There might not be a more consistent director in the history of cinema than Billy Wilder. Arriving after the terrific noir Double Indemnity but before Wilder’s insane run of 1950s masterpieces, the unusual postwar comedy A Foreign Affair is one of the director’s least remembered films. That’s perhaps understandable. While there are undeniable flourishes of Wilder’s genius throughout, the film is more of an inconsistent, mixed bag than most of his great works.
Iowan congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is the only female member of a committee sent to Berlin to report back on the morale in Germany, occupied by Allied Forces in the aftermath of World War Two. She becomes interested in the case of Nazi-turned-cabaret-singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), who is being illicitly protected from capture by a high-ranking American officer. What she doesn’t know is that the officer in question (John Lund) is assisting with her investigation — and trying to ignite a romance with her.
A Foreign Affair has a deeply strange tone, with fast-talking comedy intermingled with a surprisingly potent critique of the way American troops acted following their victory in Germany. Lund’s character is the perfect embodiment of arrogant, masculine complacency, taking whatever he wants while showcasing a slippery ability to avoid any material consequences for his womanising actions whatsoever.
The energy at the centre of this film orbits around its two lead female performances. Marlene Dietrich always had a unique aura and it’s in full effect here as a woman capable of wooing Allies and Nazis alike, holding a raucous room full of soldiers in rapturous silence as she regularly sings in an illegal, underground club. Dietrich’s sheer magnetism simply envelops the movie and it’s clear why Wilder fought so hard to have her in the film.
That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had elsewhere. The rat-a-tat dialogue between Lund and Arthur gives the movie many of its best comic lines, although the origins of their romantic bond — a particularly prolonged instance of the “surprise kiss” trope — feel more than a little iffy when looking through modern eyes. It’s a little sad to see the fierce intellect and no-nonsense energy of Arthur’s character dissipate in the face of romance with a handsome G.I.
But A Foreign Affair is at its best when it’s depicting the ways in which America settled in to occupied Germany a little too easily, promptly swallowing up the people who lived there as de facto prisoners — fair game for mistreatment, seduction and all manner of libery-taking. The director took money and assistance from the government to depict what was happening in Berlin, but it’s typically mischievous of Wilder to take a more truthful, sardonic approach. This almost certainly isn’t what the establishment had in mind. Even 70 years later, it feels boldly acidic and well worthy of your time.
Dir: Billy Wilder
Scr: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Jean Arthur, Millard Mitchell
Prd: Charles Brackett
DOP: Charles Lang
Music: Friedrich Hollaender
Run time: 116 mins
A Foreign Affair will be released on Blu-ray in the UK via Eureka Video from 22nd June.