In the American occupied zone of Berlin during 1948, a United States congressional committee has been sent to report on the morale of the military men stationed there. One member of the group is the uptight, conservative congresswoman, Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), from the honorable state of Iowa. Upon her arrival, she meets Captain Pringle (John Lund), who is also from Iowa, giving them an instant bond. Phoebe begins an investigation into a local cabaret singer, Erika von Schluton (Marlene Dietrich), who was closely involved with several high-ranking members of the Gestapo during the war. To help her discover the truth, Phoebe enlists the help of Captain Pringle.
When Phoebe discovers that Erika has been allowed to remain here despite her checkered past, she (correctly) assumes that she must be sexually involved with an officer who possess that powerful combination of access to files and influence. What she doesn’t know is that it’s Captain Pringle who spends his nights at Erika’s place. By Phoebe enlisting his help in her fact-finding mission, he is given ample opportunity to cover his tracks. The hitch in Pringle’s plan is that while trying to trick Phoebe into believing that he has fallen in love with her, he actually does. Pringle’s other problem comes from his superior officer, Colonel Plummer (Millard Mitchell), who surprisingly has know about Pringle’s involvement with Erika for some time, and “encourages” him to continue the relationship in order to draw out one of Erika’s jealous former lovers (Peter von Zerneck)- a high-ranking Gestapo member now in hiding.
In my expert opinion (and yes, I use the word expert lightly), Billy Wilder is a filmmaking genius. Many directors can be great or brilliant, but what separates Wilder from so many of the other guys is that no matter what kind of movie he was making- no matter what genre it fell in or what kind of message he wanted to send, you could always count on him to deliver his vision in the highest possible quality. Perhaps for some, he’s best remembered for his everlasting contributions to the comedy genre, with entertaining films like “Some Like It Hot” (1958), “Sabrina” (1954), “The Apartment” (1960) and “The Seven Year Itch” (1955). On the other hand, maybe you’re more partial to his deep and powerful dramas like “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Double Indemnity” (1944) or “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), all four of which incidentally were nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Any one of these films would look great on a resume, but because all eight of these examples are so perfect- so cherished amongst film aficionados, his other movies are often overlooked.
Wilder was intrigued by the idea of making a film in post-war Germany, and when the Army agreed to be cooperative with his filming if he set the story in Allied-occupied Germany, the idea for “A Foreign Affair” was born. Joining with his regular collaborator, Charles Brackett, and writer Richard L. Breen, the screenplay came quickly and easily, blending humor and drama effortlessly, even when the seriousness of the story seems like it should have made it harder. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award (one of two that this film would receive) and is the driving force that keeps the film going.
Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich don’t seem like two people who would have much in common with one another. Their careers, and even their personal lives, seem to be complete opposites. Wilder had his hands full with his leading ladies, but I’m guessing he knew what he was getting into before he sought them out. His supposed quote goes, “I have one dame who’s afraid to look at herself in a mirror and another who won’t stop looking!” Boy, that must have been fun to watch. The funny thing about these two stars being so different is that it works beautifully because their characters are so different as well. They’re not written to be friends, so they didn’t have to try to fake it anyway. Both of them are absolutely perfect in roles that seem to be written specifically for them, designed to accentuate their natural charms.
John Lund, on the other hand, doesn’t work out so well. I’d like to be able to blame the writing (as some of it is rather cheesy), but I think he was just lost as an actor. The role was calling for some comedy, but he doesn’t know how to pull it off. Lund plays some scenes much too serious, and others far too much like a screwball comedy. There needed to be a happy medium somewhere, but Lund never finds one. Perhaps he was just overmatched by his co-stars. The role seems to need an actor that could handle his more comedic scenes with the kind and naive congresswoman, but also seem man enough to tame his German seductress. My suggestion, incidentally (not that anyone asked me): Ray Milland, and if you don’t think he’s right, just think about him with Jean Arthur in “Easy Living” (1937), with Marlene Dietrich in “Golden Earrings” (1947), and teaming with Billy Wilder in his Academy Award winning role in “The Lost Weekend”. He seems almost destined to be in this film!
Another aspect in which “A Foreign Affair” excels is in the location shooting throughout war-torn Berlin. Few films in the years after WWII seemed to capture the devastation and destruction during these beginning stages in the rebuilding process. There aren’t lots of scenes with the ruins around them, but the ones that are there leave a lasting impression. These harrowing images give the overall film a feel that reminds me of the Fred Zinnemann film, “The Search” (1948), released just three months earlier. Cinematographer Charles Lang takes full advantage of his surroundings, enhancing his own superb black and white cinematography. This film was one of Lang’s seventeen Academy Award nominated works, tying him for the most ever in his field. Any opportunity to see his work is well worth the time, and “A Foreign Affair” is no exception.
Today, “A Foreign Affair” isn’t overly seen or discussed. It’s availability is disappointing, as it currently can only be purchased through Turner Classic Movies in a print that is in dire need of some attention. Perhaps in future years this film will be experienced by a new audience who can appreciate it more as its availability widens.