Billy Wilder (director)
116 min (length)
22 June 2020 (released)
20 June 2020
Set in post-war Berlin of 1947, Billy Wilder’s cynical comedy also contains elements of drama and stark realism.
This stark realism is extremely well highlighted when prim and proper Phoebe Frost ‘of Iowa’ (Jean Arthur) arrives with a US Congressional Committee to investigate the morale of American troops stationed there. Rumour has it that the American GI’s like to flirt with the German ‘Fräuleins’ and participate in black market deals. In particular one unidentified American officer is supposedly protecting cabaret chanteuse Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich, who else) which could turn out to be more than a trifle embarrassing seeing how Erika is suspected of being the former mistress of some high-ranking Nazi politicians and even was friends with Hitler himself! Alas, thanks to her protection – courtesy of the unidentified American officer – she has made it onto the so-called ‘white list’, meaning she is exempt from having to serve time in a labour camp as punishment for her former Nazi connections. After Committee leader Colonel Rufus Plummer (Millard Mitchell), shows Phoebe and the other delegates around the bombed-out city he then introduces her to suave Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a fellow Iowan - whom she presents with a chocolate cake she had brought all the way from Iowa, a surprise from his apparent sweetheart back home whom he hasn’t seen for four years. Pringle thanks her nonchalantly, only to flog the chocolate cake minutes later on the black market for money and a mattress. He then makes his way to the flat (or what is left of it) of Erika von Schlütow – mattress in hand - and we quickly come to realise that it is Pringle who is the unidentified American officer under whose protection she is.
Later on, Phoebe decides to enlist Pringle, of all men, to help her in identifying Erika’s unknown paramour, unaware that he stands right in front of her. Pringle has no other choice than to play along with Phoebe’s plan who goes undercover in the hope to find out more though it’s not before long when she’s cheekily hassled by Mike and Joe, two GI’s forever on the lookout for a fresh romance with yet another German Fräulein. Later in the Lorelei cabaret bar, Erika (that is to say Marlene) sings one of the first of three songs performed in the film, aptly titled ‘Black Market’. Pringle applauds enchanted. As it so happens, Phoebe also arrives in the club as part of her investigations and is surprised to find a German family there about to devour a giant chocolate cake… she immediately recognises it as the very cake she presented to Pringle… who just about manages to get his head out of the noose by pretending the German family had stolen his precious cake. Realising that Phoebe will stop at nothing to find out who Erika’s American protector is he pays the bespectacled and frumpy woman all sorts of compliments and even begins flirting with her in the hope that distraction will stop her from pursuing her investigation. But his hopes turn to dust when Phoebe – now slowly but surely falling in love with Pringle – asks him to accompany him in a car so they can spy on Erika while parking outside her place. When Pringle accidentally knocks against the car horn Erika takes this as a signal that her lover must have arrived and chucks the apartment keys out of the window so he can let himself in. When nothing happens, she decides to come out onto the street. Pringle realises the predicament he’s in and – quick-wittedly – approaches Erika, pretending to be a stranger investigating her past connections to high-ranking Nazis. Equally quick-witted, Erika immediately understands what’s going on. Far from being intimidated by Phoebe’s interrogative questions she makes catty remarks about her drab appearance, her lack of lipstick and her ungroomed eyebrows, indicating that for someone who comes from a wealthy country such as the US (and a country unaffected by war) her appearance is shocking.
The next day, Phoebe asks Pringle into her office as she’s managed to dig up an old newsreel in which Erika can be seen mingling with SS-officers during an opera after-party. Pringle straight away notices that Phoebe has had a make-over and is sporting lipstick and a new hairstyle. Meanwhile, Colonel Plummer reveals to Pringle that he knows that it is him who protects Erika but to Pringle’s surprise the Colonel orders him to continue romancing Erika… as he hopes that by doing so, Erika’s jealous ex-lover Hans Otto Birgel (Peter von Zerneck) – a wanted former Gestapo agent – will crawl out from his hiding place and can be arrested. During a mighty showdown at the Lorelei club (cue for a brilliantly verbal catfight between Erika and Phoebe) things turn temporarily sour before they turn sweet. Well, at least for some…
The film was primarily shot in Berlin’s then Soviet occupation zone and although intended primarily as a comedy it also pinpoints the human and economic suffering two years after WW2. Although nowhere near as riotously funny as Wilder’s other Berlin-set comedy ONE, TWO, THREE (which was made the same year as the erection of the Berlin Wall), A FOREIGN AFFAIR is a witty and occasionally sarcastic observation of life in the war-torn city. The performances are, as expected, solid throughout and Marlene Dietrich’s ‘Erika von Schlütow’ is a hoot whenever she digs her claws into poor Phoebe. In a scene during which Phoebe has tarted herself up in order to impress Captain Pringle, Dietrich snarls: “Just look at the freshly polished kitchen floor”… followed by “Aren’t you wearing your dress the wrong way round”? Apparently Jean Arthur (who is the star of the film) accused Wilder of giving his favourite actress Marlene Dietrich (who plays second fiddle here) preferential treatment during filming – something both denied. German film composer Friedrich Hollaender accompanies Marlene on the piano – and does it only too well! John Lund (whatever happened to his career?) is perfectly ok in his part though hardly looks the heart-breaking paramour women fall for.
A FOREIGN AFFAIR sees it’s UK Blu-ray debut and Special Bonus includes two radio adaptations of ‘A Foreign Affair’, interviews, trailer and Collector’s booklet.