A Foreign Affair

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A FOREIGN AFFAIR—here’s an oddball: a romantic comedy set in occupied Berlin, a few years after WW2 ended. Since it’s directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, it pushes the good taste envelope at the same time as it delivers its chuckles, and it’s got a bitter aftertaste. With his gift for cynical chutzpah, Wilder’s probably the only guy who could pull this off *, with help from his co-scripters Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen.

A US congressional delegation comes to Berlin to investigate whether corruption is occurring between servicemen and German civilians (ya think?). Goodie-2-shoes Jean Arthur is the righteous prier into hanky-panky, John Lund is the captain she works with and falls for, and Marlene Dietrich is the bold nightclub chanteuse Lund is dallying with, a suspected Nazi sympathizer.

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Playing off the squeaky Arthur against the sultry Dietrich is inspired. They both had to be coaxed into it: Arthur having retired from acting to go back to college, and, at 48, chronically insecure as a performer and sensitive about her aging appearance; Dietrich, a committed anti-Nazi tasked with playing what she had fought against.  They also didn’t care for each other, Arthur obsessing that “she doesn’t want me to look better than she does”, a cue for the 47-year old Marlene’s comeback “that ugly, ugly woman with terrible American twang”.  Wilder was nonplussed: “I have one dame who’s afraid to look at herself in a mirror and another who won’t stop looking!”

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Hissy fits aside, they’re both good, and play well off each other. Dietrich gets the best dialogue. Lund is okay, but his role as written is unsympathetic.  Co-starring Millard Mitchell, it goes on a bit at 116 minutes. Oscar nominated for its Screenplay and for Cinematography, a mix of both good reviews and hostility greeted it, but it made $5,500,000, the 32nd biggest hit of 1948. Even so, the cheeky seriocomic challenge to the official government line was denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives and banned in Germany until 1977.

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*Though it was finished on sound stages in Hollywood, 20% of the movie was shot on location in Berlin, including the Soviet sector. Still in ruins from 400 Allied bombing raids and the Red Army’s colossal street battle and rapine, Berlin as a setting was a highly personal affair for the director, who had sentimental attachment to the city from his earlier life and fury over what it had turned into under Hitler.  He’d seen plenty of Nazi handiwork when he served as a Colonel for the US Army in their Psychological Warfare Division, where he was tasked with helping rebuild the German movie industry after it had been warped by Joseph Goebbels propaganda and ravaged by the war. He also directed a 1945 documentary about the concentration camps, Death Mills.  Billy Wilder lost his mother, grandmother and stepfather to the Holocaust.

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