Satire was always Billy Wilder’s favorite weapon, from his first American hit—he wrote the screenplay for Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”)—to Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Even his darker pictures are interspersed with humor. Who can forget the chimpanzee’s funeral, complete with Erich von Stroheim in white gloves playing “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” on the organ, at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard?
Set in postwar Berlin and hyped as a comedy (“It would make a cigar store Indian laugh…”), A Foreign Affair is full of lighthearted touches. A pair of enlisted men cruising the streets on a tandem bicycle, armed with chocolate, looking for fräuleins, prim Iowa congresswoman Jean Arthur attempting to ward off her would-be seducer’s (John Lund) advances by opening one file cabinet drawer after another and, when finally cornered for a kiss, reciting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in a valiant effort to quell her own passion.
But there’s Marlene Dietrich, sultry as ever, performing in the Lorelei Club—a postwar version of the seedy nightclub where the German actress was introduced to us in The Blue Angel (1930). “Falling in Love Again,” the melancholy song composed for her in that film by Friedrich Hollaender, feels positively upbeat when compared to the numbers Hollaender composed for this one.
They had a touch of paradise, a spell you can’t explain. For in this crazy paradise, you are in love with Pain. — “Illusions”
We’ve already gotten an aerial view of the bombed-out German capital from the congresswoman’s plane, and seen various characters picking theie way through the rubble at night. Still, we’re unprepared for the bitterness that undercuts the jaunty tune of “In the Ruins of Berlin” or the sado-masochistic kick of “Illusions.”
Wilder, an Austrian Jewish emigré whose family had been murdered by the Nazis, had no reason to sympathize with the plight of ordinary Germans struggling to survive amid the devastation, and yet despite the laughter, A Foreign Affair leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. ‘What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians swept in?” Dietrich’s character asks the congresswoman. “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.”
Not surprisingly, the film was withdrawn from circulation, its “rotten taste” denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives. “Berlin’s trials and tribulations are not the stuff of cheap comedy, and rubble makes lousy custard pies.” But as Steven Bach tells us in his biography of Dietrich, the actress was featured on the cover of Life and was generally seen as having stolen the show.