Dark, mordant and, at times, dangerously funny, Billy Wilder’s brilliant comedy A Foreign Affair is Hollywood’s contribution to the German genre trummerfilme; it was “largely” shot on location, amidst the ruins and rubble of bombed-out postwar Berlin. It shows defeat and demoralization—and tenacity and dim hope. It is bleedingly moving to boot—an assault on German denial by a Jewish Viennese-American who had lost his mother to the Holocaust. Thus its vortex is not Berlin’s authentic streets but the Lorelei, the sardonic nightclub—a Hollywood set—where glamorous chanteuse Erika Von Schluetow dispenses and sings of “Illusions.” During the war Erika had been kept by a Nazi official and had had (we see in a hilarious bit of simulated newsreel) her hand kissed at a social gathering by Der Führer; her current lover, who supplies her with a mattress and toothpaste, is Capt. John Pringle, part of the U.S. occupying force in Berlin. To the victors belong the spoils.
A spoof of Margaret Chase Smith, who would become the first woman put into nomination for the U.S. presidency at a major Party convention, Phoebe Frost is the most efficient member of a visiting Congressional delegation investigating the “morale” of U.S. troops. Her colleagues—the chairman of their subcommittee hasn’t quite gotten over puking from the plane trip—see only what the military brass wants them to see; but Phoebe notices alarming things that paint a different picture: for instance, a German woman pushing through the streets a baby carriage, to which are attached two bite-size U.S. flags! Doing his best to hide his relationship with Erika, Capt. Pringle feigns feelings for Phoebe—until he falls for real with this sister Iowan. Meanwhile, a hiding Nazi, jealous, surfaces to gun down both Erika and Pringle.
This last aspect of the plot generates more intense suspense than most of the conspicuous thrillers of the day, in large measure because Marlene Dietrich, in one of her greatest roles, and John Lund are superb as Erika and Pringle. Alas, Jean Arthur is all brittle affectation as Frosty Frost.
Wilder, directing from a script by himself, Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Robert Harari, based on an original story by David Shaw, is in great form, especially when it comes to Dietrich, Erika’s rubbly apartment and, of course, the Lorelei, whose neon-lit name is shot so it is half-hidden by trees: a force of creeping seduction, like Erika herself. The interior is a kind of smoke-filled, shadow-ridden womb through which Erika seems to glide, her arresting movements, including of her expressive hands, a dance by default. Dietrich is almost too beautiful for this Earth. The tenor of the film at its best is keyed to her soul and the three superlative songs by Frederick Holander that project her fabulous mystique: “Black Market,” “Illusions,” “The Ruins of Berlin.” Especially in the Lorelei, Charles Lang’s haunting black-and-white cinematography is, impossibly, both sumptuous and threadbare, a cave of glints and reflections, both sophisticated and primitive; this setting “completes” Dietrich’s Erika, along with Edith Head’s glittering gowns for her, which swathe our eyes in its nacreous layers of lost stars, wit, grim eternities. Billy Wilder has given us the irrepressible Dietrich of our dreams.
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