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Blu-ray Review

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A Foreign Affair (1948)


Starring: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich and John Lund
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99


Certificate: U
Release Date: 22 June 2020

On arriving in Hollywood via France escaping from Hitler’s Germany in 1933, Billy Wilder (שמואל וִילדֶר Shmuel Vildr ) was hosted by fellow ex patriots, Robert Siodmak [The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1949)] and the already crowned master of comedy Ernst Lubitsch [Ninotchka (1939)]. His Oscar nomination for co-writing the Lubitsch classic was the clarion for his take-off in the 1940s (Ball of Fire, The Major and the Minor, Five Graves to Cairo, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend ).

Through the 40s, Wilder had more than inklings that his mother, grandmother and stepfather had perished in the Nazi concentration camps. This was not formerly confirmed until his film Ace In the Hole (1951) was in mid-shoot which many observers say only amplified the dark tone of that film.

In 1945 Wilder had worked for the Psychological Warfare Department for the US Department of War on a documentary in both German and English (Death Mills) to expose audiences both German and English to the atrocities performed by the Nazi consensus while the rest of the world had emoted and wrung its hands or looked away completely.

Wilder told his fellow Hollywood German ex patriots, it was important for them to return to their homeland. He was passionate on this subject and in a live appearance with fans, I heard him say this from his heart. A Foreign Affair is Billy Wilder’s wholehearted return home. It is a comedy.

Eureka’s 1080p presentation is lucent as always, worthy of its top tier technical standards, especially for its Masters of Cinema Library. It proffers a grand collection of extras: a superb shot by shot commentary by Joseph McBride, a well researched video essay by Kat Ellinger From Berlin to Hollywood: Wilder and Dietrich’s Foreign Affair which explores the alliance between the director and star and their motivation to “go home,” interviews with Wilder, radio performances, stills and a booklet of new essays. It is in the booklet that Eureka shines. Its advocacy that the film is “one of Billy Wilder’s most beloved comedies” is true for me but sadly the picture is one of Wilder’s most neglected and overlooked masterpieces. It has never deserved this status. It is not one of his flops (Kiss Me Stupid or Buddy, Buddy) or his exercises between passions (Spirit of St, Louis) and has been shuffled to the background of his oeuvre for its potent challenge to genre boundaries and stereotypes. Eureka understood this and commissioned two new essays on the film by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Richard Combs. Heller-Nicholas deals insightfully with female stereotypes and archetypes and how A Foreign Affair triumphs in its comments on both; Combs sees in the film Wilder’s ever present breaking of genre eggs to make his own comedic omelette. He also points out that the many and varied songs of the movie almost qualify it as a musical. Dietrich has her night club “talk songs” of course but Jean Arthur’s Phoebe gets uproariously drunk and sings the Iowa “Corn Song” which I challenge you to try to get out of your head after you hear it. “That’s where the tall corn grows.”

These women, for Wilder, are polar opposites, each with her own magnetic attraction. Jean Arthur’s prim business-like Congress woman from Iowa is sent to Berlin on a fact-finding expedition to ferret out corruption and under the table dealing between military personnel and vanquished post Nazi German society. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost even comes bearing a cake for one of Iowa’s own, Captain John Pringle (John Lund) who unknown to her happens to be one of the biggest hustlers in Berlin.

Pringle is besotted with cellar club performer Erika Von Schlütow and uses his illegal merchandise as love gifts for her. Erika is, of course, Dietrich and the casting of Lund, competent but never a mega watt star, between these two female dynamos is no accident. The nominal love story, the Hollywood hetero one, between Lund and Arthur is overshadowed by the fascination over the differences and attractions Arthur and Dietrich exchange. Dietrich, it’s no secret, was used to being courted or shown love/hate fascination from all sexes. Arthur kept her personal life private but we know from journalist interviewers like Boze Hadleigh ( that she was, in the old fashioned terminology, a true blue member of the Hollywood lipstick lesbian cadre.

Wilder knew all this and knew his story was really about two strong women and a token male. He cherished the psychological undertones and even if corn fed Bible belters couldn’t consciously think about it, their unconscious brain cells were tweaking like mad. Not only does Wilder champion his women, he finds them funny, something male comedians to this day say just ain’t so. But of course most male comedians are boys still working out childhood issues, so to say girls can’t be funny (as proposed in the bombastic piece Christopher Hitchens scribbled for Vanity Fair) is simply a knobhead chant from the pre-pubic playground.

Phoebe Frost goes undercover to investigate illegal marketeering and targets Erika with both suspicion and fascination. The straight laced Phoebe trading barbs with the Teutonic war survivor Erika is glorious Wilder joke writing. Puns abound and nuanced nastiness overflows. Pringle gets his share but he is ultimately a mannequin sex object for the two lionesses to paw over. It’s suggested by one of the Eureka scholars that this could be, in reality, a closet love story between Phoebe and Erika. I totally agree.

The opening flyover of devastated Berlin was shot by Wilder himself in his aforementioned work for the War Department. That he finds such mirth and laughter on the ground later in A Foreign Affair is a testament to his transcendent human spirit. Considering what the war cost him, it is amazing. He believes the smile and the chuckle beat the hell out of tragedy. I say this is his lost great film. Maybe seventy years is enough time for perspective. Nobody did comedies about war torn Berlin with unrepentant Nazis lurking in the ruins. A Foreign Affair is a singularity in the one hundred twenty year history of world cinema. No Wilder collection is complete without it.


John Huff

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