Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is a U.S. Congresswoman headed to Berlin, Germany with a plane full of fellow congresspeople. Their goal is to better understand the problems in Berlin’s American occupation zone, and to investigate the morale of the 12,000 United States troops stationed there. As Phoebe puts it, the men have been inflicted with a “moral malaria,” and those on the home front are worried.
To remind the men of those missing them back home, Phoebe’s first order of business is to deliver a cake, of all things. She presents the cake to Captain John Pringle (John Lund). It was baked by his fiancée, though he hasn’t seen her in four years due to his involvement in the war. Unfaithful to the woman back home, John has a girlfriend in Germany — torch singer Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich).
Things get complicated for John when the all-business Ms. Frost accompanies a couple of soldiers to the club where Erika sings. The soldiers tell Phoebe that Erika is thought to be the ex-girlfriend of a prominent Nazi leader, but that she’s now taken up with an American man. This, of course, makes Phoebe suspicious, and she sets out to find the truth about Erika and her Army beau.
Billy Wilder directs 1948’s A Foreign Affair, the first of two films he made with Marlene Dietrich in Hollywood. (The second was Witness for the Prosecution, made nearly a decade after this film.) Wilder also co-wrote A Foreign Affair‘s script along with frequent collaborator Charles Brackett, and Richard L. Breen.
The crumbling city of post-war Berlin was and still is seen as an odd setting for a comedic film, for obvious reasons. Billy Wilder makes it work as only he could, contrasting the destruction of the city with the film’s often-bright mood, but avoiding trivialization of the war. Though it has a witty script and a romantic comedy plot, the film also explores the rebuilding of a city, playing on the ideas of patriotism and morality, and the nature of the military.
As Phoebe and her fellow congresspeople tour the city, two things are made clear: that the war wreaked absolute havoc on Europe, and that “life goes on in those ruins,” to quote the Army tour guide’s exact words. Ben Mankiewicz’s TCM introduction (accompanying a screening of the film on the channel in early May) noted that the film was shot on location in Berlin with special permission from the U.S. War Department.
Blending serious wartime topics with a fluffier love triangle, A Foreign Affair has a lot to offer the viewer — both humor and intrigue.
Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich share some very amusing scenes. In one, Erika picks on Phoebe for her “undone” hairdo, lack of lipstick, and eyebrow shape. So much for the well-known stereotype of the beautiful, stylish American woman, says Erika, who always has perfectly-curled hair and wears shimmering gowns. It’s quite catty of her to pick on Phoebe’s appearance in order to avoid questions about her Army beau, but Dietrich’s delivery is great. Both women give wonderful performances in the film, and the fact that they’re so very different from each other both as actresses and in character adds a fun-to-watch dynamic to the film.
A Foreign Affair is worth tuning in for both as a classic Billy Wilder comedy and as a surprisingly contemplative look at Germany at the war’s end. It gets a strong recommendation from TMP!
The score: 4/5