Billy Wilder’s Berlin Women:  A Foreign Affair (1948)

by Elaine Lennon Volume 19, Issue 3 / March 2015 45 minutes (11085 words)

“It was absolute ashes, Berlin. I did that [opening] shot from a plane, a
long shot. Rubble, rubble, rubble. All rebuilt, and badly.”

(Billy Wilder in Crowe, 1999: 80)

A group of British and American films was set and filmed in the immediate post-War era on location in the divided city of Berlin as it emerged from the ashes of post-World War II reconstruction efforts. These films were the result of a combination of people ostensibly intending to propagandise the Western way of life and justify military and economic measures through the depiction of familiar stories of loss and grief, survival, criminality and black marketeering in a virtual necropolis. Mutating into narrative twists on familiar genres, they all owe something of their origination not merely to the War itself, but to the specificity of their location, which was turned into zones of foreign occupation and for some years forced opposing peoples to live with their enemy and be inculcated with foreign values. Berlin served as a crucial propaganda site because of its location on the frontier of the Communist world: it was the ideal situation from which to dictate the peace on Western terms, a crucial mistake made in the aftermath of World War I that was now ready to be righted. Writer/director Billy Wilder’s film A Foreign Affair (1948) in particular is one of the American films in the cycle representing some of the different discourses at play in the representation of US foreign policy in terms of a kind of Cinderella romance: how America ends up seducing the orphaned child of Europe. It operates as an intersection of art, studio economics and ideology. However, as with everything else Wilder had a hand in writing or directing, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that.

Wilder had turned to directing after becoming disenchanted with the lack of control he had over his own writing, particularly during the production of Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941). He and partner Charles Brackett began producing their own screenplays, to great acclaim. The Paramount film Operation Candybar aka A Foreign Affair was shot on location amongst the rubble of post-war Berlin in 1948 and Wilder, as a writer-director whose work now invariably made a healthy profit, was given huge leeway. He had been stationed in Frankfurt and then Berlin during six months of World War II and he had reason to be shocked over the various outcomes of his tour in the Summer of 1945, which had its antithetical aspects: on the one hand, he went to Berlin at the war’s conclusion to oversee the reorganisation of the German entertainment industry in the role of Military Government Film Officer; on the other, he was there to also represent the interests of Paramount Pictures. He shot some footage on the trip, some of which was incorporated into the opening of what became titled A Foreign Affair a couple of years later. Other footage would be shot by a crew whom he brought to the city prior to production of the main acting scenes, which were recorded at Paramount.

One day when he was perambulating about the ruins of Berlin, he noticed a woman picking up rubble outside a semi-derelict apartment building. He enquired of her as to her circumstances. She was living in one of the bombed-out flats nearby, with her mother. He asked her if she would be cooking something nice for herself and Mutti when the gas was switched on once more now that the Allies were in town. She responded that she would be putting her head in the oven. This was shocking not just for its fatalistic aspect but because of the reference to the Nazis’ preferred mass murder method. Wilder was entranced. This was the woman he had been looking for. He knew he had to make a film about such a character. She would become Erika Von Schluetow, a droll Nazi chanteuse, singing about love among the ruins. As Ed Sikov asserts, this was a character that Wilder needed to give a reason to live (Sikov, 1999: 249). When his tour was over at the end of the Summer, Wilder supervised the editing of one version (there were six) of the infamous short film, Die Todesmuehlen (Death Mills), although his was not actually the one that ultimately got released (Sikov, 1999: 241). It involved lengthy daily sessions of watching reel upon reel of concentration camps with their mounds of corpses and famously contains the shot of one supposedly dead figure rising up from a pile of bodies to stare into the camera. It is a shocking account of the Holocaust which the Military Government insisted be screened prior to every feature in Occupied Germany in the immediate post-war period as part of their remit to re-educate the nation of Nazis. During these sessions Wilder finally got the news from the Red Cross that his mother, stepfather and grandmother had been murdered and died in Auschwitz years earlier, although no records had been kept. He later remarked that while the Nazis were generally meticulous in their note-taking, his family had been discarded like so much trash. He returned to Hollywood where he made an extraordinary film for Paramount, The Emperor Waltz (1947), a musical set in the Tyrol starring Bing Crosby as a phonograph salesman at the turn of the century. It was somewhat reminiscent of the earlier musical comedies Wilder had written in Europe and it pleased Charles Brackett much more than their previous outing, Double Indemnity (1945), a perverse study of sex and murder taken from the James M. Cain novel. Much of the frankly bizarre narrative of the musical, on the other hand, deals with miscegenation and a canine romance. In later years Wilder would admit that at this time he’d had a total psychological breakdown and belonged in a mental hospital, not on the Paramount lot. He then immediately set about making Operation Candybar.

The original story, ‘Love in the Air,’ about an amorous GI on the make in Berlin, was written by David Shaw. It was adapted for the screen by Robert Harari; this was a process that usually meant a very lengthy prose treatment, up to 200 pages, with generous description and detail of action, setting and dialogue. Then the screenplay was written by Wilder and long-term writing partner Charles Brackett, along with Richard Breen. Wilder and Brackett complemented each other in terms of their personal and writing styles; the one tempered the other’s excesses, and it might be said that Wilder’s acerbic work in this period was his greatest. He was in Europe when he found out that The Lost Weekend (1945) was a huge hit and it now seemed he could do nothing wrong. In the decade that followed, Wilder would switch writing partners the way he had once switched dance partners when he was a tea-dancing gigolo or Eintaenzer in Berlin. The strategy brought predictably mixed if unusually profitable results, perhaps echoing the fractures in his psyche after the War’s devastation. For now, Wilder and Brackett were probably the best and most highly esteemed writing/producing partnership in Hollywood and they were making a contribution to America’s nation-building project in Europe. The title of their latest collaboration was changed during production.

The ruins of Berlin

The plot of A Foreign Affair is as follows: Republican Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) goes to Berlin as part of an American mission to investigate post-WWII conditions and troop morale: she refers to ‘moral malaria.’ Frost falls in love with a callow American officer, Captain John Pringle (John Lund), who is already involved with an alleged former Nazi singer Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich), who, along with her absent husband, is wanted by the American military. The two women offer Pringle alternative scripts for his life and the narrative. On the one hand the pristine Phoebe ironically offers an ideologically straitjacketed Government official who resembles in her peroxided coiled hairbraids a folkloric, Aryan German; Erika, on the other hand, is a sensuous, droll, comical broad, a jazz and cabaret performer in the American style yet specialising in Sprechgesang, a nineteenth century German musical idiom familiar from night clubs in the 1920s. She is also a card-carrying Nazi. The paradox of Wilder’s satire fills the screen with possibilities. Pringle’s attempts to keep each woman from meeting the other while foiling discovery of his failure to arrest Erika as a person of interest for her contact with a wanted man (her husband) creates a litany of pratfalls, mistaken identity, masquerade, false leads, sight gags, lurid and misguided attempts at propaganda and exposure of the black market profiteering by the Americans in Berlin, pragmatic enough to cast a blind eye on relatively inoffensive behaviour (everything being relative after the Holocaust). The parable about the woman wanting to put her head in a gas oven became an element of Colonel Plummer’s speech to the visiting delegation, his acerbic tour of the ruined city voicing Wilder’s own view about the pointless attempts at re-education of the locals through baseball and gum – it’s the Americans who require a little education here. Colonel Plummer takes the committee on a tour of Berlin’s hotspots – the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the US Embassy, Unter den Linden (although the Linden aren’t there any more), the Chancellory, and the Tiergarten (zoo), where the two bunkers that formed the Nazis’ last stand are now falling apart, and the animals are long departed. He demonstrates the power of baseball on a group of kids who until recently were like “old men” and says that when he heard one baby had been christened DiMaggio Schulz, “that’s when I started believing we’d really won the war.” As they pass through a residential district he comments: “Life goes on in these ruins, though, under the rubble, in sheds, in cellars, in sewers. The cave man has returned.” (A Foreign Affair, p. 28). And as the script informs us, “All the Congressional party have been looking camera right, except Phoebe, who has spotted something camera left:


with a dachshund on a leash and little bouquet of flowers in his hand is strutting down the street. He enters one of the ruined houses.


Her lips tightening, makes a not of what she saw. She underlines it vigorously. (Ibid.)

The story’s structure is aligned with the classical Hollywood mode: the narrative ostensibly proceeds along the lines of an investigation – that is the primary line of the story. However the investigation is actually disrupted by the secondary line, which apparently conforms to the classical configuration of the Hollywood narrative, the heterosexual romance. Both are quickly subsumed and intermeshed into the requirements of comedy as the opening sequence’s quick-fire exchange between the delegates on the aeroplane sets the pace. Phoebe is a typical Wilder protagonist, an individual suffering misrecognition in the midst of changing cultural values. A protagonist (or hero, if indeed the protagonist is heroic) is the driving force of any story. In the Aristotelian formulation, ‘we are what we do.’ “Character,” he states, “gives us qualities, but it is in our actions – what we do – that we are happy or the reverse” (Aristotle, 1920: 37). Whereas Aristotle prioritises plot in story construction (he calls it the soul of the tragedy), Lew Hunter reminds us that “character and plot must intertwine” (Hunter, 1993: 81, 82). And, advises Lajos Egri, “If we wish to know the structure of conflict, we must first know character. But since character is influenced by environment, we must know that too. It might seem that conflict springs spontaneously from one single cause, but this is not true. A complexity of many reasons makes one solitary conflict” (Egri, 1946: 136). Whereas Aristotle’s analysis of drama focuses exclusively on plot and action, it is true to say that what grips an audience is character, a fact that Lajos Egri emphasises to expose the structural tenets of dramatic writing:

There must be something to generate tension, something to create complication, without any conscious attempt on the playwright’s part to do so. There must be a force which will unify all parts, a force out of which they will grow as naturally as limbs grow from the body. We think we know what that force is: human character, in all its infinite ramifications and dialectical contradictions.

(Egri, op.cit: xvi)

He continues that

all that is required of a well-constructed premise: character, conflict, and conclusion.

(Egri, op.cit.: 8)

It is the gap – or lack – between what the character wants and what the character needs that creates narrative motion. In contrast with the usual Hollywood construction, much of the seduction is carried out by Erika upon Phoebe – with unusually satisfying results, although Phoebe believes she is falling for Pringle: the application of makeup that constitutes an outside-in makeover, recapping in brief the Paramount style that was endured by both female stars in their rise to the top, symbolised the Cinderella tale that Wilder used to cover his real story – the utterly beguiling effect of the city on American troops and their easy slide into corruption.

Given its format – a sex comedy disguised as an exercise in political re-education —the project had a predictably convoluted birth through the development process following submission of the script for ‘Operation Candybar (A Foreign Affair)’ in late 1947. A letter from Milton Sperling at Warner Brothers cautioned Wilder and Brackett, enclosing Joe Breen’s letter on It Must Be Love: “I hope it fortifies you for what I know will be long and tedious correspondence with that office.” In correspondence between the studio’s Luigi Luraschi, Paramount’s Director of Censorship, and the pair, dated 11 June 1947, he offers potential criticisms from the Hays Office to the pair on reading the material:

… at first reading of the treatment it might appear a little distasteful to use the backdrop of Berlin and Germany, representing the misery of any country torn by war, for a comedy involving American individuals who seem to take the whole problem of the aftermath of war on a very light plane. For instance, our audiences in Great Britain, and generally, might quite find this a distasteful story if they are allowed to stop and analyze the background. On the other hand, they should be very well amused if they can go along with the comedy. In this latter respect I am afraid that quite a number of Americans have become very sensitive at the comedy portrayal of their institutions and they, too, may feel offended.

Luraschi highlights four issues to be considered: the Congressional party, Phoebe’s activities, a phoney marriage and Pringle’s base character.

He concludes:

I am not trying to tear your story to pieces, I just want to point out that you are dealing with a very delicate situation, against a delicate background. I am sure you can put it on the screen as delightfully as you told it to me in your office, but we will have to take a little more note of the points outlined above, on which I think you will be decidedly vulnerable.

(from the Paramount files at Margaret Herrick Library, AMPAS)

By 3 July 1947 Luraschi wrote to Wilder and Brackett that he had received an official letter from Stuart Palmer in Washington who hadn’t issued a decision approving military co-operation and wouldn’t until the final script was submitted, but from the studio’s point of view the material was “basically unobjectionable” and clearance to send a camera crew into Germany and Berlin was being given “tentative approval.” He urges delicate handling of several of the story points “so that American occupation forces are not portrayed so as to leave the impression in the mind of the audience that they are as frivilous [sic] or unmindful of their important mission.” Wilder and a small camera crew decamped soon afterwards, shooting the exteriors and projection shots over a two-month period, while the main action would be recorded on Paramount’s soundstage, with a portable rubble heap measuring 80 feet long and a variable height of 10 to 20 feet to give the impression of 50 tons of brick along Berlin’s sidewalks. (Reported in Paramount News, 5 January 1948).

Correspondence with the Hays Office (and Luraschi’s) was indeed long and tedious, as a letter from Stephen Jackson dated 05 December 1947 on the subject of the song lyric ‘Black Market’ attests:

… regret to report that the general flavor seems to be overly sex suggestive and subject to so many double meaning interpretations as to render this lyric unacceptable.

We are therefore afraid that a musical number based on this lyric could not be approved by us for the reasons stated above.

Luraschi later specified that during Erika’s delivery of the lines of the song,

… on the camera line and the music-box line, Miss Dietrich will be working with a camera and a music box prop.

What he doesn’t say is that the song would be a waltz, sung by Dietrich in a suggestive gown sequinned strategically so as to give the impression of near-nudity. When the film went into production the studio obtained the services of the former US military police chief in Berlin although there is no word on what he might have made of Dietrich’s frocks.

The upright uptight Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur)

The film posits Jean Arthur, the quintessential Capra screwball comedy heroine, against the internationally glamorous Marlene Dietrich, grande dame of cinematic sexuality and provocation. In terms of the film’s theme, or indeed that of Wilder the auteur, Maurice Zolotow describes it as: “the nature of a woman’s love; the nature of the whore; the nature of the woman who does it for money or gifts, the nature of the woman who does it for seemingly pure and unsullied motives. The hero is torn between the two women. There were vague intimations of this theme in every film in which Wilder had a hand up till now, but it now emerges nakedly” (Zolotow, 1988: 154). Both actresses have characters whose stories emblemize their typical and established performative strategies – each partaking of a trajectory involving multiple masquerades which brings them from tough cookie to vulnerable and ultimately triumphant by the narrative’s conclusion, reflecting the importance of commodification, consistency and publicity in the studio star system. Onscreen, the sparks fly, until rapprochement beckons via the grey area not just of romantic love but Berlin itself. Writer/director Cameron Crowe remarked in conversation with Wilder that when the two actresses finally occupy the same frame “it’s like two different movies coming together.” Wilder comments, “They don’t belong in the same picture, because it’s an odd picture to do – about a congresswoman who goes to Berlin. And Berlin is kind of a very dangerous town, with people smoking pot then. But she is of course a congresswoman from Iowa, and it’s just not being done, you know. It was a completely different world” (Crowe, 1999: 80). Steven Bach comments of the film and its “ambiguous landscape of cynicism, nostalgia and ruins,” that “it is not the cynicism that disturbs, it is Wilder’s feelings about Berlin, which bump into each other so ambivalently that Paramount advertised the picture as ‘SERIOUSLY! It’s the funniest comedy in years’” (Bach, 1992: 331).

The texture of A Foreign Affair lies in the rubble itself – a better objective correlative could not be created to express the miserable conditions of post-war existence. The point that Wilder makes overall in the film, aside from the caustic observations about the American occupying forces, is that Berlin changes people’s perspectives — nothing is black and white (the photography notwithstanding.) The ruins are symbolic of people’s situation and represent the necessity to serve oneself rather than an immutable ideology. The very lineaments of the city’s contours appear to determine the wavering and shifting moralities of its population, recently decimated by almost 2 million, pillaged and raped by the occupying Russian army. The city is the substance – if not the subject – of the film. The effect it has on people is palpable in their behaviour and attitudes and it is Phoebe Frost’s transformation which symbolises its powerful effects. For Wilder, the city’s fall was a deep personal affront but more than that, it was a wound from which he would never truly recover. As well as the loss of his family – his father had died suddenly in the city on a brief stopover en route to the United States in 1929 and Wilder was so impoverished he had to bury him in a pauper’s grave – the transformation of the city into a hotbed of Nazism was something he could never fully accept. Later in life when he and his wife Audrey saw Bob Fosse’s interpretation of Cabaret (1972), she commented that Billy could never have made the film because Isherwood’s stories portrayed Berlin’s downturn and, while he enjoyed regaling people with amusing stories of his years there, the change was too affecting for him to accept.

Arthur had already retired upon the expiry of her contract at Columbia Pictures in 1944 and A Foreign Affair would be her penultimate film (the final being released 5 years later, Shane (1953) for George Stevens, who, like Wilder, was shocked by the death camps and was profoundly changed as a result.) She plays the hidebound and unquestioningly patriotic Congresswoman who paradoxically appears as an Aryan dream with her braids and buttoned-up uniformed suit (and personality). In fact she easily passes for ‘Gretchen Gesundheit’ when she decides to go undercover as a fraternizing Fraulein and enters the Lorelei with Mike (Stanley Prager) and Joe (William Murphy), witnessing Erika performing ‘Black Market’ to the delight of the assembled troops, which include Pringle in their number. It is precisely Phoebe’s unbuttoning that provides the dramatic arc of the film’s spine, taking with her the frosting on her spectacles which are no longer clouded with idealism, self-righteousness and delusion – just sexual obsession and the dawning realities of occupation life. It’s quite possible that the implausibly youthful Arthur was in fact 47 years old at time of filming (the same age as Dietrich, a famously recent grandmother) but so little biographical information is available on her that we have no way of knowing for certain. She was born Gladys Greene, however, and her legendary stage fright caused more than one of her post-Hollywood theatre productions to close down in the 1960s and 1970s. Arthur had been a silent film star, principally in westerns, taking a break for both marriage and theatre; her return to Hollywood was distinguished by her remarkable performance in The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) for John Ford. It was the beginning of something. The screenplay was by Robert Riskin, a Capra favourite whose preference for folksy, humorous New Deal tales was grafted onto the director’s own reputation. (Their entangled careers are brilliantly unravelled by Ian Scott in his biography of Riskin.) Capra asked Ford, a friend of his, whom he could recommend for a role – and Ford suggested Arthur.

Capra saw in Arthur a person reminiscent of his own wife, Lu, an opinionated, feisty, independent type. She had a shyness that belied something extra and deep-seated if treated correctly, a yearning suggesting opposite selves. Her wonderfully squeaky voice was a brilliant asset. Capra had her peroxide her hair to just the correct shade of blonde and Robert Riskin created a character that would typify her starring roles from then onwards: Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) immortalised Arthur as the modern American woman. She subsequently starred in You Can’t Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Capra said she vomited in her dressing room before every scene. She had another great role (perhaps her best) in George Stevens’ The More the Merrier (1943). Her film career was on the wane by the time Wilder cast her in A Foreign Affair and she spent a lot of her time pursuing her intellectual hobbies taking college courses; psychoanalysis was a subject of particular interest. Her avowed dislike of publicity was consistently used as a promotional tool to her employers’ advantage and despite her claims otherwise she had opened her home to the magazines or disrobed for studio cheesecake shots on those occasions when such things were required. On A Foreign Affair Arthur was so unhappy with the way Wilder appeared to favour Dietrich on the set that she and her husband paid him a late-night visit at his home to express their combined displeasure about a close up that she had convinced herself he must have had dumped in order to favour Dietrich, his fellow German-speaker. He was unimpressed by her short-sightedness yet felt sorry for her and restrained himself from partaking of Dietrich’s famous on-set food parties so as not to upset her further. As Jeanine Basinger asserts, “The duality that was increasingly explored for Arthur as she aged is put to good use. On the one hand, she’s buttoned-up and crisply disapproving of bad behavior. On the other, she’s hanging off the chandelier in an off-limits nightclub, leading the crowd in singing her state song. And when she unbends for Lund, she is, as always, exactly right in portraying a woman moving into accepting physical love with all the fear and delight she can muster” (Basinger, 2009: 317).

The smooth-talking quick-thinking Pringle (John Lund), flanked by Arthur and Dietrich

Dietrich in German means ‘skeleton key’ and her aggressive and ambiguous complexity creates a narrative plenitude rarely suggested by any other performer, perhaps only hinted at by Garbo, who had however, only rarely strayed into the contemporary in the latter years of her career and had last acted in 1942 (Christian Viviani in Phillips and Vincendeau, 2006). The mythical Dietrich is Erika von Schluetow, the swaggering, earthy German performer whose loyalties are questionable, attitude louche, and morals decidedly shifty. Dietrich will forever be known as The Blue Angel (1930), thanks to her iconic role in the Von Sternberg Berlin film, the production that shot her to stardom and brought her to the United States just prior to the onset of the Nazi regime’s takeover. Dietrich’s casting in A Foreign Affair is complicated by her personal affiliations – it was hugely ironic that she should play a Nazi after her outspokenness against the regime but the role restored her star potential after intermittently successful films over the preceding decade. In fact she objected to the role until Wilder, who knew her from Berlin in the 20s, asked her advice on the casting and screened two tests for her in Paris of American actresses including June Havoc and she realised it was something she had to do.

Berlin and Dietrich are one.

- Billy Wilder

Erika sings a cycle of songs by Friedrich Hollaender (whom she and Wilder knew from back in Berlin and who did the same job on The Blue Angel) including ‘Illusions’ and ‘Ruins of Berlin’. Steven Bach calls them “the beating, if cankered, heart of the movie… With those songs, the picture has a subtext about survival, a bitter melancholy as close to the sentimental as Wilder ever got. Those songs give A Foreign Affair focus and an undercurrent of regret perhaps no one but old Berliners like Wilder and Marlene could feel so keenly, and it cuts deep enough to draw critical blood to the present day” (Bach, 1992: 332). Hollaender had written them for his failed TingelTangel club in Los Angeles. His songs worked in the earlier film as a code striking life into the modern desire to be desired, figured by the seductive Lola-Lola and her distinctive, low, throaty delivery style which was culled from one of Dietrich’s many female lovers, the singer Claire Waldoff. Wilder’s staging of ‘Illusions’ has Erika deliver the song as Pringle woos Phoebe in her black market dress, drunk on drink and love. “¬_Want to buy some illusions? Hardly used, just like new_,” she croons. “For in this crazy paradise, you are in love, with pain.” Erika first sings the song to herself, then approaches the couple and addresses the song to Pringle, her reflection captured in the mirror making Pringle feel as if he is cornered while Phoebe feels the song is meant for her. This staging is echoed later on, when, in Erika’s ruined apartment following the club raid, and after enduring Erika’s speech explaining her need for self-preservation, her reflection is seen by Pringle as he embraces Erika, the three once again occupying the same frame. This sequence alone refutes the frequent assertion by Wilder’s critics that he had no interest in mise-en-scène and the film utilises a panoply of different shooting styles and references which are incorporated perfectly into the visual scheme as a whole. The film actually had two interesting technical aspects which challenged the newly minted director; firstly, there was the creation of a fake newsreel for which cinematographer Charles Lang stated he had to do the opposite of what he usually did, after studying 79 examples from the era, simulating a hand crank to make the scene look bad, deliberately avoiding highlighting and diffusion (which might have caused issues with Dietrich who was famously fastidious about the way she was lit), and using the kinds of lenses which would cause grain; and finally having the negative processed to make it look as though it were shot in daylight (although the theatre scenes with Hitler were supposed to be at night and indoors.) He worked very hard at making it look bad. The other innovation was the substitution of alternating flashing lights for audio signals to permit the smooth recording of dialogue during the nightclub scenes, so that dancing couples could maintain the correct rhythm as the principals spoke.

What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians swept in? I kept going. It was living hell. And then I found a man, and through that man, a roof, and a job, and food and – and I’m
not going to lose him.

-Erika to Phoebe (A Foreign Affair: 111).

At the centre of Barbara Kosta’s densely written thesis on the 1930 film is the idea that Dietrich’s essential German-ness inflected not just her being but the perception of her as an artist: a woman who rejected Nazism but embraced her Berlin past; who lived a full life on both sides of the Atlantic pre- and post-World War II —as a performer, wife, mother, adventurous bisexual mistress in an open marriage (her husband took up with his own mistress early on). She was a multi-faceted creature who owed her success to Von Sternberg, who at least realised he was merely the latest director to have discovered her but proceeded to reinvent and remodel her according to his own vision (to which she willing submitted herself.) Kosta places the significance of Dietrich’s nationality in the wider context of Germany’s own psychology both before and after the Nazi era – she conjures a country in conflict with itself, but also in a somewhat Oedipal relationship with the United States, under whose flag Dietrich of course returned only after the conclusion of hostilities, having serially declined Hitler and Goebbels’ invitations to return home, a move that would prove psychologically problematic for her and cost her audiences on her concert tours to the distinctly unrehabilitated Germany of the 1950s and 60s. It was therefore utterly paradoxical that Wilder should employ her in this nation-building exercise – for the United States. As the embodiment of Germany before, during and after wartime, she becomes a simultaneous translator of the German-American narrative in what could be described as highly critical commentary, providing immediate historical context and an opposition to Arthur’s purely American character as established by both actress’ previous roles and publicity, and, in Dietrich’s case, the extra-filmic discourses which engulfed her reputation. She is, as Loewenstein and Tatlock claim, “an expatriate German body appropriated, sometimes with fetishistic awe, but more often with bemused but genuine respect, by an American medium” (1992: 429). While it is a tendency of studies of this nature to apportion the concept of the _émigré filmmaker to further understand the role of both Wilder and Dietrich in relation to this film, it is too limited a perspective in view of the complexities of both parties and their relationship to the city of Berlin and indeed Germany as a whole. The interplay of both Wilder and Dietrich with Hollywood was determined by their particular talents, their willingness to assimilate, the labour strategy of their (shared) studio, and of course their individual value or their contribution. An émigré reading of their work simplifies and perhaps ignores the complexities of screen performance, screenplays, film production and employment practices. On the other hand, their shared trauma at displacement, their transnationalism and their success in Hollywood and therefore on a world stage, in a system geared towards precisely that international audience, drew them together and engenders readings of this nature. Their potential for cultural adaptation and their contempt for the Nazi regime is however the raison d’être for the impact of A Foreign Affair.

“Now you’re one of us.”

Despite their evident dislike of each other, Arthur and Dietrich had ironically experienced the same Paramount studio makeover in an effort to maximise the power of their differing attractions. The film’s ultimate irony is that Phoebe (and she is unaware of this) really falls in love with Erika, who helps her tart up her appearance after enduring some truly withering comments about her clothes and lack of makeup. Even when Phoebe finds a dress (for which she swapped her typewriter on the black market) in which to woo Pringle in the Lorelei, Erika accuses her of having it on backwards and declares that she should never have mentioned Phoebe’s eyebrows because “now she looks bow-legged.” Once again, Jeanine Basinger’s assertion that actresses truly win audiences (and their man) through fashion and glamour is confirmed – even if these attributes are often assumed to be both evil and trivial (Basinger, 1993: 89). Dietrich is here characterised as her on —and off-screen image dictates— a siren of international allure (giving an extra layer of meaning to the US government’s postwar pursuit of internationalism in policy). As Hilaria Loyo points out, “Dietrich, perhaps more than any other star, incarnates the promises of sexual and social mobility made to women by consumerism. Her expertise in cosmetics, clothes and other consumer products allows her to become any woman, crossing gender, social and even racial barriers. But Dietrich’s star persona also epitomizes the dangers of feminized modernity associated with consumerism. While the mesmerizing allure of new merchandise empowers women, it can undermine masculine qualities of rationality, productivity, and repression” (Loyo, 2010: unpaginated). Basinger further demarcates Dietrich as falling outside the parameters of the unreal-, real- and exaggerated-women whom she delineates in Hollywood’s spectrum of actresses, finding that she (and Mae West) exceed these categories: “These two unique creatures inhabit all three categories simultaneously. Their images exist as a kind of questioning of the woman’s role or, for that matter, of the man’s role (Basinger, 1993: 179). That description accounts precisely for the dimensions of her role in A Foreign Affair.

The film’s political sensibility arises not just from its timing but from the question of propaganda and the disseminating of the United States’ political worldview as policy in the postwar world. The Government’s Office of War Information had issued a document in 1942 offering guidelines for film production in the form of the Government Manual for the Motion Picture Industry; while the plan offered the occupying force in the postwar environment suggested particular films for exhibition in the region (Fay, 2008). Wilder’s role in the United States Forces’ European Theatre and his belief in the potential for disseminating information through film can be gauged from the text of his report for the Film, Theater and Music Branch of the Information Control Division Office of War Information, which he filed 16 August 1945 on the subject ‘Propaganda Through Entertainment’:

Now if there was an entertainment film … and with a love story – only with a very special love story, cleverly devised to help us sell a few ideological items – such a film would provide us with a superior piece of propaganda: they would stand in long lines to buy and once they bought it, it would stick. Unfortunately, no such film exists yet. It must be made. I want to make it.

(Reproduced in Willett 1987: 13)

He continues that Mrs Miniver (Wyler, 1942) “did a job no documentary, no 50 newsreels could have done” (Ibid.) He refers to his contact with the touring group of Paramount on the subject of such a production and suggests a budget in the region of $1.5 million and his long-term contract with the company which “should be the one to do the film … and I don’t think that any other Hollywood company could possibly give me more freedom of action to do the film.” He then suggests a story outline involving the lady he met in the rubble.

Right here in this piece of dialogue is the theme of the picture, and here is the simple ending I want to arrive at: when the gas finally is turned on our German Frau strikes a match to cook her dinner, a few measly potatoes I grant you – but now that a few facts have dawned on her she has “something new to live for.” This is what the film should state (in Eisenhower’s words): “That we are not here to degrade the German people but to make it impossible to wage war” – and in the end “let us give them a little hope to redeem themselves in the eyes of the world.”

As for the GI, I shall not make him a flag waving hero or a theorizing apostle of democracy. As a matter of fact, in the beginning of the picture I want him not to be too sure of what the hell this war was all about. I want to touch on fraternizaton, on homesickness, on black market. Furthermore, (although it is a “love story”) boy does not get girl. He goes back home with his division while the girl “sees the light.” There shall be no pompous messages.

(Willett: 13/14)

It is clear that Wilder believes pure audience-pleasing entertainment is a more effective propaganda tool than overtly serious political messages and as Sikov avers, he restricted himself to only the most reportable of facts (Sikov, 1999: 249). He declares, “I found the town mad, depraved, starving, fascinating as a background for a movie. My notebooks are filled with hot stuff.” He concluded his memo with the line, “I am conceited enough to think that you will find this ‘entertainment’ film the best propaganda yet” (Willett: 14). He also stated that he was handing in his report on German film production and it was his opinion that it was not possible in the near future. As Robert Shandley deduces, his conclusions on that matter could be inferred as playing both ends against the middle, urging Hollywood involvement in a reeducation policy yet knowing it was politically impossible (Shandley, 2001: 15). Nonetheless, there were 20 German film production companies operational by 1948. And, as Thomas Guback attests, while the studios might tacitly agree with Government policy on film exhibition in the occupied territories, they preferred not to have it put in writing. (Guback, 1969: 126) And, during the production of A Foreign Affair, in February 1948, the newly established Motion Picture Export Association commenced the distribution of American films in Occupied Germany as it had now taken over the job of the Information Services Division of the Military Government. It is also clear from the Wilder memorandum that the skeleton of A Foreign Affair was ready, even if it would be much altered in the writing. In the meantime he did a little black marketeering of his own, obtaining a George Grosz painting in exchange for a carton of cigarettes.

For Barbara Kosta, Dietrich is indeed the skeleton key unlocking Germany’s perplexing twentieth century identity and the author’s skilful approach weaves a narrative linking the issues of the Weimar Republic with the country in the present day. The star is now viewed as Berlin’s symbol and has been restored as an icon in her home city. As Kosta points out therefore, Von Sternberg’s pictorialism isn’t the only facet that interests us in this great early film performance by Dietrich, the modern German woman: it is the essence of Dietrich herself, that which later became bound up in the representation of German womanhood at a particular time and place, when the decadence of the Weimar Republic and the seediness of Berlin couldn’t summon up the strength to deal with the jackbooted thugs of National Socialism that were already massing at a level that people have forgotten: there had already been a Nuremberg Rally of sorts, and membership of the Party exceeded 200,000 at the time The Blue Angel was in production, whilst the Party’s targets continued to be the screening of American films —an easy scenario for the whipping up of public disarray and hysteria. It is said that Von Sternberg happened to leave Berlin the day the Reichstag burned down, although John Baxter claims it was later (Baxter, 2010). Whatever the case, he was in good company: Billy Wilder departed the following morning. Fifteen years later, as Kosta informs us, the American citizen Dietrich’s role in Wilder’s A Foreign Affair was cast therefore because of her multi-layered significance to the pre-Nazi era and of course in The Blue Angel —the poster for the film is at the door of the subterranean Lorelei club. The film could not have existed in the same way without Dietrich, as she well knew. It fed into her personal reputation and her film biography; its intertextuality gains credence through her actuating presence. The film is Wilder’s comment on the failure of the Weimar Republic’s great decadence and a sideways swipe at Leni Riefenstahl, to whose Triumph of the Will (1935) the film’s opening shots of the formerly great city’s rubble pay sly homage, complete with ‘The Ruins of Berlin’ played up-tempo on the soundtrack, warning the viewer about the dangers of playing both_ ends against the middle, as the music becomes more somber when the delegates express their shock at the view below. “That’s rough doings. That sure is rough doings,” as one of them has it. Dietrich was, and remains, Von Sternberg’s Lola Lola. Her songs accrete the legend of The Blue Angel and comment on her former incarnation in the earlier version of Berlin, before the fall, in this now flattened city, where the night life inhabits the underground. (Kosta, 2009). It is a total triumph.

When we first encounter Phoebe, she is the essence of prissiness, pronouncing on democracy whilst observing Berlin from the comfort of the committee’s seats on the aeroplane, snapping her spectacles closed as she confronts the ruined city beneath. We first meet Erika through a hole in a bathroom door, watched by the callow amoral Pringle, who has traded the birthday cake carried by Phoebe all the way from Iowa (from one of his many lady friends) for a clearly used mattress for himself and his mistress. She is brushing her teeth and turns to him, good-humouredly showering him with mouthwash. It is a startling scene and exemplifies what we might call the Wilder Touch. Johnny shows her his trophy and declares, “No mattress will help you sleep. What you Germans need is a new conscience.” It is one of the few direct statements regarding the de-Nazification programme, the others are delivered cynically by Colonel Plummer. We might see in these two very different women and their story arcs Wilder’s comment about the ludicrousness attaching to generic rules governing the woman’s film at this time – in order to win her man, the good woman here has to violate the rules, imitate the evil woman and activate her dualistic opposite’s self – in total contradiction of the acceptable behaviour as established by numerous Hollywood examples. Phoebe’s lively efforts at the Iowa state song, high on alcohol consumption and ecstatic at newfound love with Pringle, is juxtaposed in the same scene with Erika’s ‘Illusions,’ which draws a completely different response, both diegetically and dramatically. Everyone sings along with Phoebe; we are awestruck by Erika. Dietrich’s transgressive reputation was copper-fastened by her decision to become a full American citizen in 1939. This made her an enemy of the Nazi state, which had been assiduous in cultivating conditions for her homecoming. She was known to have made donations to the Party but this was evidently a cover for other activities. Her decision to entertain the troops as part of the USO during wartime made her position even worse in the eyes of many Germans: she repeatedly stated her intention never to return to her homeland until the Nazis had been vanquished. Her dedication resulted in her being awarded the Medal of Freedom in the United States. Her return to Germany and Austria on her famous concert tours in later decades may have resulted in controversy and empty houses, but her distinctly ambiguous feelings about the country she really loved were proven when she was ultimately buried in the city of her birth, Berlin, after reunification.

Phoebe is introduced to Erika through old newsreels, showing her in the company of Herr Hitler at a theatre. The impact is twofold – firstly, as a play on Dietrich’s own performativity and reputation; and secondly, as a pastiche montage echoing Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1941). Dietrich’s own bizarre private life – a Mata Hari-esque series of adventures worthy of a Von Sternberg film – was revealed, and then only in part, by a recent book, THE GIRLS (Diana McLellan, 2000). She and Von Sternberg, far from being sworn enemies, as they preferred to be publicly seen, were actually involved in a scheme that took Jews out of Germany with the aid of a character immortalised as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). Rudolph Breda (aka Otto Katz) was a Czech double agent and a Jew, as well as being Dietrich’s unacknowledged first husband and [allegedly] the father of her daughter, Maria Riva. Despite being friends from those days back in Berlin, it is unlikely that Wilder knew precisely how much more ambivalent a supposed Nazi enemy he was hiring when he asked Dietrich to star in the film – a more committed patriotic German anti-Nazi would have been hard to find. As for Breda, he returned to Czechoslovakia after the War, was tortured by the army and his pathetic cremated remains used as gravel for a road being resurfaced. Definitely not a Hollywood ending. McLellan states that some of the US Government’s files on Dietrich are top secret to this very day.

During the war he couldn’t go fast enough for you. Get on that beachhead,get through those tank traps, and step on it, step on it. Faster —a hundred miles an hour, twenty-four hours a day, through burning towns and
down smashed autobahnen. And then one day the war is over. And you expect him to jam on those brakes and stop like that? Well everybody can’t stop like that. Sometimes you skid quite a piece. Sometimes you smash into a wall or a tree and bash your fenders.

Captain John Pringle in A Foreign Affair

Structurally the narrative strategy is canny, arranged around musical set pieces which operate both to comment on the situation and offer both leading ladies an opportunity to display their very differing charms and to consolidate their position in the story. Every time one woman appears to win over Pringle, the other woman sings at the Lorelei and tries to steal her thunder (and Pringle). The songs operate both to deflate tension and exacerbate the romantic sense of the comedy. They also express the German point of view. The performance of the film’s final song, ‘The Ruins of Berlin,’ precedes the killing of Erika’s Nazi husband. It is a difficult concept to manage yet the tone remains constant and persuasive. Tone has been described as “the visual and verbal detail that directs us toward meaning” (Dancyger, 2001: 75). Al Alvarez states that “… it is the business of writers to create as true a voice as they can” (Alvarez, 2005: 121). Perhaps this is the issue that many critics have with Wilder’s work – the inbuilt critique that imbues his brand of satire (notwithstanding the contributions of his collaborators) which never permits the audience to rest between laughs. Along with theme, tone expresses the writer’s point of view towards the material. As writer/director Robert Towne once stated, “Tone is a very delicate matter. It requires a keen understanding from everyone involved, the director, producer, stars, writer; it’s called the Lubitsch touch” (Engel, 1995: 214). Tonally the shifts here are well-handled, utilising the musical interludes to convey story but also to segue from the ribald commentary on the Army’s activities back to the cod-romantic scenes which afford relief from the relentless satirical truth. Overall, the tone of A Foreign Affair could be summarised in one word: insouciant. To put it in layman’s terms, Wilder could be described as an equal opportunities offender. The shooting style might be summed up in the term slick: that is to say it has the coherence of Hollywood classicism, utilising the consistency of star personae within a strongly unified narrative and adhering to an aesthetic of technical virtuosity, all the while sending up the system’s social assumptions through Colonel Plummer’s commentary and the diegesis itself, in which documentary footage was seamlessly integrated and juxtaposed with realist explorations of the city and quasi-romantic interludes, calling upon a variety of modes of representation to question the authenticating power of filmmaking. As Gerd Gemünden claims, Wilder’s films are “much more complex than often claimed – especially by himself. Indebted to, and articulating, different and rivalling cultural sensibilities and traditions, his is a ‘cinema of in-between,’ which highlights the dialectics of insider and outsider, of the liminal, fluid, and temporary, of upward and downward mobility, of high brow and low brow” (Gemünden, 2008: 25). Wilder never allows the viewer to become too comfortable, always referring to the impossibility of the story and the horror of the city itself, creating an objectifying distance between the viewer and the diegesis, albeit deriving succour from the wisdom and humanity of Colonel Plummer, whose comments anchor the narrative in social critique, pragmatism and old-fashioned common sense.

The HUAC hearings which had begun in 1947 had the film industry under unprecedented political pressure, yet Paramount was in a particularly strong financial position because of its holdings and stable management structure, albeit Hollywood studios as a whole had deeply troubling problems overseas following a record year in 1946 because of the Cold War, tariffs and frozen revenues and the United Kingdom’s financial crisis (Schatz, 1999: 297). The pressure to produce patriotic material was also a significant factor in production decisions but A Foreign Affair apart, Paramount continued its output of light comedy and romance. The divestiture plan following the so-called Paramount Decree would fit into the company’s distribution setup and investment in TV production. Critic James Agee had written in January 1948, during the film’s production, ‘“It is hard to believe that absolutely first-rate works of art can ever again be made in Hollywood, but it would be idiotic to assume that flatly. If they are to be made there, they will most probably develop along the directions worked out during the past year or two; they will be journalistic, semi-documentary and ‘social-minded,’ or will start that way and transcend those levels”’ (Schatz, 1999: 382). Post-production on A Foreign Affair was completed in March 1948. On paper, Wilder’s film might have been viewed officially as offering a positive appraisal of the occupying forces – but that was before anyone saw it. It does not constitute what might be termed a typical use of propaganda tools in peacetime and its comedy derives from an unforgiving view of the military’s condoning of the black market and consequent moral stance. Several months after his earlier comment, James Agee wrote of A Foreign Affair: “Some sharp, nasty, funny stuff at the expense of investigatory Americans; then – as in The Emperor Waltz – the picture endorses everything it has been kidding and worse. A good bit of it is in rotten taste and the perfection of that is in Dietrich’s song ‘Black Market’” (Quoted in Zolotow, 1988: 153). Wilder and the film were both denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives. It seemed utterly unacceptable to make a comedy about army profiteering, the black market and war crimes. The Department of Defense issued a statement to the effect that the film gave a false account of the occupying forces’ activities abroad (Willett, 1987: 5). Despite the fact that it was one of Paramount’s big draws in 1948, the studio felt obliged to eventually withdraw it from release under so much political pressure. The Military Government refused to exhibit it in Germany, calling it “crude, superficial and insensible to certain responsibilities, which the world situation, like it or not, has thrust … on the movies. Berlin’s trials and tribulations are not the stuff of cheap comedy, and rubble makes lousy custard pies” (Bach, 1992: 334). The film was in fact banned in Germany until 1977, when the TV channel ARD finally broadcast it.

A Foreign Affair derived most of its criticism (at the time and more recently) from the perception that Wilder was being mean to Arthur’s character: his creative agency is typically perceived as aggressive and snide, whereas his positioning of Arthur as the victim of Dietrich’s bullying is read as his view of her failure to grasp the reality of her situation. In fact, she is a metonym for the United States itself and the film’s tight narrative construction constricts both women within our preconceptions of them until they become too big to be contained by their roles. The film’s conclusion – Phoebe gets to bring Pringle home while the soldiers get to bring Erika to jail – doesn’t ring true except in the excessive world of the story, where fashion and glamour triumph, as Basinger would have it, when Phoebe’s upscaled fashion connotes an ideological shift, as, “…under the spell of the loose and immoral German city and especially under the spell of the even more loose and immoral John Lund, she will put ribbons in her hair, lower her neckline, drape herself in a piano shawl, and put her snap to better use” (Basinger, 1993: 127). And we know —as does Colonel Plummer (the redoubtable Millard Mitchell)— that Erika will have the boys seduced long before they ever reach the gates of a prison. “If there are any puddles you’ll watch out for me, wontcha boys?!”she leers at the MPs falling at her feet. In other words, the Germans have the last laugh. This was not the predictable narrative choice and fell far from the edicts of propaganda, either in the guise of entertainment or political education. In point of fact it was evidence of Wilder’s pluralistic outlook and the film’s inherent intertextuality, with its multiplicity of filmic references and its evident pleasure in the declaration of the cinema as machine – to produce ideas, effects, images, illusions, language, politics and propaganda, as well as entertainment. As Willett states, “on one level, the film is an argument between the United States and an older Germany, between Hollywood and UFA” (Willett: 6). It was toned down from Wilder’s original story, as he told Cameron Crowe: “I had a stronger version that I dreamt up, and I tried it out on Brackett. What I wanted to do was that not only is Captain Pringle in the American army, he also was Jewish. That is going to really cement it, you know. The American lieutenant with whom Dietrich is having the affair, and is going to marry, is Jewish. ‘What…? She’s going to marry a …!’ That picture I would have loved to make. But then we chickened out” (Crowe, 1999: 75).

Generically speaking, this was a woman’s film as nobody had ever witnessed it, blending the puerile with the profound and occasionally the profane. It was clear why Erika would grasp onto a possible love interest in the form of the sleazy Johnny Pringle, a fellow traveller of loose morals and opportunism – but the all-American Congresswoman Phoebe? “With all the headaches ahead, you’ll be my aspirin,” declares Pringle as Phoebe corners him into marriage despite his protesting that, “I’m not the kind of man women marry.” Following the film’s release Dietrich was the cover star of Life magazine while critic Bosley Crowther, in nostalgic mode, declared her the ‘most fascinating’ element of the film for The New York Times, “it is mainly the job of Miss Dietrich that interests us just now, not only because it is brilliant but because it ties in so aptly with the past.” He also described Arthur as ‘beautifully droll’ in the ‘sardonic comedy-romance.’ He called it “really a slashing commentary on misguided righteousness as well as a bang-up entertainment of a purely romantic sort.” The Los Angeles Times review’s headline called it a ‘Cynical, Brilliant Postwar Comedy,’ described it as “the best topical show that has arrived in months,” and concluded that it “may or may not accurately reveal what goes on in postwar Berlin, but no one will ever worry too much about its documentary aspects, in view of the amusement it affords.” The New Yorker review acknowledged Hollywood’s penchant for typecasting as studio strategy in its comments on Arthur: “Jean Arthur has a part similar to many she’s had before – the ones in which she is required to go through three stages of personality. To begin with, she is grimly moral then she is mischievous, and finally she is mildly abandoned. The pattern may be simple, but Miss Arthur knows how to follow it better than any actress in Hollywood, and she is again quite satisfactory to watch as she proceeds along her familiar path.” A common complaint centred on the issue of ‘taste’ as The Daily News review exemplifies: “The ruins of Berlin is a bit stark and tragic for such corn-on-the-cob nonsense as the romance between Congresswoman Jean Arthur and officer-wolf Lund… There are some fine and pointed lines aimed at the military, the politician, and the occupying powers. There are some serious and valid points on surviving Nazism and the problems confronting the conqueror. On nothing, however, does the film take a real stand. That is precisely both its strength and its weakness … You’ll have fun, but don’t expect any more —in this age of production codes, boxoffice bugaloos and investigating committees.” 1

Wilder liked to rework his ideas from film to film. Dietrich would play a gloss on Erika in his superb adaptation of the Agatha Christie courtroom drama, Witness for the Prosecution (1957), in which she takes on the unsympathetic eponymous role of Christine Helm, wife to war veteran Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), prime suspect in the murder of an elderly woman acquaintance. Christine, an East German beer hall performer, is an echo of Erika in her origins, craftiness, acting and wicked inclinations. Wilder would return to Berlin with One, Two, Three (1961), an adaptation of a frenetic farce which is fast, furious and breathtakingly funny. He told Cameron Crowe, “it was a good picture for when you knew Berlin, and when you knew Coca Cola” (Crowe, 1999: 167). J. Hoberman describes it as “the first Kennedy-era film … at once hysterical and ironic, sophisticated and vulgar, celebrating as it satirized American cultural imperialism – specifically the global expansion of U.S. corporate culture” (Hoberman, 2003: 49-50). Once again Wilder nods back to A Foreign Affair, featuring the hilarious heel-clicking, goose-stepping, _Heil-Hitler_ing habit of a bureaucrat, echoing the Nazi and son who can’t shake off the swastika, even in front of the amused Captain Pringle in the earlier film. Forty years after the film had been released, Arthur phoned Wilder late at night without having to introduce herself —her squeaky voice was literally her calling card— and claimed to have seen the film for the very first time. She expressed her delight at his aesthetic decisions and her own performance. Wilder said in his typically deadpan way that it was no surprise that Arthur died shortly thereafter since it must have killed her to make the admission.

Wilder’s biographer, Maurice Zolotow, states that, “he put in this film all the things he had seen and felt during his six months as an officer of the occupation. He put into it all the hate and reluctant admiration [he] felt for the Germans, and especially for the Berliners, for Billy could have said with John F. Kennedy, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ In a certain hard uncompromising quality of his sensibility, his approach to human events, he had that cynical Weltanschauung of the Berliner” (Zolotow: 154). If A Foreign Affair commenced as a seduction of Germany by the United States, then the complementary effect, the defrosting of an American Congresswoman by the sheer intractable force of a city’s charisma, is the happy result, along with the exposure of an occupying force that itself becomes compromised, fraternised and ultimately colonised. America may have decided to woo Berlin but it was seduced right back in what was the most devastating and personal film of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary career in American cinema.

A condensed version of this material was delivered to Dublintellectual, January 2012.



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Knauth, Percy. ‘Movies of the Week: Marlene Dietrich Steals the Show in an Uproarious Hollywood Version of Low Life in Postwar Berlin,’ Life, 9 June 1948, 59-64.

Loewenstein, Joseph, and Lynne Tatlock ‘The Marshall Plan at the Movies: Marlene Dietrich and Her Incarnations.’ German Quarterly 65.3/4, Summer/Authum (1992), ‘Continental Strangers’: 429-442. Accessed via JSTOR 28 February 2013.

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Archives & Libraries

The Margaret Herrick Library, AMPAS: Paramount files, A Foreign Affair Production File and Billy Wilder papers.

The Writers’ Guild of America (West)


The Emperor Waltz (1947) d. Billy Wilder

A Foreign Affair (1948) d. Billy Wilder, w. Wilder, Charles Brackett and Richard Breen from a story by David Shaw.

The Blue Angel (1930) d. Josef von Sternberg

One, Two, Three (1962) d. Billy Wilder, w. Billy Wilder

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) (1928) d. Robert Siodmak

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) d. Billy Wilder


All images property Paramount Pictures.


  1. All review excerpts are from the film’s production file at the Margaret Herrick library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Thank you to Barbara Hall.

Billy Wilder’s Berlin Women:  A Foreign Affair (1948)

Elaine Lennon is a film historian and the author of ChinaTowne and Pathways of Desire: Emotional Architecture in the Films of Nancy Meyers. Elaine Lennon obtained a PhD in Film Studies at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology where she lectured in film and screenwriting for a decade.

Volume 19, Issue 3 / March 2015 Film Reviews   berlin   billy wilder   censorship   jean arthur   marlene dietrich   post-war propaganda