Because Billy Wilder made some of the most memorable American films of the mid-20th century, it’s easy to forget that he was actually an Austrian émigré who left for Hollywood during the rise of Nazism. This perspective informs the strangely sour tone of A Foreign Affair, a love triangle romantic comedy set amidst the bombed-out ruins of vanquished Berlin.
A US congressional committee flies into the reeling German capital in the period immediately prior to the instigation of the Marshall Plan. The intention is to inspect morale among the occupying American forces tasked with keeping the broken city in some kind of order. Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), the sole woman in the retinue, becomes aware that an American officer is protecting cabaret singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) from exposure as a former mistress of high-ranking Nazi officials. She enlists Captain John Pringle (John Lund) to help with the investigation, unaware that he himself is Erika’s lover.
That A Foreign Affair is arriving on Blu-ray for the first time is an indication that one of Wilder’s lesser-regarded films is undergoing something of a reappraisal. The brilliant first act makes one wonder why its critical renaissance has been so long in coming. There’s a bleak astringency in its potentially farcical scenario that often dances on a knife-edge of good taste. One of the visiting dignitaries remarks as they fly into Berlin that the flattened city resembles: “old, mouldy Roquefort cheese.” It’s a seemingly callous attitude that dances through the initial stages on a tonal tightrope.
The scene also affords Jean Arthur an introduction of wonderful economy. Invited to survey the ruins through the aeroplane window, she takes a full minute to pack away her glasses and reading materials before taking a look. It says everything about her character without a word needing to be spoken: unhurried, fastidious and prim.
Arthur’s Phoebe struggles with the chaos of Berlin and the suggestion that some of the GIs have been on the predatory side. It’s all part of the cynical edge of the opening act. A tone that even seems to have seeped into Dietrich’s customary androgynous glamour. Her opening number ‘Black Market’ is an innuendo-drenched ode to illicit commerce delivered in weary Sprechgesang. Again, it’s a masterclass of deft character establishment.
Along with some near-the-knuckle gags about the difficulty in reeducating staunch former members of the Hitler Youth, and the fact that it’s still unusual in 2020 for actresses to be playing romantic leads well into their forties (in fact, Dietrich at 46 and Arthur at 47 were a full decade older than Lund), there’s an audacity to A Foreign Affair that is practically unique in a romantic comedy, before or since.
It’s therefore greatly disappointing that the superb opening isn’t sustained. The love triangle trips over a less engrossing subplot involving the hunt for a former Gestapo officer; and having gone to such pains to establish such a strong, poignant sense of place Wilder rather abandons it to focus on his central trio. This is something of a mistake as Lund is a bland leading man and Dietrich’s character feels simply like an older, more jaded take on her own star-making role in The Blue Angel. Wilder would use his old friend from the Weimar days to much better effect a decade later in the terrific Witness for the Prosecution. Even Jean Arthur’s outraged librarian sexiness is undermined by an abrupt regression into giggly ditziness once she falls for the duplicitous captain.
A Foreign Affair is by no means a dud. Rather it’s a brilliant conceit with flawed execution that comes across as Wilder sharpening his satirical blade. He would wield this to perfection in Sunset Blvd. and Ace in the Hole over the next few years. Still, for all that it drifts into relative mediocrity, there was never another film that tried to thread the needle between a stylish comedy riding on the coattails of the golden years of screwball, and the palpable sense of horror and sadness that Wilder brought as a returning survivor of the Jewish diaspora. For that, especially so soon after the events that caused such pain, it’s well worth renewed attention.
Available on Blu-ray Mon 22 Jun 2020