A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948) B/W 116m dir: Billy Wilder
w/Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell, Peter von Zerneck, Stanley Prager, Bill Murphy, Raymond Bond, Boyd Davis, Robert Malcolm, Charles Meredith, Michael Raffetto, Frederick Hollander
Billy Wilder's satire about Americans in post-WWII Germany stars Arthur as an Iowa congresswoman on a junket to wicked Berlin, Lund as the officer who tries to cope with her moralizing, and Dietrich as his ex-Nazi chanteuse girlfriend.
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by Rob Nixon: "Billy Wilder may well be the most critically reviled of any of the 'great' directors, popular with the moviegoing public for decades but inspiring fierce debate among film scholars. Audiences made hits out of The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), crack up over and over again at the cross-gender humor of Some Like It Hot (1959), and still cherish the Audrey Hepburn of Sabrina (1954) and Love in the Afternoon (1957). Actors like Jack Lemmon, William Holden, Gloria Swanson, and Barbara Stanwyck have had some of their finest moments in a Wilder film, and Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Seven Year Itch (1955) provided American film history with some of its most indelible images and moments. But a high number of critics and film scholars see only someone 'too cynical to believe even his own cynicism,' a director 'hardly likely to make a coherent film on the human condition,' and 'a heartless exploiter of public taste who manipulates situation in the name of satire.' Strong stuff. And much of it may be traced back to A Foreign Affair.
"Starting out as a writer in Hollywood, the Austrian-born Wilder brought a touch of jaded eloquence from the Old World he fled when much of it moved toward fascism in the early 1930s. He found an unlikely but worthy creative partner in the urbane, more conservative former New Yorker film critic Charles Brackett, and together they wrote a number of scripts for other directors, undeniable classics like Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939), and Ball of Fire (1941), praised for their witty sophistication and sly humor. In the early 40s, the team began making their own films from their scripts (with Brackett as producer, Wilder as director) and had much success with the multiple Oscar winner The Lost Weekend (1945), following closely on the heels of Wilder's success (without Brackett) in Double Indemnity (1944).
"Then Wilder returned to his old stomping grounds, Berlin, on assignment from the U.S. government following World War II, and his experiences there, the clash of cultures and values he observed, and his mixed feelings of regret for the lost city of his youth and hatred for the society that had perverted it under the sway of the Nazi regime found their way into a new story idea. The bombed-out remains of a defeated Germany may not have been anyone's idea of comic territory (even Brackett reportedly had serious problems with that notion) but Wilder saw it as fertile ground for a satire on innocent, paternalistic Americanism clashing with the unsentimental survival instincts of a ravaged civilization, wrapped in the fluff of a romantic triangle tinged with sexual innuendo. Many were not amused.
"The picture drew mixed reviews; Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it 'dandy entertainment' while James Agee found much of it to be 'in rotten taste.' It was denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives, whose members resented its skewering of their institution, and banned by the army from being shown in Germany to the troops, many of whom no doubt engaged in the blatant sexual fraternization and black market trading depicted in the movie. In the following decades and up to today, opinion has remained widely divergent, some seeing it as 'brutal' to its American leading lady (Jean Arthur) and 'clumsily forced' in its humor, others finding it to be one of the best black comedies ever produced in Hollywood, full of daring (for its time) humor and amazingly fresh and relevant to our own times. Surely a film that inspires that much controversy and debate has to be essential viewing, if only to see what all the fuss is about.
"But if that's not reason enough to give this largely overlooked comedy a closer look, then the picture holds one other major fascination: Marlene Dietrich. One of the central problems with A Foreign Affair is the sudden about-face of its leading man from bluff opportunist to mooning romantic as he falls for Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, whose own swift turn from uptight spinster to dewy prom girl is equally unconvincing. But there's no doubt that Dietrich as Erika, the cabaret singer with a shady past, has the power to enslave him or any other man she chooses. Even nearing 50 years old, Dietrich is as captivating and believably seductive as she was in her early films with Josef von Sternberg. The picture comes to life whenever she's on screen, whether she's crooning one of Friedrich Hollaender's bitterly ironic songs or simply brushing her teeth in her bombed-out shell of an apartment.
"Dietrich spent much of the war years in the trenches, so to speak, tirelessly visiting the troops, speaking out against the destructive path taken by her native Germany, and she was justly honored for that work. But her on-screen popularity had slipped in a handful of films that made ill use of her particular talents and appeal. A Foreign Affair brought Dietrich back in full force, ironically as a woman whose only political convictions seem to be her own best interest, even if that means cozying up to high Nazi officials. It is one of the most iconic roles of her career, embodying at once the treacherous Lola Lola of The Blue Angel (1930), the feisty Frenchie of her previous 'comeback' film Destry Rides Again (1939), and the international cabaret sensation she was about to become. Even if viewers find this film to be the genesis of the 'rotten taste' Wilder was accused of for most of the remainder of his career, it's essential for any fan or student of the Dietrich persona."
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by Rob Nixon: "Dietrich's iconic resonance in the role of Erika von Schluetow in this picture was boosted by having her accompanied in the night club scenes by Friedrich Hollaender, aka Frederick Hollander, who did the same in her films The Blue Angel (1930) and Manpower (1941). As he had done for those two movies, he also wrote her songs in this film, recalling the many other musical numbers he also composed for her in The Song of Songs (1933), Desire (1936), Angel (1937), Destry Rides Again (1939), and Seven Sinners (1940). The song he wrote for Dietrich in Blue Angel, 'Falling in Love Again,' became her theme song, performed by her hundreds of times in her long concert and cabaret career.
"A base drum in the night club scenes advertises The Syncopators, one of the most famous jazz bands in pre-Nazi Berlin and the back-up musicians for Hollaender and Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930).
"According to Dietrich biographer Steven Bach, the songs used in this picture were originally written by Hollaender for the Tingeltangel Club, his failed attempt to create a Berlin-style cabaret in Hollywood.
"Wilder had expected this to be the first American film shot on location in war-torn Berlin following armistice, but he was beaten to the punch by RKO's Berlin Express (1948), a thriller directed by Jacques Tourneur.
"Dietrich's role in this as the former mistress of a Nazi official, a conniver who will play any side to her best benefit, was in direct contrast to reality. She was, in fact, vocally and vehemently anti-Nazi, and used her fame during World War II to advance the Allied cause against her homeland, for which she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the U.S. (the first woman to receive one) and inducted into France's Legion of Honor.
"Like this picture, Ernst Lubitsch's comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942) was denounced as callous and tasteless for finding humor in Nazism.
"Shortly before the release of this film, Dietrich's daughter gave birth to her first child, J. Michael Riva (now an award-winning art director-production designer). Life magazine found the milestone momentous enough to feature the star on its cover with the words 'Grandmother Dietrich.' This began her image as 'the world's most glamorous grandmother,' a moniker she at first embraced but eventually grew tired of.
"Wilder returned to Berlin years later for another politically-tinged comedy about cultures clashing, this time the communist-controlled East and the capitalist West. One., Two, Three (1961) also used a central romance as a take-off point for its satirical barbs."
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by Rob Nixon: "Even years after their deaths, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder remain one of the most famous writing teams in motion pictures. They wrote the scripts for a number of films made by such established directors as Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, and Mitchell Leisen before taking more control over their projects (Wilder as director, Brackett as producer) in the early 40s, working almost exclusively together throughout the decade. They split temporarily (Wilder referred to it as 'the usual marital infidelity') when Wilder collaborated with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity (1944) but re-teamed for the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945). They went back to Wilder's European roots for The Emperor Waltz (1948), a romantic musical comedy set in pre-World War I Austria. Then Wilder decided to turn his attention to the city where he got his filmmaking start and from which he fled after the Nazi takeover, Berlin, now a ravaged ruin following the defeat of Germany in World War II.
"Wilder had been to Germany right after the war and seen conditions firsthand. His one war-related film assignment took him right into the thick of its most horrifying detail (what Allied troops found when they liberated the Nazi death camps). Death Mills (1945) was made specifically for release in occupied Germany and Austria to show the citizens of those countries what had taken place there under Nazi rule and was one of the few incidences of directly implicating the common people of Germany in complicity with the Holocaust.
"Wilder also spent time in Berlin right after V-E Day as an officer with the U.S. Army assigned to approve or deny artistic performance licenses for German companies. Wilder saw firsthand what life was like in occupied Berlin, both for the people of the city and their Allied occupiers, and he began to formulate a story that would take a satirical look at the situation from both points of view.
"Wilder's intention to make a 'propaganda comedy' set in war-torn Berlin evolved, in the course of collaboration with Brackett, into a culture-clash romance between a struggling German woman and an American GI.
"By 1947 the story had taken on an additional character, thanks to another script Paramount owned by Irwin and David Shaw. 'Love in the Air' was a comedy about a GI lothario who gets the chance to see the girls he left behind in every port of the war by accompanying a female member of Congress on a fact-finding mission through Europe and the Pacific. By the end of the trip, he has fallen in love with and proposed to the congresswoman. Wilder and Brackett decided to incorporate her into the story and made the GI a Berlin-based officer assigned to guide her through Berlin but retained his relationship with the shady German lady, turning the story into a romantic triangle.
"In the hands of the writing team, the congressional representative morphed into a strictly moral, uptight servant of the people, described in the script as a former notary public, 'one of those who, prior to putting her seal on a document, had to see the signatory actually sign it, and inspect the signatory's birth certificate, and verify the seal of the notary certifying the birth certificate.'
"Another writer, Robert Harari, was brought in to help them polish the story, and at the end of May 1947, they submitted their first treatment, beginning with a description of Berlin that already displayed some of the tone of the final product: 'The city looked like a great hunk of burned Gorgonzola cheese on which rats had been gnawing. The rats were gone and the ants had taken over, putting some neatness into the ruins, piling the crumbs of destruction into tiny piles.'
"In the coming months, with a production date looming, former journalist Richard L. Breen replaced Harari on the writing team, his first screenplay assignment. Brackett and Wilder were used to going into production without a completed script, which had the advantage of not only allowing dialogue and action to develop somewhat organically but also of keeping the screenplay from the scrutiny of studio executives and film censors. A finished script was not ready until November.
"The title A Foreign Affair made the studio nervous with its suggestions of both international politics and sex. Several other titles were proposed: 'The Feeling Is Mutual,' 'Out of Bounds,' 'No Limit,' 'Irresistible,' 'The Honorable Phoebe Frost,' 'Two Loves Have I.' Brackett and Wilder briefly considered one suggestion, 'Operation Candybar,' before returning to the original.
"In spite of all their attempts to keep the script under wraps, eventually the Production Code Administration (PCA) had to weigh in on censorship matters. The PCA found plenty to be concerned about, right on the brink of production. The U.S. government, army, and members of Congress were not to be ridiculed, they said, and they objected to 'an overemphasis on illicit sex' running throughout the script. Brackett and Wilder agreed to some revisions, mostly in minor language and innuendo, while managing to keep the basic plot, ideas, and tone intact.
"According to Wilder biographer Maurice Zolotow, Brackett disliked the premise of the movie and the concentration on corruption and sin. He preferred the character of the prim Congresswoman played by Jean Arthur, Zolotow claims, and concentrated on writing her. It's not clear if this is entirely true, but it has long been acknowledged that Brackett was the more staid and conservative member of the team and that the two often clashed. But until they split up a couple years after this production, Wilder always described their creative partnership as one of the happiest marriages in Hollywood."
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by Rob Nixon: "Location shooting of exterior backgrounds began in Berlin the summer of 1947. When Wilder arrived, he saw that the city had cleaned up a little since he was there right after the end of the war, but the results of close to 400 Allied bombing raids were still very much evident. Nearly half a million of the city's buildings had been destroyed, and although resilient Berliners were finding ways to survive, food was still scarce, the black market was thriving, and military police were everywhere. Filming in this virtual war zone suited Wilder's purposes very well, since he needed to show a destroyed city in chaos.
"German-born film producer Erich Pommer had been placed in charge of the film section at the U.S. government's Information Control Division in Berlin. He helped the production by arranging for the recently reconstituted German film studio Ufa to advance the production's expenses in deutschmarks.
"Because there was no raw film stock to be found in Berlin, the production
had to bring its own from America.
Wilder and his crew filmed throughout Berlin for nearly a month. Their footage appears as rear projections in several scenes of the finished movie. It also forms the basis of a typically sardonic visual joke: as Captain Pringle rides through the ruins carrying a mattress he bought for his German mistress on the black market, the soundtrack plays the sweet tune 'Isn't It Romantic?'
"Upon completion of location shooting in early September, Wilder headed
back home by way of Paris, where he stopped in to see Marlene Dietrich to convince
her to take the part of the German cabaret singer and former Nazi official's
mistress. Dietrich had spent most of the war traveling among Allied troops,
justly lauded for her anti-fascist efforts, often at the front lines, popping
back to the States only occasionally for movie roles. Her immediate reaction
when Wilder brought his offer to her at the Hotel Georges V where she was staying
was a quick and vehement no. She had no intention of playing a woman with a
Nazi past, but Wilder wouldn't take no for an answer. He swayed her with the
promise that her songs in the picture would be written by her old friend and
frequent composer Friedrich Hollaender. One story has it that eventually he
showed her screen tests of other actresses he claimed to be considering for
the role and that did the trick (reportedly, one of them was June Havoc), although
Wilder denied that such a ploy was ever used. More likely what swayed her was
the fact that her screen popularity had waned and she needed a hit movie. It
also helped considerably that she would be paid $110,000 with an additional
$66,000 promised for overtime.
In a biography of her famous mother, Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva wrote, 'She left for Hollywood in '47, quite sure that once she had designed the clothes, sung the Hollander songs, and made sure that "Billy won't insist that the woman was really a Nazi during the war," A Foreign Affair would become a Dietrich film.'
"Wilder thought he would also have to do considerable coaxing to get his choice for the role of Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (a name no doubt chosen to suit the character's personality). Jean Arthur had not made a movie since 1944. Weary of acting and the attendant publicity after more than 20 years in the business, she decided to drop out in favor of enrollment in Stephen's College in Columbia, Missouri. "I've had to work all my life, and now I want to learn," she said. But Wilder offered her top billing and $175,000 with an extra $10,000 for four additional weeks work. Arthur dropped out of school with only two weeks remaining before final exams.
"Studio filming began in Hollywood in December 1947 and continued into February.
"Dietrich moved into Wilder's house during production, and the two friends had a great time together, on set and off. She was always eager to oblige when Wilder prodded her about affairs with both sexes. Future director Gerd Oswald, then assistant to Wilder, said it was rumored that Dietrich was having an affair with everyone, particularly 'a couple of muscle-men stunt guys she just devoured.' John Lund called her a 'mixture of siren and homebody, gracious, unfailingly professional and funny,' and related a story about Winston Churchill's son, Randolph, making such a pest of himself pursuing Dietrich on a visit to the set that Wilder's wife finally threw a glass of wine at him.
"Dietrich reportedly didn't think too highly of her co-stars, calling Lund 'that piece of petrified wood' and referring to Arthur as 'that ugly, ugly woman with that terrible American twang.'
"Mirroring the triangle in the plot of the movie, Arthur and Dietrich vied with each other for Wilder's attentions, with Dietrich usually coming out far ahead. Although this was their first picture together, the two Europeans were old friends, and they would frequently be off in a corner of the set, talking in German and giggling. Sometimes Wilder went to Dietrich's dressing room for lunch or tea. All of this had Arthur seething, compounded by the fact that she was always insecure about her looks and knew she was playing the Plain Jane to Dietrich's Glamour Girl in this film. Reportedly, she showed up at his house one night with her husband, producer Frank Ross, visibly shaken and eyes red from weeping. She demanded to know what he had done with a certain close-up of her, 'the one where I looked so beautiful,' and accused Dietrich of having forced Wilder to burn it. One story claimed he eased her concern by showing her the close-up, but Wilder always said no such shot ever existed.
"'What a picture,' Wilder said in frustration to John Lund. 'One dame who's afraid to look in the mirror, and one who won't stop.'
"For the scene in which Arthur's character gets drunk and ends up being tossed in the air by rowdy soldiers, Wilder wanted to use a double, but Arthur insisted on doing it herself. After the physically strenuous take, she said loudly and pointedly, 'What will you require next from me, Mr. Wilder,' to a round of sympathetic applause from the crew.
"Wilder biographer Maurice Zolotow claims that one of the big clashes Wilder and Brackett had on this picture was over Marlene Dietrich's first scene. She is introduced in her bombed-out shell of an apartment, brushing her teeth, and when John Lund, as her American GI lover, comes near her, she spits in his face, Zolotow says Brackett was so offended by the scene and by Wilder's flippant defense of it that he threw a phone book at the director's head.
"As soon as shooting was over, Dietrich sped to New York to be with her daughter, Maria Riva, who was pregnant with Dietrich's first grandchild.
"Seven-time Academy Award winner Edith Head designed the costumes. Or as she later put it: 'You don't design clothes for Dietrich, you design them with her.'
"Future Emmy-winning editor John Woodcock, assisting in the cutting of
the picture, recalls a moment when Wilder was reviewing the footage he shot
in Berlin. Seeing aerial shots of block after block of leveled buildings, Woodcock
remarked that he felt a little sorry for the Germans. Wilder jumped up in a
rage: 'To hell with those bastards! They burned most of my family in their damned
ovens! I hope they burn in hell!'"
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by Margarita Landazuri: "In the late 1930s, Marlene Dietrich had refused offers from the Third Reich to return to Germany. She despised Hitler and what he was doing to her beloved homeland, and she became an American citizen in 1939. During World War II, she entertained U.S. troops and made anti-Nazi propaganda broadcasts in German.
"After the war, director Billy Wilder decided to make A Foreign Affair (1948), a satiric comedy about the rampant corruption during the Allied occupation of Berlin. A prim Congresswoman (Jean Arthur), part of a committee investigating the morale - and morals - of American occupation troops, falls for an American officer (John Lund). He happens to be involved with a seductive nightclub singer who had been the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi. Wilder knew that Dietrich's unassailable anti-Nazi credentials, and her war record, made her an unlikely, yet ideal, choice to play the chanteuse. But Dietrich, repelled by the idea of playing a Nazi, refused. On the pretext of asking Dietrich's advice on casting the role, Wilder showed her screen tests of two American actresses, and asked what she thought of their accents. Dietrich was appalled, and (as Wilder hoped) told him that nobody but she could play the role. Just before filming began on A Foreign Affair, Marlene Dietrich was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government's highest civilian honor, for her wartime service.
"Most of the film was shot in Hollywood. But before principal photography
began, Wilder spent time in Berlin shooting background footage of the devastated
city. Cleverly incorporated into the film, the footage added an ironic counterpoint
to the comedy. Dietrich was delighted to be working with Wilder, whom she'd
known in Berlin in the 1920s. But their constant joking and reminiscing in German
annoyed Jean Arthur, who hadn't made a film in several years, and was notoriously
insecure. One night, Arthur showed up at Wilder's house and hysterically accused
him of destroying her close-ups to please Dietrich. Weary of Dietrich's narcissism
and Arthur's paranoia, Wilder complained to John Lund that he had 'one dame
who's afraid to look in the mirror, and another who won't stop.' All that self-absorption
paid off for Dietrich, however. At 46 and about to become a grandmother, she
looked stunning and sang Frederick Hollander's bitter, melancholy songs with
great panache. Hollander, who had written Dietrich's cabaret numbers in The
Blue Angel (1930), and accompanied her in that film, also plays her pianist
in A Foreign Affair.
Probably Dietrich's most controversial film, A Foreign Affair was the first of Wilder's movies to arouse widespread debate. Some critics thought it was brilliant and sardonic. Others reacted negatively to a comedy about postwar profiteering, and were horrified that the filmmakers considered Nazi war crimes a fit subject for comedy. Wilder was denounced on the floor of Congress. The army banned A Foreign Affair in occupied Germany but it was finally shown there in 1977, to great acclaim. Today, the arguments about the film rage on among film scholars and Billy Wilder aficionados. But about Dietrich's performance, there has always been unanimity: it is one of her very best."
A FOREIGN AFFAIR was nominated for two Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Richard L. Breen) and Black & White Cinematography (Charles Lang).