“A Foreign Affair” (1948) is a broad send-up of American moral hypocrisy, but Jean Arthur turns it into a valentine for American sentimentality. The film is a biting accusation of German duplicity, but alluring Marlene Dietrich dares us to judge. Billy Wilder, whose cynical view peppers each scene with bold satire, still finds himself forgiving the weaker morally ambiguous Berliners for allowing the stronger and far more evil Nazis to ruin the place.
It can’t have been easy for him. In his biography of Billy Wilder, “On Sunset Boulevard - The Life and Times of Billy Wilder” (Hyperion, NY, 1998), author Ed Sikov notes that while watching footage of bombed out ruins in Berlin, after someone remarked that he could not help but feel sorry for the Germans, Wilder, “…jumped to his feet and yelled, ‘To hell with those bastards! They burned most of my family in their damned ovens! I hope they burn in hell!” (p. 272).
In our intro to this series on Uneasy Victors, posted here, we outlined the three films we’re tackling to discuss America’s post-World War II involvement in Occupied Germany. Next week we cover “The Big Lift” (1950) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961).
I’m going to tread lightly on the plots of these three movies and concentrate on the images used so evocatively. The images and stories were current events when these films were made, no deep explanation was required. For background, one needed only to look at the front page of a newspaper.
Director Billy Wilder shows his cynicism and his delightfully naughty side in this movie. And it is a marvel he could temper the above noted rage against the German people with an affinity for them. He was, after all, a resident of this city himself at one time back in the ‘20s when it was decadent but entirely free.
So was Dietrich a Berliner. They met here years ago. They knew their own people.
While I agree that Wilder does his best to show the character of Congresswoman Frost as a comic foil, nevertheless I disagree that he used Jean Arthur in a bad way. You have only to look at Jean Arthur in this movie to see how much fun she’s having.
This is a lady who knows how to control a scene.
At the cabaret Dietrich sings about “the ruins of Berlin” and she is dolled up to the nines looking glamorous and svelte and utterly in command. The smoky room is full of civilians on a night out, American servicemen and jolly Russian servicemen who all mix with equanimity.
This is counterbalanced by Dietrich’s chilling remark, “What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in?” This is Wilder's restrained reference to the fact that tens of thousands of female Berliners were raped by Soviet soldiers.
And her deft mockery of America's untouchable superiority, “Wash your hands. Wash your lips. You’ve got so much soap in the United States.”
John Lund is the epitome of the American problems in Berlin, a metaphor for our conflicted attitudes. On the one hand he has a duty to perform. He must stand back objectively and judge these people. On the other hand he wants to let bygones be bygones. And get what he can for himself.
Billy Wilder walks a fine line in this movie and walks it very well. There is much cynicism, much political and social accusation against American hypocrisy, and in fact this movie was condemned on the floor the House of Representatives for its satirical treatment of Congress. The military complained because it showed them in a less than flattering light. But it is satire and is meant to hold a mirror up to ourselves.
We can tell who the liberals are among the congressmen and who are the conservatives: debate on the plane about giving the starving a loaf of bread, “that’s democracy”, but if you leave the wrapper on - i.e., let them know it’s from the Good Old USA - “that’s imperialism.” We have discussion of “dollar diplomacy”, about labor versus industry that still resonates today. We are about to leave a decade-long military involvement in Iraq, with reductions of troops as well in Afghanistan. These issues raised in Occupied Germany are still with us.
Congresswoman Jean Arthur icily rebukes Dietrich: “We increased our national debt by some 350 billion dollars to win this war. I would regard it as a waste of money if we didn’t eliminate types like you.”
How timely is that? We Americans have always demanded a return on our investment.
Dietrich tells Arthur, “Let’s go to my apartment. It’s only a few ruins away from here.”
Wilder softened the political edge by adding silly comedy that also works as a wonderful metaphor in this movie.
Both Wilder and Dietrich were hard, cynical people who came of age in a hard and cynical Berlin. They came to America and made their careers in a United States that was and always probably will be remain unabashedly sentimental. We are a nation addicted to happy endings. Neither Wilder nor Dietrich seemed entirely comfortable with wide-eyed optimism.
Millard Mitchell brings the congressional committee to watch German kids playing sandlot baseball taught to them by American soldiers. Mitchell remarks that a local family “has already christened a kid DiMaggio Schultz. That’s when I started believing we really won the war.”
Mitchell is a kind of narrator, a Greek chorus to the story, reminding us of American good intentions that must certainly soften things for Wilder if not for the message of the movie:
“When we moved into Berlin, we found open graves and closed hearts.”
“We’ve tried to make them free men and give them some dignity.”
Added to the soup is the ingredient of American sentimentality, and that is Jean Arthur who does it better than anybody else. Yes, she is foolish. But she is also resilient and strong and brings a sense of hope to the proceedings. She is the American that the Europeans love to mock, but whom they inevitably look to as an example of success. They see her derisively, and enviously, as being in her own protective little world and nothing can really hurt her. Almost nothing.
But the façade is riot. She tells fellow Iowan John Lund news from back home, “We had the lowest juvenile delinquency rate in the country until two months ago. A little boy in Des Moines took a blow torch to his grandmother…We fell clear down to 16th place. It was humiliating.”
And she notes that Main Street had its name changed to Iwo Jima Boulevard -- the kind of memorializing that happened all over the US, which Wilder mocks with his crisp script and Miss Arthur’s incomparable delivery.
“You’re so naïve, you Americans,” Marlene teases John Lund.
“So we are. What of it?”
“I look just awful. It’s like a circus tent in mourning for an elephant that died.” Her trademark running a fine line between humor and pathos. Nobody does it better.
And what a night it is.
Later, she will attempt to humiliate Jean Arthur by encouraging her to sing in front of the cabaret audience. Arthur is reticent, but she’s also a bit tipsy, and belts out her old campaign song, the “Iowa Corn Song”.
I think it was Katharine Hepburn who was said that acting is like standing up naked and turning around very slowly.
Jean Arthur’s “Iowa Corn Song” rendition is like naked comedy.
She is pathetically awful, disarmingly hilarious, and ultimately endearing. She really gives it the old college try like nobody’s business. Have a look at the scene here, beginning at 8:06. Please remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page first and mute the music so you can hear the video.
There is no reason, ever, to doubt Jean Arthur’s superior acting ability, but if you did, just compare this performance with her next film role, “Shane” which we discussed here. Night and day. You wouldn’t know it was the same woman. She really had remarkable range.
Dietrich’s triumph over Jean is complete. “Four hours ago you were in a position to have him court martialed and send me to a labor camp. Not now. Not anymore. You’re one of us, now.”
Which they did.
Jean Arthur’s famous insecurity made working with Dietrich, who could be openly derisive to others and had industrial-strength self confidence, a nightmare. According to author Kevin Lally, Dietrich called Arthur, "That ugly woman with that terrible twang." Dietrich also disliked John Lund. She got along with Wilder, with whom she shared many conversations in her dressing room in German about the Berlin of the old days, but even Wilder got on her bad side when he insisted she perform the scene where she parties with the Hitler look-alike.
Dietrich was openly anti-Nazi, and had won America’s Medal of Freedom for her efforts entertaining the troops during World War II. She may have reveled playing a hardened chanteuse, but being seen hanging on “Hitler’s” arm was too much for her. Both Berliner and naturalized American, she may be the ultimate metaphor in this film for the conflicted emotions of the uneasy victor.
Jean Arthur was almost paranoid in her jealousy of Wilder’s attention to Dietrich, and perhaps in a moment of one-upmanship, insisted that she perform her own stunt when Congresswoman Frost is shown to be tossed into the air by the jolly, drunken Russian soldiers after her song at the cabaret. That’s really Jean Arthur you see getting chucked into the air.
According to the biography on Billy Wilder, “Wilder Times - The Life of Billy Wilder” (Henry Holt and Company, NY, 1996), author Kevin Lally notes that after the take was shot, “Arthur threw back her head and gave the director a piercing look. ‘What will you require next from me, Mr. Wilder?’” The crew and extras applauded her.
For his part, Billy Wilder was exasperated with one actress who constantly looked at herself in the mirror - Dietrich, and one who self-consciously refused to look in a mirror at all - Arthur.
It is interesting to compare the two women in real life. They were born about a year apart, and died about a year apart. Arthur hated stardom and avoided it. Dietrich craved stardom and worked harder on her screen image than her acting. Just before this film was made, Jean Arthur was attending college in the Midwest. She had left Hollywood after her Oscar-nominated role in “The More the Merrier” which we discussed here, to pursue university studies. I can’t think of any other actress, particularly at the top of her game and earning power, who would do this.
But she left school to do this film which she must have realized was a golden opportunity and possibly one of her last, to do screwball comedy.
Dietrich was fighting time as well. She had just become a grandmother, which according to her daughter, she did not like at all. She turned her career to real-life cabaret work and was a success, the irony being she really did not sing well. Jean Arthur, for all her foolishness during the “Iowa Corn Song” routine, had no less singing range than Dietrich.
But Dietrich had that powerful stage personality she created from girlhood, it was her bastion, and bread and butter.
Until old age took it from her. In their senior years, Jean Arthur returned to college, this time to teach. Dietrich’s health began to fail, and her glamour waned, and she shut herself up in her Paris apartment, bedridden, a recluse who allowed only a very few to visit.
Jean, who was reclusive her entire life to varying degrees, enjoyed a pleasanter old age in the company of a small group of friends, young and old, her pets, and her house by the Pacific Ocean. They both lived to be 90 years old.
Dietrich, who had been eschewed by Berlin for her pro-American stance in the war, is buried in Berlin, and much of her belongings have been bought by Berlin for a museum collection.
The film “A Foreign Affair” was not seen in Germany until 1977, (in West Germany), when at last, it was appreciated by a German audience. That it took so long to be seen there may be testament to the power of Billy Wilder’s biting political mockery. Comedy can be a dangerous thing.
Come back next Monday for our next in this series on Uneasy Victors when we stay in Berlin to tackle, “The Big Lift” (1950) with Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas.