Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rebuilding Berlin: A Foreign Affair

The Movie
   What a film!  A Foreign Affair (1947, directed by Billy Wilder) is a new instant favorite of mine.  Jean Arthur, in her best indignant 'bantam hen' mode, stars as Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, en route to Berlin with a fact-finding committee determine to root out immoral behavior in the servicemen stationed in the husk of old Berlin and to set them on the straight-and-narrow.  Soon after her arrival, she frees herself from the committee's canned tour and sets out to do some fact-finding on the side.  She ends up at the Lorelei, an underground nightclub headlined by Erika von Schlutow (Marlene Dietrich), a lady with not a few war-related secrets.  However, lucky for Erika, she has an American Lieutenant, John Pringle (John Lund), to protect those secrets for her.  But nothing can stop the Congresswoman from trying to ferret out the mystery with a little investigation of her own...

Billy Wilder's Berlin
The 'Kidney Killer', a sweet ride
   Samuel Wilder was born in a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is now a part of Poland.  After barely graduating from high school in the late 1920s, Wilder went to visit Berlin to cover a jazz concert and didn't leave.  As a resident of Berlin, he first made a living as a freelance crime writer for various tabloids (his 1927 series of undercover expose articles on the lives of male taxi-dancers was entitled 'Waiter, Bring Me A Dancer:  The Life of a Gigolo'),  then as a ghostwriter of screenplays.  It's worth picking up his biography to read the quick-thinking method he used to sell his first solo screenplay.  While in Berlin in this early period of his life, he met an aspiring actress named Marlene Dietrich.
  Wilder was Jewish, and the rise of Nazism led to his moving first to Paris, then to Hollywood in 1933.  The rest of his family remained behind; his mother and stepfather died in Auschwitz.

  Wilder also served in the US Army in WWII, and was stationed in Germany.  A Foreign Affair was actually made because he was granted funds from the government to make a movie about the situation in Berlin.  He took the opportunity to do research by talking to many of the residents in Berlin, and as a result, many of the little vignettes in the film are based on real conversations.  If Wilder could find comedy in the remnants of Berlin, he could find comedy anywhere.

A Bombed-Out Shell
The ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
   The Battle of Berlin was the final military offensive in the European theater in World War II, and was conducted primarily by the Soviet army.  General Eisenhower of the US had determined that joining in the fight might result in accidental casualties of the Allies involved, and served no strategic purpose for the US, since Berlin would be in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union following surrender.  Prior to invasion by the Soviets, the city had been subjected to a bombing campaign that led to widespread destruction of civilian and military structures.  One of the earlier structures destroyed in the raids was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church where Marlene Dietrich had held her marriage ceremony - she cried when she saw it on her return after the war.
   Germany surrendered unconditionally on 8 May, 1945, just over a week after Adolph Hitler committed suicide in his private bunker.  Following the surrender, the city of Berlin was divided into four sectors, to be overseen by the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, following the dictates of the Potsdam Conference.  Much of the movie was filmed in the Soviet sector, rather than the American sector, as portrayed. Also of interest are the tactics of re-building portrayed in the film, such as using baseball as a de-Nazification tool to teach kids how to question authority but still play by the rules.  Millard Mitchell does an excellent job as the Colonel.

A Side Note...
  I have to confess that I really wanted to title this post 'Anti-Aging Techniques of the Classic Movie Stars:  A Foreign Affair', because these two dames in the picture at left are smokin', and they were 47 and 48, respectively, when this movie was filmed.  Ladies, we should all look so good when we are in our late 40s.

Links and Sources
Billy Wilder, Wikipedia
Battle of Berlin, Wikipedia
Archival Discovery Reveals a Ruined Berlin, Der Spiegel
Yet another book I'd like to fully read, 'Some Like It Wilder:  The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder' has some amazing excerpts and detailed descriptions of many of his films, including the one above.

And just for kicks, Lilly Von Schtupp.

1 comment:

  1. I'm thrilled to see a librarian blogging about classic movies because I'm in library school myself and co-write a blog about Dietrich. In fact, I just wrote an entry about this film and added information about two radio adaptations of it here. Dietrich and John Lund reprised their roles, but Rosalind Russell and Lucille Ball played Phoebe Frost in the 1949 and 1951 broadcasts respectively.