Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) has flown to Berlin with a group of her fellow Congressmen to survey the bomb-blasted city and judge how the morale of the American troops and the local citizenry is shaping up. What she does not know is how the black market in Germany has taken over the entire country as it is the only way to get any decent goods and services, and to make matters worse, the American troops are among those fuelling that commerce, including Captain John Pringle (John Lund). He is making a tidy sum as the purveyor of anything from nylons to alcohol, and when he is presented with a chocolate cake from Frost, he immediately sells it on...
It's a tricky thing, mining humour from the horrors of war and indeed its aftermath, but Billy Wilder was keen to put the lighter side of the post-conflict crisis in Germany across here, with mixed results. Certainly he did not wish international audiences to forget what had happened now the war was over, but you could detect a slight hint of gloating that the nation responsible for almost his entire family being murdered was now on its knees, indeed, barely that, for many of his former countrymen were lying flat on their backs in complete exhaustion. And yet, he appeared to want at least some of them to be depicted in a friendlier light, for he knew not all Germans had been Nazis.
He wasn't, and his old friend Marlene Dietrich had not, which made it curious that he wanted to have her play the ex-partner of a high-ranking Nazi, never mind that her character's own sympathies were a matter of ambiguity. Not so with Marlene, who had campaigned against the fascists during the war, putting on countless shows for Allied soldiers to keep up morale, so much so that millions of the surviving Germans held it against her; it would take more than this movie for them to forgive the iconic actress and singer, which was tied up in reconciling themselves with their grimmer than grim past actions during the Holocaust, which of course meant an awful lot to Wilder on a personal level.
Therefore, there was a lot of mixed feelings around the production of A Foreign Affair, its title suggesting some exotic trifle at a balmy retreat, not a rather grubby romantic comedy among the bomb sites. It was a love triangle that we were dealing with here, with Pringle caught in the middle of Frost, who he basically pursues to get the military police off his back, until actual feelings intervene, and Dietrich's Erika, a nightclub chanteuse who is staving off orders to see to it that she is punished in a labour camp with her connections to the Captain, but may have feelings for him as well. The deep cynicism that would characterise Wilder's dramas like Ace in the Hole was kept at bay to a point by a frothy humour and funning the relationships at the story's centre, but it did not always convince.
For a start, that comedic element was only intermittently amusing enough to generate laughter, and you may ponder that a drama telling it like it was may have been a better goal. Lund was a not-quite star, in that he seemed to be on track for real celebrity yet after a few decent roles it was clear it wasn't happening, wasn't catching on with the public, and he dwindled, and you could tell this film would have been improved with an actor of similar wattage to Arthur and Dietrich. They did not get on while shooting, a rivalry building between them about who was the actual draw here, and as they were both ladies in early middle age, a paranoia about their youth ebbing away meant Wilder had a lot of negotiating to do with each of them to get the effects he wanted. Nevertheless, the scenes they shared together were possibly the best in the movie, going from comedy to a serious lesson about how life in Germany had ended up. If not a complete success, you did have to consider, who else was making stories like this for popular entertainment just after the agonies of the war? For that reason, it holds significant interest. Music by Frederick Hollander.
[The Eureka Blu-ray has these features:
1080p presentation on Blu-ray
Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio
Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride
From Berlin to Hollywood: Wilder and Dietrich's Foreign Affair - A video essay by Kat Ellinger
Two radio adaptations of A Foreign Affair, broadcast as part of the Screen Directors Playhouse in 1949 and 1951. Featuring the voices of Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, John Lund, and Lucille Ball
Archival interview with Billy Wilder
A collector's booklet featuring new writing by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; a new essay by critic Richard Combs; and archival material.]