by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran A Foreign Affair, a really quirky and unusual Billy Wilder film from 1948 set and largely shot in occupied Berlin and released August 20, 1948 (almost four months after RKO’s Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur, the first film shot by an American studio in the actual ruins of postwar Berlin). I’d seen it only once before — as a teenager, on commercial TV in the 1970’s — and looked forward to watching it again now that I’m a lot older and more sophisticated about human behavior. I’d recorded it off one of TCM’s “The Essentials” presentation — which was a bit startling because this is not one of the films critics and movie buffs have agreed by consensus is a “classic” — and it was even more startling when TCM host Robert Osborne and his co-host for “The Essentials,” actor Alec Baldwin, actually got into an on-camera argument over its merits. Osborne insists it’s another Billy Wilder classic while Baldwin has problems with it, mostly over the casting of John Lund, a rather rough leading-man type for whom Paramount had great hopes in the late 1940’s.
Here he’s playing Captain John W. Pringle, a U.S. servicemember stationed in Berlin as part of the postwar occupation, who has allowed himself to be corrupted by the raffish Berlin atmosphere — though the town is devastated by the war (our first glimpse of it is row upon row of bombed-out buildings seen from the air) it’s still managed to keep some of the old spirit and it has a thriving black market near the Brandenburg Gate, where since few Germans actually have money many of the items are bartered rather than sold — and in particular by Fraülein Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), who works as a cabaret entertainer at a dive called the Lorelei and sings songs written by Frederick (née Friedrich) Hollander, who appears in the movie as her piano player — Hollander wrote the songs for Dietrich’s star-making role in The Blue Angel and thereafter became her go-to songwriter the way Harold Arlen’s was Judy Garland’s and James Van Heusen first Bing Crosby’s and then Frank Sinatra’s.
Things start to unravel for Our Anti-Hero when a plane arrives in Berlin carrying the members of an investigating committee from the U.S. House of Representatives, assigned to travel there to look at the morale of U.S. servicemembers in the occupation force and make recommendations for how it might be improved. One of the committee members — and the only one who takes the job seriously instead of viewing it as just another junket — is Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), who’s from Iowa (also the home state of Captain Pringle) and who’s come bearing a birthday cake from Dusty, Pringle’s girlfriend back home. I’ve long thought Arthur’s casting makes this film a virtual sequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — in Capra’s film she’d played a Capitol Hill staff member and in the normal order of things members of Congressional staffs frequently run for office and become Congressmembers themselves. Anyway, Frost finds in her investigation that Erika von Schlütow used to be the mistress of Nazi bigwig Hans Otto Birgel (Peter von Zerneck), whom the occupation officials thought was dead but Captain Pringle’s commanding officer, Col. Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell, a frequent authority figure in Wilder’s films) is convinced is still alive. Through an old German newsreel Congressmember Frost learns that Erika was not only Birgel’s mistress but was herself high enough up in the Nazi hierarchy that she got to meet Hitler and kiss his hand. (Hitler is played by Bobby Watson, who also played him in To Be or Not to Be and the spoof The Devil with Hitler for Hal Roach — he was Hollywood’s go-to guy for Hitler during the war and played him in both serious and comic contexts.)
Frost learns that Erika is dating an American officer but she doesn’t know who, and ironically she enlists the aid of Captain Pringle to help her find out — and at one point she sees a photo of Erika on Col. Plummer’s desk and assumes he is Erika’s American lover. (The photo had originally been a two-shot of Erika with Birgel and Plummer had cut it down the middle and given the photo of Birgel to his staff for duplication to tell the American occupation soldiers to be on the lookout for him.) While they’re out together Pringle and Frost inevitably (at least by the standards of behavior of movie characters) fall in love, only their relationship gets nipped in the bud when Plummer, who’s found out that Pringle is Erika’s lover, insists that he continue to see her in hopes that word will reach Birgel that his former mistress is dating an American, and he’ll get jealous and come out of hiding to confront them.
A Foreign Affair is a quirky and uneven movie, absolutely superb in the sequences with Dietrich (she and Wilder hit it off almost immediately — the fact that they were both German expats undoubtedly helped; Wilder was Austrian by birth but had lived in Berlin in the latter days of Weimar and started his film career there — and here and in their later film together, Witness for the Prosecution, Wilder probably directed her more effectively than anyone she’d worked with since Josef von Sternberg) but a bit problematic in its attempts to combine comedy and drama. In his introduction, Osborne compared it to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be as a film which managed to get laughs out of spoofing the real-life horror of Nazism (and he could have added a later movie, Dr. Strangelove, as an equally audacious spoof of the horrors of the Cold War), but I don’t think it’s that good — and the main problem with it, as Baldwin accurately pointed out, is John Lund.
He’s simply not a personable enough actor to make us believe that two women we see (plus a third one back home whom we don’t) are madly in love with him, nor is he the right “type” to manage the deft transitions between comedy and drama Wilder was undoubtedly after. Baldwin’s description of Lund’s shortcomings — not charming, not debonair, and not all that attractive — makes it sound like he would have wanted to see Cary Grant play the role; but I suspect the actor it really needed was one who wasn’t around yet, but who would eventually work repeatedly and quite effectively with Wilder in mezzo-comic roles like this: Jack Lemmon. Lemmon could play an avaricious bastard and still make us love him; Lund simply isn’t a strong enough personality to keep us rooting for him despite the despicable things he’s involved in and his cavalier attitude towards all the women in his life. (Despite a major push on his behalf from Paramount, Lund’s career never really took off; a year after A Foreign Affair he made a disastrous period piece about the Borgias, Bride of Vengeance, which co-starred Paulette Goddard and was such a flop — at least partly because it was competing with Fox’s Prince of Foxes, another film about the Borgias with a much starrier male lead, Tyrone Power — Paramount canceled both their contracts after it bombed at the box office.)
Osborne described A Foreign Affair as if its faults could be attributed to the youth and inexperience of its director — a strange thing to say about a man who already had Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend on his résumé (and an Academy Award for the latter); it’s a problematic film but at its best it’s brilliant, especially in the scenes at the Lorelei with Dietrich in full cry (she sings three songs — “In the Ruins of Berlin,” a rouser Wilder mistakenly places last, and two world-weary moans, “Black Market” and “Illusions”) and an overall raffish atmosphere in which a group of Russians who are regulars at the place show their approval for performers by flinging them in the air while singing the Russian army song “Meadowlands” (recorded quite movingly during the war by Alexander Kipnis and Paul Robeson).
Wilder’s love of the Berlin cabaret scene is obviously apparent and makes one regret he turned down the offer to direct Cabaret (“there are Nazis in it,” he told his biographer, Maurice Zolotow — who concluded Wilder ducked Cabaret because it would have opened a lot of wounds for him to dramatize Weimar-era Berlin and have to depict its fall; when the Nazis took power Wilder lost not only the city in which he had felt most at home but 13 members of his family, including his mother, to the Holocaust) — and Dietrich responds with one of her most effective performances, stealing the film from her American co-leads and, despite the gap between her character’s attitude towards the Nazis and her own (later, playing a similar role in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, she protested to Kramer that she couldn’t speak the lines about how the German people didn’t know about all the horrible things the Nazis were doing, and when Kramer asked her why not, Dietrich said in her best stage-whisper, “They knew!”), creating a vivid portrayal of a woman who was all too aware both during the war and after it that all she had with which to survive was her body and her wits.