“I read so much about immigrants, how they must adjust to customs and the words of foreign lands. Maybe because I was never treated like an immigrant! Nobody made excuses for me. Not then – not now. Nobody cares about my roots.” – Marlene Dietrich, April 15, 19851
Marlene Dietrich’s distance from the term “immigrant” represents her unique approach to conceptions of the home, nationalism, and citizenship. Throughout her life, the star moved as fluidly through countries as she did the screen. Upon Dietrich’s arrival in Hollywood in 1930, her work with Josef Von Sternberg in The Blue Angel(1929) had been held back for its U.S. release due to Paramount’s insistence that the star first be introduced to the public in an American production, ironically Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). Dietrich starred as the ubiquitously “foreign” cabaret singer opposite America’s hero Gary Cooper. Dietrich’s star status quickly exploded, and when The Blue Angel was released that same year, audiences began to construct a composite picture of the actress: at once representative of Weimar Republic’s decadence (Blue Angel) mixed with the connotations of the alien seductress (Morocco), while simultaneously acknowledging the star’s new Hollywood home.
Wilder’s film was born amidst the didactic rulings outlined in The Government Manual for the Motion Picture Industry released in 1942 by the Office of War Information. This document established ways in which American productions should and would uniformly applaud the U.S. war effort. Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Blackexplore the OWI’s disputes and persuasions with Hollywoodites, writing of the U.S. film industry under OWI influence, “Interwoven with economic realities, censorship laid the basis for an eventual resolution of the conflict between propaganda and mass entertainment” (112). The OWI’s efforts to publicize Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in film began on the hope that pure patriotism would autonomously spur such cinematic devotion. The OWI’s unrealized hopes quickly devolved into governmentally imposed censorship for Hollywood-produced pictures. If patriotic pictures would not naturally spring forth from the émigrés of Hollywood, then the OWI would un-surreptitiously thwart film productions that did not espouse the flag-waving of post-WWII America.
Upon Germany’s collapse in WWII, the United States adopted the Marshall Plan, which focused on the economic reconstruction of Western European states. With the U.S. settlement in bombed-out Berlin, Americans attempted to usher in a new era in German-American film relations. Joseph Lowenstein and Lynne Tatlock’s article “The Marshall Plan at the Movies” considers how American manipulation of Germany’s postwar film industry proffered the transmission of American ideals to German audiences. Lowenstein and Tatlock write, “In place of German-made films, American movies flooded the German market, and Hollywood taught Germans about the American way of life, inculcating the values ostensibly necessary to the success of the Marshall Plan, the plan that this time would enable the Americans to save the Germans from themselves” (432). Thus, under the rubric of denazification, Americans set about disassembling the former Nazi state, focusing great attention on the now defunct German film industry.
A Foreign Affair‘s plot is a provocative one for its time. A Congressional group travels to Berlin to investigate the “morals and morale” of the occupying American troops. Iowan Republican Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) suspects that Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) is providing the Congressional team with a false sense of the state of affairs in Berlin. Frost decides to perform her own investigation and recruits Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a fellow Iowan, to assist her. She is particularly interested in learning the whereabouts of a certain high-ranking former Nazi turned nightclub singer, Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), and her romantic entanglements with military officers. Formulaically following the mad-capper spin of Hollywood’s comedic romances, Frost fails to realize that Captain Pringle, who she is quickly falling for, is Erika’s romantic mate. In the end, of course, apple-pie Johnny and Phoebe fly westward for wedding bells while the eroticized other, Erika, begins her journey through denazification.
And upon viewing A Foreign Affair, one may be inclined to agree with Breen’s assertion that the film depicted negative “characterizations” of U.S. Congressional Committees and members of occupying military forces. With somewhat ominous music in the background afforded by Frederick Hollander’s apt score, the film opens to parting clouds, showing an airplane in descent. This aerial opening directly echoes the ur-text of the quintessential piece of cinematic Nazi propaganda, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).
But instead of the plane descending on Nuremburg for a military rally with the glorified Fuhrer, it shows U.S. Congressmen discussing how to reconstruct postwar Berlin. Wilder’s Riefenstahl reference allows viewers to gain insight into A Foreign Affair‘s aims as an exploration of how one regime, whether Hitler’s or Roosevelt’s, descends upon a nation, bringing with it the importunities of ideological indoctrination disguised as public health tonics and cure-alls to uplift and solidify the empowerment of one man, one clan, over another.
Furthermore, the portrayals of U.S. Congressmen allow Wilder to summarize the divergent U.S. attitudes regarding interventionist strategies. Each politician represents a distinct approach to Berlin’s reconstruction. One states that Germany should be “moving into the longhorns” (referencing the proposal to turn the country into an agrarian area), while others suggest to “start up their industry,” or “first we’ve got to feed the people. We can’t have them eating out of garbage dumps.” An elder Republican responds with, “I’m all for feeding the people, but we’ve got to let them know where it’s coming from.” This statement summarizes the approach that, although Americans may be willing to help, they are only willing to do so when their efforts are recognized to better ensure the viability of the U.S.’s geopolitical power. This belief is soon reprimanded by the Leftist of the group, who states, “If you send a hungry man a loaf of bread, it’s democracy. If you leave the wrapper on, it’s imperialism.” These one-liners directly question the ethics of America’s back-door imperialism via its diplomatic relief efforts, and are simultaneously the red flags that undoubtedly influenced OWI’s distaste for Wilder’s brand of not-so-discreet dissension.
Such sharp dialogue sets the tone for A Foreign Affair; witticisms are exchanged back and forth at breakneck speed with characteristically noir-esque wry humor; the speedy zingers are able to obscure the more serious implications of mere “sardonic” statements. When the members of Congress finally arrive in Berlin, they are taken on a tour headed by Colonel Plummer (Millard Mitchell). Plummer stands as the military’s representative; he continually attempts to demonstrate how the American troops have instilled democratic values into the city. He talks of ridding the German youth of ingrained Nazism and effects of war. While watching children play baseball, he states, “When we arrived, these kids were mean old men . . . we kicked the goose-step out of them and cured them of blind obedience.” Plummer and his men show the Marshall Plan in action here, the hurdles and rewards of spreading American democracy to the corrupted populace of Germany. What is also interesting about Plummer’s tour is Wilder’s splicing in of documentary footage that he had shot of the city directly after the war. Gerd Gemünden states of this cinematic device, “The film exposes realism as a cinematic convention that creates veracity by adhering to certain codes and modes of representation, of which the self-reflexive use of documentary footage is one important aspect” (63). In this way, A Foreign Affair attempts to deconstruct notions of realism, implanting documentary footage within a fictional narrative. As Plummer expounds on American reconstruction, Wilder shows us Berlin’s devastation. Just as the opening allusion to Riefenstahl’s “documentary” hints and the Congressman’s manipulation of Berlin footage further suggests, the sense of veracity synonymous with documentary is called into question due to its propagandistic manipulations, whether by a fictionalized U.S. Congressman or the Third Reich’s official director. It’s as if Wilder’s defense, a war-torn world’s defense, dredges up a certain skepticism when confronting notions of truth and morality amidst the utterly destabilizing aftermath of war.
Wilder’s narrative pun regarding Frost’s inherent Germanness is further illuminated in several discrete scenes throughout the film. During Plummer’s tour, Frost notices two American GIs flirting with German girls. The girls dismiss the soldiers, despite their attempts to tantalize them with American chocolates, evoking conceptions of commodification as an “in” for America’s forced hegemony, as well as the commodification of sex in postwar Berlin by the Americans. The German girls refuse the GIs for French soldiers, which gives Frost a chance to pose as Gretchen Gesundheit (an overt parody of American ignorance regarding German language and culture) in attempts to spy on GI behavior. This is the first of two episodes in which Frost mirrors a German woman; the second occurs when she pretends to be Erika’s cousin. By creating this familial relation between the uptight Midwesterner and the exoticized German seductress, Wilder may be demonstrating the universality of human nature, the utter irrationality of ideological divisionism, or ethnic/racial marginalization in the face of humanist relativism.
“Johnny as Hitler” becomes an obvious connection as this scene unfolds. He informs Erika that he has brought her a present, which he then withholds. He tells her she cannot have it because “Germans need a better conscience.” The eroticization of abuse creeps in when Johnny spanks Erika for her past political involvement. She responds, “I have a better conscience. I have a new Fuhrer — you,” a statement she follows with a Hitler salute and a “Heil Johnny!” The unexpected juxtaposition of “heil” followed by a distinctly all-American name demonstrates Wilder’s brand of humor; same game, different names. Just as Hitler occupied Poland or Italy to enforce his Final Solution, the Americans arrive touting solutions of their own. Hitler’s promises of Volksgemeinschaft (the people’s community) have now been substituted for impositions of high-minded democratization. After Erika’s salute, Johnny then grabs her throat and threatens to “Build a fire under you, you blond witch.” The fascist themes of masochism and sadism are perhaps embedded here, as Erika is immediately identified as a threatening, destabilizing seductress. Their intimate embrace is quickly interrupted by a knock on the door, and military men enter demanding that Erika begin her denazification process, or rather, her indentured servitude via work camps. After Johnny steps in and uses his rank to chase the young soldiers off, the scene ends as the camera lingers on a long side profile shot of the real manipulator of the film: leggy, buxom Erika.
Didactically, the film’s preeminent lessons are encompassed within Marlene Dietrich’s character of Erika. Wilder chose a star whose past film characters and personal life could not be separated from her character depictions on screen; she cannot only be a former Nazi cabaret singer because she is the infamous Dietrich and because she was Lola Lola on screen. Richard Dyer’s Star Theory asserts that the star is not seen as a holistic person, but rather as polysemic, or “images in media texts” (10). Dyer then defines the four components of a star’s image construction as their on-screen performances, promotion, publicity, and criticism/commentary. Future roles are reliant on past ones, and such typecasting of stars was done to maximize a film’s monetary success. Dyer pinpoints Dietrich’s typecasting as the eroticized, exotic “other.” All of these elements comingle in a multifaceted construction of a star’s persona; and for Dietrich, they produce a conflicting portrait of a woman caught between two worlds.
Beginning in the 1970s, feminist film scholarship incorporated Lacanian theory into their critiques of The Blue Angel to suggest ways in which Dietrich’s on-screen incarnations held a close association to what has famously been referred to as “the gaze.” Essentially, this theory establishes that a double dislocation occurs when a woman places herself as an image or object of erotic display. Elisabeth Bronfen, one of the foremost scholars on the topic, writes of the gaze in relation to Lola; “The singer is clearly as much an empowered spectator as she is a body on display for the pleasure of others; the voyeur who seeks her out, so as to curtail her seductive charms, has equally clearly become an object of both her playful seduction as well as the raucous enjoyment of the habitual customers of the Blue Angel” (21). The femme fatale and the spectator are seen in a continual struggle between sadistic empowerment and masochistic disempowerment. This formula found historical relevance with the onslaught of Nazism, and Dietrich’s siren became the nostalgic poster girl for Weimar’s decadence before the fall of the German state to Hitler’s brand of fascism.
Yet another key transition ushered in by The Blue Angel was Dietrich’s (and Sternberg’s) movement across the ocean, from the UFA to Hollywood studios. Gertrude Koch noted how the film’s historical relevance was connected to Dietrich’s departure from Germany just as National Socialism took hold of the country: “Her portrayal of Lola was an image iconic of both memory and leaving: the image of a woman as openly sexual and lascivious as she is motherly; an image that died, along with the Weimar Republic in National Socialism” (13). Dietrich’s resolute departure from Germany marked a new stage for the actress, one where she would become a citizen of the United States and find her home at Paramount studios. As the threat of World War II emerged, Dietrich made her anti-Nazi stance well-known, famously stating, “The Germans and I no longer speak the same language.” Such comments divided Dietrich and the German public, who often derided her as a traitor to her country. She soon became actively involved in the United Service Organization (USO) and entertained American troops from North Africa to Italy; her patriotic work gained her the U.S. Medal of Freedom. Film critic Percy Knauth praised Dietrich’s volunteer work, writing, “It was not until WWII, in fact, that Marlene won a place of real fondness in the hearts of thousands of her countrymen. A citizen of the U.S. by then, she threw herself into the struggle against the land of her birth with an ardor and abandon unmatched by any big or little star of the screen or radio” (64). Dietrich’s anti-Nazi wartime record became a crucial component of her star persona; yet the German American still carried the stain of National Socialism from her role as Lola Lola.
Perhaps the scene that is most indicative of Wilder’s mixing of cultural/nationalistic signifiers is the first meeting between Erika and Frost. When Frost and Johnny arrive at Erika’s apartment during their investigation, the two blondes meet in the low lighting of night. As Frost and Johnny stalk the outside of the apartment, a horn is accidently honked twice. A key is then thrown down; Erika’s voice is heard calling “Johnny” while the camera pans upward to show an empty window. As she comes down to fetch the key, she spots Johnny and Frost. The camera plays the part of the voyeur, stalking behind Erika and capturing the opposing couple in a long shot. They walk closer, so that now Erika’s silk black robe, penciled-in eyebrows, and blond curls appear in direct contrast to the homely trench coat, glasses, and tight bun of Frost. As Johnny awkwardly pretends to not know Erika, she makes it quite obvious through her coy glances that she’s in on the game. Frost interrupts Johnny’s lame interrogation of Erika, and this dialogue ensues:
Erika: You are an American woman?
Johnny: We’ll ask the questions here.
Frost: What is the name of the man?
Erika: Johnny. I see you don’t believe in lipstick. And what a curious way to do your hair — or rather not to do it.
Johnny: Do you know who you’re talking to?
Erika: An American woman. And I’m a little disappointed to tell you the truth. We apparently have a false idea about the chic American woman. I guess that’s just publicity from Hollywood.
A scene that focuses its commentary on how American occupation affected the postwar economy in Berlin occurs when Erika performs “Black Market” at the Lorelei Club. The camera zooms in slowly from the club’s exterior, flitting across a wide shot of the patrons drinking and singing amongst low lighting and accordion music. The camera spins toward Frost and then zooms in; she is posing as Gretchen Gesundheit and sitting in the back of the club with two GIs. In poor German, she attempts to break up a fight between two men when piano music interrupts them and they face forward. A lone spotlight wanders across the room until it finds Erika walking from the side stage. Erika wears Dietrich’s sparkling USO gown, and coupled with her perfectly made-up face, she is the embodiment of glamour. A medium shot holds her while cigarette smoke billows behind her. She stares into the distance and sings:
I’ll trade you for your candy
Some gorgeous merchandise.
My camera, it’s a dandy.
Six by nine, just your size.
You want my porcelain figure?
A watch, a submarine?
A Rembrandt, salami, black lingerie from Wien?
I sell my goods — behind the screen.
No ceiling, no feeling,
A very smooth routine.
You buy these goods
And boy! These goods are keen . . .
You like my first edition
It’s yours, that’s how I am-
A simple definition —
You take art, I take Spam.
To you for your K-ration
Compassion, and maybe
An inkling, a twinkling of real sympathy.
I’m selling out. Take all I’ve got.
Ambitions, convictions, the works, why not?
Enjoy these goods
For boy, these goods — are hot.
While she sings, she walks into the crowd and steals Johnny’s cigarette. Once again, the camera fetishizes and follows her from behind, so that we see the men stare up at this larger-than-life chanteuse. When she finishes her song, the patrons rush on stage and wildly toss her into the air, signifying that she is completely at her patrons’ disposal. The sexual double entendres of the song do not attempt to disguise themselves, with lines like “I sell my goods — behind the screen. No ceiling, no feeling, a very smooth routine.” Here, we see how Berlin’s economy struggles through extreme postwar deprivations; and how out of sheer necessity, Berliners must literally “sell themselves” to Americans. And in this way, A Foreign Affair explores postwar Berlin’s commoditization of desire. Dietrich’s cabaret performer wearily recounts her wares for sale, and in so doing, she “represents and personalizes the problems of postwar economy” (Lowenstein and Tatlock 436). Her utter apathy regarding her willing prostitution sits behind her aestheticized glamour, while the American military hurriedly forms a queue. Wilder is no fool about the exploitive measures that stand behind America’s back-door diplomacy, as the line “To you for your K-ration/ Compassion, and maybe/An inkling, a twinkling of real sympathy” reminds us.
A Foreign Affair. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. John Lund, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur. Paramount Pictures, 1948. DVD.
Basinger, Jeanine. The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003. Print.
Bronfen, Elizabeth. “Seductive Departures of Marlene Dietrich: Exile and Stardom in “The Blue Angel.” New German Critique 89 (Spring/Summer 2003): 9-31. Print.
Crowther, Bosley. “Remembrance of Things: ‘A Foreign Affair’ and ‘Easter Parade’ Stir Fond Memories.” New York Times, 4 July 1948, B1. Print.
Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: BFI, 1979. Print.
Gemünden, Gerd. A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films. New York: Berghahn Books, 2008. Print.
Loewenstein, Joseph, and Lynne Tatlock “The Marshall Plan at the Movies: Marlene Dietrich and Her Incarnations.” German Quarterly 65.3/4 (1992): 429-42. Print.
Knauth, Percy. “Movies of the Week: Marlene Dietrich Steals the Show in an Uproarious Hollywood Version of Low Life in Postwar Berlin.” Life, 9 June 1928, 59-64. Print.
Koch, Gertrude. “Between Two Worlds: Von Sternberg’s ‘The Blue Angel’ (1930).” German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations. Ed. by Eric Rentschler. New York: Methuen, 1986, 60-72. Print.
Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1987. Print.
Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947. Print.
Slane, Andrea. A Not So Foreign Affair. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. Print.
The Blue Angel. Dir. Josef Von Sternberg. Perf. Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich. UFA, 1930. DVD.
Triumph of the Will. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. Leni Riefenstahl Produktion, 1935. DVD.
Willett, Ralph. “Billy Wilder’s ‘A Foreign Affair’ (1945-1948): The Trials and Tribulations of Berlin.”Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 7.1 (1987): 3-14. Print.
- Qtd. in Riva, J. David, ed. A Woman at War: Marlene Dietrich Remembered. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2006. Print. [↩]
- Qtd. in Andrea Slane’s article “The Crafting of a Political Icon: Lola Lola on Paper.” [↩]
- Erwin Panofsky, “Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures.” In George Dickie and Richard Sclafani, eds, Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977), p. 352. [↩]