who can provide them with chocolate bars and nylon stockings. Pretending to be a giggly German maedchen, she goes along with two G.I. Joes to a seedy local club. That’s where she frowns with disapproval on a nightclub singer, Erika von Schlütow, played by Marlene Dietrich with her usual potent mix of glamour and irony.

Though Dietrich herself was known for her unrelenting opposition to Hitler and his thugs, her character in this film represents the German citizens who will do whatever it takes to get by. That’s why, although she’s embroiled in a powerful (and possibly sado-masochistic) relationship with an American officer, John Lund’s Captain Pringle, there’s also a Nazi higher-up lurking in her past. The film’s most striking moments involve her encounters with Congresswoman Frost, who in an ironic turnabout must look to Erika to save her from public humiliation, not to mention  legal jeopardy. Connecting the two women is Captain Pringle, who is not above taking on romance as part of his military duties.

 Looking back on Wilder’s life, as McBride does so effectively, it’s rather startling to see him focusing on the post-war neediness of the German populace. Wilder, a Jewish man who grew up in Vienna and began his filmmaking career in Berlin, was never able to save his own mother and other relatives from the Nazi death camps. Needless to say, he had no great love for the German hierarchy that led the country into war. And his life in the United States, from 1933 onward, paved the way for fame and fortune in his adopted land. Still, unlike Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, he cannot view the German people as undeserving of sympathy.  Scrounging for food and small luxury items (as well as the occasional moment of fun) in their bombed-out city, they awaken his compassion. And it’s in keeping with his mordant temperament that he resists simple delineations of right and wrong. So A Foreign Affair offers up not (as per its poster) hilarious comedy, but rather food for thought, which is far more nourishing than a chocolate bar.

 Joe McBride, the man himself, adds to this post with some important info for cinéastes:"Did you know I did the audio commentary on the recent Kino Lorber Blu-ray edition?For a long time the film was MIA in home video." He adds the all-important Amazon link:




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