Jan 22 2010
A Foreign Affair (1948)
From the IMDB plot summary:
A congressional committee visits occupied Berlin to investigate G.I. morals. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), appalled at widespread evidence of human frailty, hears rumors that cafe singer Erika (Marlene Dietrich), former mistress of a wanted war criminal, is “protected” by an American officer, and enlists Captain John Pringle (John Lund) to help her find him…not knowing that Pringle is Erika’s lover. Meanwhile Pringle begins wooing Phoebe to throw her off the scent.
Everyone gets skewered in this one. Wilder shows how dark and dirty all sides were: the Germans scrounging to survive, the various occupying troops from all countries joining the Germans to buy and sell on the black market, Captain Pringle who covers up for Erika, as well as morally upright and uptight Phoebe Frost once she lets her hair down (only figuratively) and falls in love. No ones hands were clean, even the good old US of A – which might account for the reception the film got when it was initially released.
Wilder, who helped write the screenplay as well as directed, interviewed Berliners and Allied troops then sprinkled jokes throughout the film which nonetheless serve to illuminate the reality of the city still clawing its way out of the rubble. As Pringle drives his jeep through the bombed out landscape to Erika’s equally wrecked apartment, “Isn’t It Romantic” plays in the background. Colonel Plummer (a wonderful Millard Mitchell) gives the congressional party a tour of the city including the bunker where Hitler married Eva Braun before they committed suicide. “Some say it was the perfect honeymoon.”
Arthur is perfect as the “wound tight” Congresswoman who discovers love where she least expects it, and who learns that not everything is as black and white as she thought. I’m not sure I totally buy her transformation from hard-as-nails investigator to love struck but I buy each separate half of her. Lund, best known to me as the spurned fiance in “High Society,” shows that he can play the leading man role even if it is a slightly caddish one. His metamorphosis from initial cynic, who knows Erika is just with him for what she can get from him, to truly falling for Iowa corn fresh Phoebe is fun to watch. Mitchell is one of the main sources of black comedy in a role that showcases how hard it must have been for the Allies to try and rebuild a war torn country while also policing it. Yet even he isn’t spared from moments of looking like a talking head who actually believes that baseball can help German youth overcome years of war.
But Dietrich manages to steal the show in a role Wilder had to trick her into taking. Known for her strong anti-Nazi views, she’s totally convincing as a woman who changes her politics “like a spring hat” when it suits her. She sneers at naive Phoebe and snares her in the outcome of a surprise raid on the nightclub where Erika sings. Now Phoebe is one of them and can’t use her influence to send Erika to a de-Nazification camp. As the two walk to Erika’s apartment (“It’s only a few ruins down [the street]“), she tells Phoebe about her life. “We’ve all become animals with exactly one instinct left. Self-preservation. Now take me, Miss Frost. Bombed out a dozen times, everything caved in and pulled out from under me. My country, my possessions, my beliefs… yet somehow I kept going. Months and months in air raid shelters, crammed in with five thousand other people. I kept going. What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in? I kept going.”
Friedrich Hollaender wrote and performed three songs with Dietrich in the film including the wonderful “Illusions” which is sung during a scene which shows Phoebe falling for Pringle as well as the powerful “Ruins of Berlin” with the line “that’s when you realize at last, they won’t return the phantoms of the past” which plays during the scene when Erika’s former Nazi lover is finally lured out of hiding.
It’s cynical, it’s funny, it’s poignant and, as I’ve seen others say, it’s a lesser known Wilder film which deserves a wider DVD release. Right now, it’s only available as a region 2 DVD but it’s scheduled to be shown on TCM on January 24 and February 14th.