A Foreign Affair is a romantic comedy–albeit one that falls under the category of cynical–that takes place in post-World War II Berlin.
Iowa congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is a part of a committee investigating American troop morale after the war. Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a fellow Iowan) cynically woos her but he has his reasoning for doing so. He’s trying to cover up his affair with singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich). The singer is supposedly the former mistress of a high-ranking Nazi official. There’s also chatter that someone an American officer is protecting her.
It turns out that Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) knows of Captain Pringle’s relationship with the singer. He uses this to his advantage in laying a trap to capture ex-Gestapo agent Hans Otto Birgel (Peter von Zerneck). Meanwhile, a raid at the nightclub results in both Phoebe and Erika being arrested. The congresswoman soon gets her happy ending. It feels forced on the writing team because of the Production Code.
The German film industry needed rebuilding after the war. Billy Wilder used to live in Berlin before moving to America in the early 1930s. Sent to Germany during the World War II, Wilder decided to make this film only after promised government assistance in doing so. Location shooting took place in the Soviet occupation shown and you can definitely see this during the tour of Berlin. It definitely looks as if they are driving with the footage being displayed in the background. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s how it appeared to me while watching the film. That’s not to say anything bad about the footage but I’ve started to get more of an eye for these things in watching movies.
Given his former life in Berlin before the Nazis took over, it’s not hard to imagine why Wilder made this film. At the same time, there’s something here that runs reminiscent of the Vienna-set musical, The Emperor Waltz.
Charles Lang’s cinematography is beautifully lit and shot, which should come as no surprise given an Oscar nomination. It’s a solid script from the writing team of Brackett and Wilder, joined by Richard L. Breen. Again, the script was also nominated for an Oscar. It wasn’t there year, however, as they would lose to John Huston’s script for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
A film with this plot certainly would not play well in 2020 even if Erika is arrested. Yeah, you’ll have films like Jojo Rabbit that make it fun to laugh at Nazis. But at the same time, you have a film like Schindler’s List to remind us of their atrocities. So to see an American officer in an affair with a Nazi, it’s kind of upsetting to say the least. And again, this is a film set in 1947, not 2020.
A Foreign Affair isn’t the best Wilder comedy but it’s certainly a cynical film for the era.
DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder
SCREENWRITERS: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Richard L. Breen
CAST: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, with Millard Mitchell