Wilder: A Foreign Affair (1948) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30Sep/120

Wilder: A Foreign Affair (1948)

In wrecked, post-war Berlin, a congressional committee from the United States comes to the occupied city to investigate the morale of the American troops. The conservative republican Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) from Iowa brings a birthday cake to Captain John Pringle (John Lund) from his girlfriend. Later she splits from the other congressmen and their handler, Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell), and decides to investigate the decadence of the military on her own. A pair of excitable G.I.'s pick her up take her to the night-club Lorelei, where the lead attraction is the singer Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), who is the secret mistress of Captain Pringle. Congresswoman Frost overhears that Erika belonged to the Nazi Party and is protected by a senior officer, and she enlists Pringle to help her in the investigation. The officer seduces Frost to protect Erika and himself from martial court, but his feelings begin to falter as Schluetow's Nazi connections come back to haunt the both of them.

A Foreign Affair is the next Wilder movie that I would deem a lost classic. Unlike Ace in the Hole, it did ok back in its day so it is even more baffling what happened to this film. I am thrilled that this movie is finally getting a DVD release because it deserves to be seen more.

The movie is known mainly for Marlene Dietrich being in the film but I think the one who does the best is the lead actor John Lund. Many people reading this might say John who? Lund was a up and coming actor at the time of this film and he didn't do anything of note afterwards so this was his moment to shine and shine he did. Jack Lemmon and William Holden were far and above the actors who got the way to read Wilder's scripts the best but I would put Lund in the next rung down. He got the rhythms, the playfulness and the attitude better than most and he was able to take a character that is playing everyone and is close and made him very likable.

In the wonderful book Conversations With Wilder, the author Cameron Crowe states that he believes that A Foreign Affair is Wilder's most personal film, and I happen to believe him. For me Dietrich, is the personification of Berlin for Wilder. This movie was filmed three years after the second World War, and Berlin meant many different things to the man behind the camera. It was a place he loved from when he was younger, and yet hated and couldn't trust because of the atrocities that occurred. A little more than a year before he made this, he had been in the city to film his documentary for the army that we covered two weeks ago and the state of the town left a deep impression on him.

So here he makes a film to exorcise some of those demons and makes a character who is not only a German but an ex-Nazi. Just like Berlin, Wilder made her sexy and yet intimidating a person that wants a second chance but doesn't make a clear cut case on why she should get it. She is not good for Pringle, but he can't seem to make a clean cut from her.

The Third Man is (rightly) loved in part because of how the city of Vienna was filmed postwar and A Foreign Affair is shot just as well and makes a great time capsule for this period in world history. Danny, do you agree with that, and what do you think of Lund?

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

I'm not sure I'd deem it a lost classic, but A Foreign Affair tries its best to balance the Lubitsch touch with Wilder's post-War fury. This and last week's Emperor Waltz are a good pair of companion films (though the case would be better if Waltz wasn't so unbearable.) Picture it: Europe, 50 years apart from one man's perspective, with two World Wars in between.

Mind you, he's approaching both of them as an American, now, so the outsider character he puts at the forefront serves both as an audience surrogate and as his own. Here it's the lovely Jean Arthur as the Congress woman from Iowa (or Ioway). Her first scene is a piece of comic brilliance as we see her meticulously put her files into a folder into a briefcase which she locks with a key, and then she puts the key in a case into a coin purse into a larger purse and that goes into a handbag... and pop goes the weasel.

Both Arthur and Dietrich get introduced in two extremely unglamorous ways-- Arthur being fussy with keeping things organized, and Dietrich while brushing her teeth-- that it's interesting to note how they end the movie, both sexually voracious and overwhelming. While the film's actual climax may falter a bit, these two characters and their arcs are the reason the film has any thrust.

I really like what you were saying about Dietrich being Berlin, because in a lot of ways Arthur is perfectly encapsulating America as well. Coming in with the best of intentions, and sinking down into the mire as she sees how the situation really is. She gets corrupted and has her heart broken, but her gift is her resilience, not her sentimentality.

This is important in the film since it deals almost exclusively in gray areas. I think I'm more impressed by the script's construction than I am with some pieces of the end result, but the movie's exploration of post-War Berlin is second to none. We see it from the G.I.s, the ex-Nazis, the desolate Germans, and for the senator's perspective. It's an interesting study in how social dynamics are shifted in an occupied city, both for the better and worse. And while it may look like it's pretty down on the occupation, I think underneath it understands that it's a dark necessity.

And, you know what, Ryan? Screw your Marlene Dietrich talk. Jean Arthur, gravelly voice and big starry eyes, is a lot sexier than Dietrich in this film. Watch the polite attempts as deference as Lund fixes the dress she's wearing so that it goes from around her neck down to its proper place on her chest. Her glow there, trying to be demure but unable to help herself-- magical.

Marlene Dietrich never did anything for me. I think I would have to agree with you on Jean Arthur and the dress, but her voice annoys me so much that her "big starry eyes" were not as effective on me.

Yet this brings up another big part of the film, because while Wilder might be looking at Berlin post WWII from many different perspectives, the one thing that all would agree on is that they all knew this Berlin was full of SEX. Most of Wilder's films had sex bubbling up to the surface, but with A Foreign Affair most of the characters in the film are driven by it alone.

Pringle gets into his trouble because when he saw Von Schluetow he couldn't help but think with his penis. Von Schluetow knew that her looks are what can get her out of 99.9% of all her problems and Senator Frost because fun/sexy only after she finds her man. Shoot, even the roving two GIs on the bike were only thinking about sex, and we all knew when they were going to give the candy bar to the woman they picked up and it wouldn't be for just a kiss. Even the Colonel (the great Millard Mitchell) knew what was going on with the troops and wondered aloud why the U.S. spent money on ping pong tables to keep the men entertained. One of the famous scenes from the film is the wonderfully directed moment where Pringle is stalking Frost through the filing cabinets trying to kiss her as a distraction is heavily charged with sex in the air.

The only two areas of problems I had with this film are two things that are brought up very quickly and I think they needed more time to develop. The first was when Pringle actually starts following for Frost. There is some dialogue between Pringle and Von Schluetow that states that time has passed since the filing cabinet night and he starts getting upset with her when she starts making fun of Frost, but the audience never gets to see him develop those feelings for her. He goes from having a thing for Von Schluetow to being tired of her and into Frost all off screen and it hurts the movie that we don't have those moments where we see him start falling for her.

The second problem is the introduction of the "villain" in the last 15 minutes of the film. It was mentioned before in the film that Von Schluetow had some higher up boyfriends in the past but the inclusion of Birgel in the end as a barrier keeping Frost and Pringle apart was the biggest dues ex machina I can think of in a Wilder film. This man is introduced as a threat and dispatched within 10 minutes of each other and he wasn't around long enough to make any type of impact in the film.
Danny, am I being overly critical or do this two things bug you in the film too?

Sex is what makes the film interesting. Post-War, the number of males running around Berlin was significantly lower, so an influx of connected and horny young men was a veritable disaster waiting to happen. Society eventually balanced itself back out, but this was a miserable time to be a German woman.

Speaking of, I did want to note that this film has more than a few similarities with Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, a film he shot in black and white and set in Post-War Berlin as well. The major difference is that The Good German goes to more of an extreme to show the deplorable actions that American soldiers sunk to and the more morally corrupt nature of the Germans. In A Foreign Affair we get a few war criminals, but the culpability of the German people that Wilder himself accused the nation of back in Death mills is noticably missing.

Whether his view was tempered by time or commercial sensibilities is a minor point. This is an optimistic take on the German people, saying that the Americans, for all the cutesy sexual hijinks they're no doubt getting into, are still making a difference over there. Considering how long we'd be in Berlin, this movie had to come out at some time.

But, back to your questions. I do think that Lund didn't do the best job in selling his switched loyalties, and I'll actually just put the blame on the actor there. It's obvious that he enjoys power and privilege, and it's not surprising he gets off by having the sexiest woman at the nightclub being at his beck and call. When he accidentally turns Jean Arthur into something more than she is, he suddenly realizes that his affection is more meaningful than all of the black market goods he's been touting about: the love of a good, honest woman simply bowls him over.

And I think your other nitpick is kind of funny. True, the 'villain' doesn't show up until the last ten minutes, but by that point we've already seen a newsreel of Von Schluetow and Adolph-freaking-Hitler sharing a private laugh, so it's not hard to picture her being messed up in something big. The conflict itself is sudden, and mostly just a way to give Lund an easy out with Schluetow and redeem him in the eyes of Arthur-- it's more a narrative device than a living breathing element, and I agree that it's to the movie's disservice.

In spite of that, I like the film, and I think it's a fascinating historical document. Wilder walked a tricky rope, and I think it paid off.

What you said about Von Schluetow brings me to the last thing I wanted to ask you, and it's something I have not been able to come up with a good answer for. Is Von Schluetow closer to a hero or villain in this movie?

Her character is so hard to peg and doesn't fit into "good" or "bad" in the slightest and this makes her frustrating for people who like things tidy but fascinating for anyone that likes shades of grey.

In the end do we feel sympathy for her because she lost out on her guy? Did she ever truly have feelings for him in the first place or was he her best bet to stay out of the labor camps? How much sympathy should we have for a Nazi who freely admits she was in the party because it was the cool thing to do? I am glad Von Schluetow ends us where she does and the film doesn't follow her anymore because the exact details of what happens next is never seen but from watching her for almost 2 hours, you know she is a survivor and will adapt and keep moving on.

I know that you liked this film but I believe I might enjoy this one a bit more than you. Wilder captured an interesting time in history with this film and made a film with great characters on top of that. The movie has his scalding wit and one of a kind look at life and belongs to be seen by a all film buffs and fans of Wilder. My hope is that someone reads this, watches the film and falls in love with it. If this happens, I will consider this article to be a success.

Hell, I'll just be happy if anyone reads this article.The beauty of A Foreign Affair is that we understand Von Schluetow even if we don't like her much. I imagine in 1948 the feelings towards ex-Nazis in general were far more vitriolic, and her patty cake with the Fuhrer less forgivable. Lund doesn't realize that she's a wolf until this scene, and after that we begin to understand how nasty she is under the surface. She yearns to corrupt Arthur, she offers herself to the Colonel, and she shows her legs to the MPs. By the end of the film she's gone from a sympathetic woman to a monster, and the movie reminds us that there's still danger out there, whether we want to admit it or not.

I stand by the idea that the film still doesn't condemn all Germans, but Von Schluetow noticeably doesn't get a goodbye to Lund. She's a snake, and while he may be a weasel, he's still too good for her.

But that's not obvious, not until you sit and think about it. A Foreign Affair, while certainly a romance, has a lot of things to ponder and discuss, as it's a fascinating historical document. While I don't think all the pieces work, it's undoubtedly a fascinating effort.

But it doesn't hold a candle to next week's movie. Then again, I can't think of anything that does.

Next Week: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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