Billy Wilder’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948)

The destruction caused by World War II left a profound gash in the psyche of citizens belonging to both the Axis and Allied nations.  Director Billy Wilder’s personal and professional life was deeply entwined with the global conflict– not only did he hail from the regions hit hardest within the European theatre, his heritage as an Austrian Jew meant that many of his direct family members–including his own mother– fell victim to Hitler’s concentration camps.  This no doubt propelled Wilder to be particularly forceful and unflinching in his detailing of Nazi atrocities in his short documentary DEATH MILLS (1945), but it would also influence his feature work.  Having been promised financial assistance from the government if he made a picture about Allied-occupied Germany, Wilder decided to expand on his research experience in talking with Berlin citizens who had been left to pick up the pieces of their ruined city (1).  He was struck by one anecdote in particular, about a woman who was thankful for the return of gas service to the city….but not so she should cook again, but because she could finally commit suicide (1).

Understandably, developing a story set in this hopeless world can be quite a miserable process, so in 1946 Wilder took some time off to shoot the romantic musical THE EMPEROR WALTZ instead.  During that film’s interminable editing process, Wilder returned to developing his Berlin film with writing and producing partner Charles Brackett as well as a third screenwriter Richard L. Breen, basing their efforts around a story by David Shaw.  The resulting film, 1948’s A FOREIGN AFFAIR, would find Wilder and company actually shooting amidst the ruins of Berlin– a move that brings a stark sense of bitter reality and gravitas to an otherwise-romantic wartime comedy and reflects the collective loss of innocence that World War II sustained upon the world.

The story begins when a planeload of American diplomats arrives in Allied-occupied Berlin to inspect conditions for the soldiers posted there.  Among this predominantly-male group of envoys is Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), a prim and proper congresswoman from Iowa who’s quick to clutch her pearls at even the slightest display of moral bankruptcy.  She crosses paths with Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a duplicitous serviceman engaged in a secret affair with Ericka Von Schluetow (Hollywood Golden Age icon Marlene Dietrich), a German showgirl with ties to prominent ex-Nazis still lurking around the city.  Frost knows Schluetow is sleeping with an American serviceman but she doesn’t know the man’s identity, so she unwittingly partners with Captain Pringle– the very man she’s looking for– to bring Schluetow’s American lover to justice.  This being a romantic comedy, Frost’s close proximity to Pringle naturally causes her to fall head over heels in love with him, creating a messy love triangle that somehow manages to neutralize an insurgent threat from the Nazi party’s lingering remnants.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR is a complicated film, taking on a decidedly cynical tone that explores how people might continue finding comedy when the world has been destroyed around them.  Occupied Berlin resembles something of a large-scale prison, with citizens having forsaken paper currency in favor of a barter system.  They trade their goods and services (and, as the film implies, their bodies) for small, fleeting pleasures like cigarettes and candy.  The societal depravity seems to have also given way to moral depravity, which Wilder frequently alludes to with a deft, comedic touch. We see frequent images of American servicemen riding through the city on tandem bikes, catcalling German women out on their own, or those very same German women confidently striding through town with babies in strollers garnished with little American flags– all winking references to the widespread climate of fornication and adultery that has flourished in the absence of governmental order.  The relationship dynamic between Lund and Dietrich also contains slight hints towards BDSM proclivities, creating a sense of sexual delinquency that underscores an otherwise-demure romantic comedy.  A FOREIGN AFFAIR’s subject matter is indeed quite risque relative to the time in which it was made, but serves as yet another instance of Wilder pushing the envelope of what mainstream Hollywood films could depict on-screen.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR’s plot hinges upon the dynamic of the eccentric love triangle between Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and John Lund.  Arthur’s naive and prudish congresswoman Phoebe Frost is the chief protagonist– a bold choice given the unfortunate fact that mainstream Hollywood traditionally doesn’t make films detailing the romantic aspirations of older women.  Wilder reportedly lured Arthur out of retirement to play the role, but her experience on set just might have caused her to regret it; Wilder’s sincere admiration for her co-star Marlene Dietrich caused Arthur to become the envious second fiddle by default (1).  Dietrich, to her credit, is perfectly cast as the German enchantress Ericka Von Schluetow.  In the classic femme fatale fashion (which Wilder helped to create), Dietrich exudes an icy glamor and a weaponized sex appeal in her portrayal of a nightclub singer whose allegiance to her new American conquerors is suspect.  Having spent a great deal of World War II touring the European front and entertaining Allied troops, Dietrich was understandably reticent about taking on the role of a lusty woman with Nazi sympathies, but Wilder was able to coax her aboard with the promise of a big payday as well as the company of her old friend Friedrich Hollaender as the film’s composer and her on-screen accompaniment during singing numbers like “Black Market” (1).  John Lund’s Captain John Pringle is a two-faced American soldier– he projects a somewhat dopey demeanor in public, only to switch over into a womanizing cynic behind closed doors.  Lund was a Paramount contract player whose career never really took off, and his serviceable yet ultimately forgettable performance inA FOREIGN AFFAIR would arguably become his best-known appearance (1).

A FOREIGN AFFAIR marks Wilder’s first collaboration with cinematographer Charles Lang, who would go on to helm some of Wilder’s later works like ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and SABRINA (1954).  Lang was nominated for an Oscar for his his work on this film, which sees Wilder revert back to black and white photography after his first experiment with color in THE EMPEROR WALTZ.  The 1.37:1 square 35mm film frame is awash in moody chiaroscuro, incorporating the deep shadows and expressive lighting techniques that Wilder previously used in DOUBLE INDEMNITY while translating them into the language of comedy.  Wilder’s belief in the primacy of writing is reflected in his mostly-minimalistic approach to coverage (using closeups sparingly as a strategic complement to his wide masters), but A FOREIGN AFFAIR can’t help being visually striking– using the real bombed-out ruins of a major city as your backlot tends to have that effect.  Wilder mounts his camera onto cranes, dollies, and even airplanes in a bid to capture the smoking cityscape in an evocative manner.  There’s also a significant attention placed on depth here, as well as a running visual motif of reflections (characters are often seen in mirrors in lieu of a coverage cutaways or reverse shots).  The aforementioned Hollaender provides a bouncy, marching score that’s perfectly in-line with the militaristic iconography and moody visuals.

After the lavish musical overtures of THE EMPEROR WALTZ, A FOREIGN AFFAIR finds Wilder returning to his comfort zone of hybrid comedy/dramas.  Like FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) before it, Wilder is telling a story that concerns German citizens and Nazi sympathizers.  Whereas FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO painted the Nazis as intelligent, somewhat-civilized foes, A FOREIGN AFFAIR gives the director ample opportunity to extract artistic revenge on the regime that was able to justify wiping out his family and fellow countrymen.  A deep-seated rage towards Germany drives Wilder’s vision of the film, as evidenced by an anecdote where an editorial assistant expressed pity for the people of Berlin upon seeing the dailies from the rubble-strewn streets, only to send Wilder off on a screaming fit about how he hoped all Germans would burn in hell for what they did to his family (1).  Naturally, then, the German citizens in A FOREIGN AFFAIR are frequently depicted as barbaric, penniless buffoons, bearing little similarity to their refined, wealthy Allied conquerors.  These fundamental differences in class are consistent with Wilder’s previous examinations of the subject, as is the usage of uniform (often military in nature) to make quick, theatrical distinctions between the various castes.

Thanks to his minimalist aesthetic and usage of in-camera cutting techniques, Wilder and his editing partner Doane Harrison reportedly completed a cut of the film only a week after principal photography had wrapped (1).  This no doubt was a fortuitous development for Wilder, who was otherwise mired in a post production process for THE EMPEROR WALTZthat would last a total of two years.  As timing would have it, A FOREIGN AFFAIR debuted almost immediately after the premiere for THE EMPEROR WALTZ, giving filmgoers a double dose of Wilder within the space of a single year.  The film was well-regarded in critical circles, but ultimately unsuccessful come awards season.  Wilder and Brackett were nominated once more for their screenplay, but if it’s any consolation to them, the film they eventually lost out to– John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE– would become a monumental classic in its own right.

A FOREIGN AFFAIR was no doubt a cathartic experience for Wilder, allowing him the opportunity to exorcise his inner torment over the Holocaust by bringing the Nazis to justice in the cinematic forum. While A FOREIGN AFFAIR is remembered today as a minor work in Wilder’s canon, it’s still an important work if only for its evidence of Wilder consolidating his directorial strengths into a unified approach– an approach that, when he would next apply it, would result in one of the most classic films in all of cinema.

Credits:

Produced by: Charles Brackett

Written by:  Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett

Director of Photography: Charles Lang

Production Designer: Hans Dreier, Walter H Tyler

Edited by: Doane Harrison

Music by: Friedrich Hollaender

References:

  1. Via Wikipedia:   Chandler, Charlotte, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster 2002; ISBN 978-0-7432-1709-5, pp. 136-141