For all the jollies that the trailer for A Foreign Affair promises, Billy Wilder deftly manages to mix acidity in with the sweetness. The short promo cuts a group of talking heads from various locales, cheerfully expressing their love for the film. They all can’t wait for you to see this movie! Once you’re strapped in however the film happily gives you the old one-two. One could easily tweak Wilder’s film and remove the more pointed aspects of such a comedy filmed in a ravaged post-war Berlin. However, to do so removes the film’s teeth, using the severity of the war not only to entertain but to make a point.
It’s somewhat saddening to hear filmgoers bleat about people lacing politics into the broad entertainments of today. Meanwhile back in the 1940s Billy Wilder was making witty board comedies happily using the bombed wreckage of Berlin as a backdrop. Of course, while it has probably always been this way, the whinging at a movie highlighting a changing world feels more pronounced now, possibly because we’re living through our history at present. A Foreign Affair is interesting as it pokes fun at America, which can feel even more warped and unstable in its present form, depending on with which lens you look through it.
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The film story is something of little surprise. During a United States congressional committees visit to occupied Berlin to observe G.I. morale, the prim and proper Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) hears rumours that Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), a former mistress of a wanted war criminal, is being protected by an unknown U.S officer. She enlists Capitan John Pringle (John Lund) to assist with her investigation, completely unaware that it is Pringle who is fraternising with von Schlütow. Looking to throw Frost off the scent, Pringle pretends to harbour a romantic interest in Frost. However, as these things tend to go, such romantic misunderstandings can go both ways.
We’ve been here before. The uptight plain Jane. The seductive mistress. The man in the middle. It is a tried and tested exercise. Everyone knows their roles. What makes A Foreign Affair stand out of course is that this exercise is being run by Billy Wilder. With a sparkling script that sprays wry dialogue at a moment’s glance, A Foreign Affair craftily takes its silly story to make marked commentary about the current affairs of the time, targeting the toxic vacuum that infiltrated areas of society because of the war. With the violence over why not get involved with the black market? Birthday cakes become solid bargaining tools. You can solicit ladies easily if you have enough chocolate. The committees come to look at morale and are shovelled a trough full of lies while Phoebe not only discovers how flimsy the fabric of truth is, but slowly becomes seduced by the forbidden lifestyle.
It’s not just that the film is lively with its jibes, it’s the keenness the film has in displaying its cynical nature so soon after the war. Wilder was quoted in Charlotte Chandler’s Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography: “The woman was grateful the Allies had come to fix the gas,” Wilder later recalled. “I thought it was so she could have a hot meal, but she said it was so she could commit suicide.”
For obvious reasons, A Foreign Affair may perhaps not be as dark as that image, but it’s swift in highlighting the sense of desperation that lay within Allied-occupied Germany. Such despondency is epitomized by Marlene Dietrich’s vampish Siren, Erika von Schlütow; a particular, mannered performance which is summed up by her cool performance of the song ‘Black Market’. In the Blu-ray’s most interesting extra ‘From Berlin to Hollywood’, film critic Kat Ellinger gives a great amount of detail on the beginnings of Dietrich’s career, with particular focus on Dietrich’s life in Berlin, as an actress who happened to live within the location around the time depicted.
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Both the video essay and Dietrich’s performance itself manage to establish the feeling of anguish and debauchery that coursed through the city. But only a filmmaker such as Wilder could get that balance of mirth and melancholy as on point as this. As he was quoted: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you”. And A Foreign Affair is funny, with a wit that still feels as relevant and knowing today. Jokes about the temperaments of Iowan Republicans. Gags about congress being a bunch of salesmen with their foot in the right door. Dietrich’s final moments involving horny army soldiers. It’s all telling. It’s all giggle-worthy. It all feels true of today.
The Blu-ray disc is a crisp and clean transfer, capturing the wonderful compositions of Charles Lang, for which he was nominated for by the Academy. The extras give us radio plays, Ellinger’s detailed essay on Dietrich, and a brief interview with Wilder himself. In this release, however, the film is the star. When we think of Billy Wilder, the usual titles near always make their way to one’s mouth. It may be time to add A Foreign Affair to the list.
A Foreign Affair is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment, as part of their Masters of Cinema series.