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Nazis, compromised morals, hypocrisy, and black market racketeering; these are not elements typically found in Hollywood comedies. For director Billy Wilder, however, the chaos of post-war Europe was the perfect backdrop for his biting satire, A Foreign Affair. With the help of a subversively witty script and a cast talented enough to bring it to life, Wilder took the supposedly safe romantic comedy genre and turned it on its head. The resulting battle of the wits and quips between Golden Age leading ladies Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur made A Foreign Affair one of Wilder’s most inventive, if also underrated, films.
The story starts as Jean Arthur’s Congresswoman Phoebe Frost arrives in Berlin to report on the progress that allied forces have made in occupied territory. She soon finds herself charmed by GI and fellow Iowan Captain John Pringle (John Lund) who is, unbeknownst to her, merely humoring her for propriety's sake. After seeing numerous American soldiers fraternizing with locals, she soon realizes that all is not as rosy as the local officials would have her believe. In an effort to investigate the soldiers' ‘shocking’ behavior, she poses as a Berliner and accompanies several soldiers to a seedy nightclub. At the club, she is horrified to see the men crowding around sultry singer Erika von Schlutow (Marlene Dietrich), who rumor has it is the former mistress of a top SS officer. Outraged, Phoebe determines to expose the soldiers’ antics and, more importantly, Erika’s fascist history. Unfortunately for Phoebe, however, she enlists Pringle’s help in her crusade without realizing that he is not only guilty of the fraternizing she is trying to stop, but is also the latest in Erika’s long list of allied amours. In an effort to sidetrack the stuffy congresswoman’s investigation Pringle pretends to be infatuated her, all the while doing his best to hide Erika’s tainted past. Eventually, the usual romantic comedy tropes come into play as Phoebe finds herself softening after a little fraternizing of her own with Pringle, and Erika proves that she still has a few tricks up her sleeve after all. The trio is finally forced to face some difficult truths when Pringle is ordered to keep seeing Erika in order to bring her notoriously jealous ex-boyfriend out of hiding, and Phoebe realizes she is not the only woman in Pringle’s life.One of the most notable aspects of A Foreign Affair is the way that it captures the atmosphere of post-war Berlin. Wilder reportedly first formed the idea for the film after serving in Germany in World War II. He then went about conducting research by interviewing both soldiers and locals regarding life in a now divided Germany. One interview in particular inspired him to take a closer look at the local perspective when a woman expressed elation that allied soldiers had arrived to fix the gas in her building. Wilder was shocked when the woman informed him that she was glad to have the gas, not for a shower or meal as he had assumed, but so that she could commit suicide. After compiling various eyewitness accounts, Wilder realized that he had material for far more than a typical romantic comedy on his hands.
Wilder’s first choice to play sexy singer Erika was Marlene Dietrich. He soon realized that casting would be no easy task, however, after she flatly refused the part. As a native Berliner, Dietrich had been careful to avoid any war related films in order to prevent being associated with Nazi Germany, which she vehemently opposed. Wilder was eventually able to win the star over by playing to her infamous vanity when he asked her to watch the screen tests of several other actresses auditioning for the part. After watching her critique the other women’s performances, Wilder said “Marlene, only you could play this part”, Dietrich could not resist agreeing with him and accepted the role on the spot. Wilder came close to regretting his decision, however, when Dietrich and Arthur clashed on the set after Arthur accused Dietrich of sabotaging her close ups. Tensions eventually got so high during filming that Wilder reportedly complained, “I have one dame who’s afraid to look at herself in a mirror and another one who won’t stop looking!”.Despite the perfect sense of time and place that Wilder and his script created, the film would not have been nearly as engaging without the superb work of its cast. Arthur portrays the insecurity beneath Phoebe’s professional exterior in a way that demonstrates the difficulties that women in the political arena faced, and continue to face. She also makes the congresswoman’s transformation comical without resorting to ugly duckling stereotypes. Lund makes his GI rogue likable enough that audiences can understand his attracting two leading ladies, but imbues him with enough of a cynical edge to keep him realistic. Dietrich steals the film with her vampish portrayal of world weary Erika. In this film, she uses plenty of the wiles she became famous for in the thirties and utilizes them to highlight, rather than undermine her character’s complexity. Her performances of three songs written for the film provide enough sex appeal and scathing humor to show the duality of both her femme fatale turned survivor, and the film as a whole.
A Foreign Affair is a truly unique film that successfully mixes politics, romance, and cynicism to expert comic effect. Through its use of black comedy, the film reveals the aftermath of war and its effects on people from both sides. Despite its serious subject matter, the film never succumbs to complete cynicism and maintains a sense of optimism throughout. The rollicking antics of the stars keep viewers on their toes while reminding us of the harsh reality lurking beneath the surface. So, pull up a chair, take in the local culture, and enjoy a not so discreet affair that you won't soon forget.
|What is this 'fascism' that you speak of?|