The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - A FOREIGN AFFAIR | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - A FOREIGN AFFAIR

a foreign affair review
An Iowa congresswoman becomes involved in a love triangle in postwar Berlin.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Billy Wilder

Starring: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell, Peter von Zerneck

a foreign affair bluray


It's difficult to imagine Hollywood filming a romantic comedy in late '90s Belgrade, or late '70s Saigon, but in 1947 Billy Wilder brought a crew to bombed out Berlin, and to the Soviet-occupied zone no less, to shoot exteriors for his eighth film as director, the 1948 released A Foreign Affair.

a foreign affair review


Jean Arthur plays a prissy Republican Iowa congresswoman, Phoebe Frost, a case of nominative determinism if ever there were one. Phoebe travels to Allied-occupied Berlin as part of a fact-finding team concerned with the morale of American soldiers stationed in the city. On arrival, the red state bluestocking finds that morale is considerably high, with the troops partying at night with pretty fräuleins in packed nightclubs and making a fortune trading luxury items like cigarettes and candy to the locals.

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Phoebe learns that Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), a cabaret singer who performs nightly in a club known as the Lorelei, was once cosy with the Nazi hierarchy, and even finds footage of her warmly greeting Hitler at a social event. Upon hearing rumours that Erika is the secret lover of an unknown American officer, she enlists the aid of Captain John Pringle (John Lund) to help her disclose the identity of Erika's lover, who has been pulling strings to keep her from evading Allied justice. What Phoebe doesn't realise is that Erika's lover is John, whom she begins to fall for, her icy exterior melting away in his happy go lucky presence.

a foreign affair review


A Foreign Affair isn't simply a tale of romance among the rubble. Wilder, who had spent his formative years in Berlin's thriving art scene of the '20s, creates something of a sad city symphony as the backdrop for his film. We're left in no doubt as to the horrors of life for Berlin's residents (many of whom more than deserved such a fate), and the ideological tug-of-war among the American authorities over how heavily to intervene in its redevelopment. Street urchins, who had served as the city's last line of defence against the Allies only a couple of years prior, are now seen being taught to play baseball, while a visiting dignitary warns of the dangers of allowing American capitalist interests to take hold - "When you give bread to the poor, that's democracy. When you leave the wrapper on, that's imperialism." Even the glamorous Erika, who performs in designer gowns at night, lives in a room in a bombed building that appears in danger of collapse at any given moment.

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In classic opposite attracts fashion, John finds himself falling for Phoebe. She couldn't be further from the glamour and European exoticism of Erika, but he too is from Iowa, and she reminds him of home. There's an almost Persona-like switching of identities that occurs between Phoebe and Erika as the movie progresses. Initially Erika represents individualism, artistic expression and freedom of spirit, yet ironically she's revealed as a former Nazi. Conversely, when we first meet Phoebe she's so obsessed with towing the line and following bureaucracy that she seems like exactly the sort of person that might have been won over by National Socialism's dubious charms. Under John's influence her spirit emerges, eventually donning an evening gown and singing loudly in a crowded bar.

a foreign affair review


While its script offers some zingers ("Let's go up to my apartment. It's only a few ruins away from here."), A Foreign Affair never fully convinces as a screwball comedy, largely due to the miscasting of the bland Lund, who fails to rise to Arthur's comic level. I can't help think it might have been more effective if played as a straight thriller in the Notorious mould. Lund and Arthur's performances are so tonally at odds that it's as if Wilder told the former he was acting in a drama and the latter a comedy. Dietrich, as always, turns her moments into a genre of her own making, and the film's highlights are her eerily erotic performances of songs composed by her compatriot Friedrich Hollaender. She was approaching 50 when she filmed A Foreign Affair, but it's testament to her skills (not to mention her skincare regime) that we view her as the younger lover of John, despite being a decade older than Lund. Dietrich would play almost a carbon copy of Erika 10 years later in Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution.
Extras:

Commentary by film historian Joseph McBride; video essay on Wilder and Dietrich by critic Kat Ellinger; archival interview with Wilder; trailer; collector's booklet featuring essays by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Richard Combs.

A Foreign Affair is on UK blu-ray June 22nd from |Eureka Entertainment.