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Film / A Foreign Affair

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A Foreign Affair (1948) is a Romantic Comedy directed by Billy Wilder, starring Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and John Lund.

Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Arthur), alongside an American committee, is sent to check the morale of American soldiers in occupied Germany. To her dismay, men are fraternizing with the local women, they trade in the black market, and go to dumpy dives for entertainment. Even more disconcerting is the fact that a prominent Nazi's former lover, Erika von Schlütow (Dietrich), is now a nightclub singer who entertains these soldiers.

Unbeknownst to Frost, she's also consorting with Captain John Pringle (Lund). Frost finds out that Schlütow is with an American officer, but not which one. To hide his identity as Schlütow's lover, Pringle goes along with Frost as she tries to find the mystery man.

One thing leads to another, and Pringle has to pretend to be attached to Congresswoman Frost, making things unfold from there.


  • Actor Allusion: Phoebe Frost describes how she once filibustered in Congress ("I just kept on talking. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, poems, Longfellow—anything I could think of.") In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jean Arthur's character Saunders coaches the title character on how to stage a filibuster, including suggesting he read aloud the Constitution in order to keep talking.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Zigzagged. Only one character is an actual Nazi, and the film is sympathetic to what the Germans have gone through in the war, but it's also shown that part of the American military's job is to deprogram the Germans, especially the children, after years of Nazi indoctrination. One scene features a boy who is in trouble for compulsively drawing swastikas on everything, and whose father, a man with a Hitler mustache, constantly threatens him with Disproportionate Retribution.
    Herr Mayer: I will break his arm!... No food, Bürschchen! I will lock him into a dark room.
    Herr Mayer: Yes, Herr Kapitän.
    Captain John Pringle: Listen, we've done away with concentration camps. Take him round to a GYA, one of our German youth clubs. Some baseball and a little less heel-clicking is what he needs.
    Herr Mayer: Yes, Herr Kapitän! [clicks heels]
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Averted with the Germans, as they do actually speak German, but played straight when Phoebe decides to go with the two bicycle officers. She calls herself Gretchen Gesundheit, and there's many "ja"s involved.
  • Batman Gambit: All this time, Colonel Plummer knew John was going out with Erika. They used this to their advantage because they knew Erika's former Nazi lover would come out of hiding to kill them both, and John would conveniently continue the relationship; therefore, making the capture of the war criminal easier. The colonel eventually has to pressure John to keep up appearances when he doesn't want to be with Erika anymore.
  • Betty and Veronica: Phoebe is the Betty, and Erika is the Veronica.
  • Black Market: John trades a cake for a mattress in Berlin's underground economy.
    • Dietrich sings "Black Market" by Friedrich Hollaender which is about...the black market.
  • Crapsack World: Trying to rebuild out of the ruins of what's left of Berlin post WWII is fairly depressing, but since it's a Wilder film, it tinkers on the line of comedy.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Captain Pringle:
    • Phoebe Frost: There. Now we're getting someplace. I wonder what holds up that dress...
      Captain John Pringle: Must be that German willpower.
    • Captain John Pringle: Don't tell me it's subversive to kiss a Republican!
    • Phoebe Frost: How do you know so much about women's clothing?
      Captain John Pringle: My mother wears women's clothing.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen:
    Phoebe Frost: Oh, John. I'm so happy: I'm in heaven. Not that I wasn't happy before... I was just drifting. That's it, drifting. Drifting on a grey sea all alone. It's not bad, but suddenly you get scared, you need another voice. So you hoist up your heart and wait. And nobody passes by, just grey waves. Your heart gets frayed and some, lashed by the night winds and rain, so you haul it down, what's left of it, and you resign yourself. Then, suddenly out of nowhere, comes a boat, so unexpected; all white sails on the horizon. To you, my beautiful boat.
    • Her name is Frost, for goodness' sake.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • One for John: He shows one of his fellow officers a silk stocking he managed to get in the black market which shows that he doesn't care for the rules, and that he has a lady friend.
    • For Phoebe: While on the plane that's overlooking Berlin, she's asked to look at the view, but she doesn't until she finishes writing in her notes, puts all of her documents away in a specified, organized manner in a take that's over 60 seconds, and then she looks outside. This shows her as organized, meticulous, and dedicated.
  • Femme Fatale: An extremely light version of one, played by none other, Marlene Dietrich.
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: It's post-WWII, but Erika sings to all the American servicemen, much to their delight.
  • Lovable Rogue: John does some questionable things, but he's fairly likeable.
  • Nerd Glasses: Phoebe sports them as shown in the above image.
  • No Party Given: Averted, as Phoebe mentions being a Republican.
  • No Swastikas: Averted. There's even a little boy who won't stop drawing swastikas wherever he goes.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: All the outfits for Erika's numbers are long, sparkly, and beautiful.
    • Phoebe wears one for her night out with John.
  • Phoney Call: Type B.
  • Post-Kiss Catatonia: Phoebe is so taken that she walks into the wrong room with the Congressman wondering why she's at the foot of his bed.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: A lot of German is spoken with no subtitles which generally is the custom with old films.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Col. Plummer has a very realistic view of what kind of behavior he can and can't expect from his men, in contrast to Phoebe's unrealistic moral standards and the cynicism of John and Erika.
  • Running Gag: The bicycle officers picking up women with their bike.
    The Officers: Fraulein! Fraulein!
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: A bit of both, but perhaps this speech from Erika sums it up best:
    Erika von Schlütow: We've all [the German survivors] become animals with exactly one instinct left. Self-preservation. Now take me, Miss Frost. Bombed out a dozen times, everything caved in and pulled out from under me. My country, my possessions, my beliefs... yet somehow I kept going. Months and months in air raid shelters, crammed in with five thousand other people. I kept going. What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in? I kept going.
  • Take That!: Col. Plummer's response to Frost's duty of checking the soldier's morale in Germany:
    Col. Rufus J. Plummer: Morale! Maybe someday we can send a little committee of our own investigating morale in Washington D.C.
  • The Tease: Erika to everyone, but especially to the MPs that plan to take her to HQ and question her. She lifts up her dress to show her legs, and hopes that they'll carry her since it has been raining. Colonel Plummer has to send several other MPs to watch those MPs, and more MPs to watch those MPs.
  • The Vamp: Erika was the mistress to a Nazi, but John Pringle has become so enamored of her that he puts her on a whitelist without really checking up on her.