The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“Now you’re one of us”: Postwar Surveillance in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair

Paula Derdiger
University of Minnesota—Duluth

This essay examines Billy Wilder’s film A Foreign Affair (1948) in the context of Germany’s political, ethical, and cinematic reconstruction after World War II. It argues that the film is set apart from other films of the immediate postwar era by its unsettling ambivalence and also by its thorough meditation on surveillance as a political activity, artistic strategy, and tool for existential investigation. Through its espionage plot, its hybrid and meta-cinematic approach to genre, and its production history, A Foreign Affair suggests that surveillance is both the activity that most characterizes daily life in postwar Germany as well as the fundamental practice of postwar filmmaking and film viewing as the world tries to process and move beyond the horrific events of the recent past. Wilder’s position as exile-surveyor, moreover, combined with the spy thriller tropes of the film, reveal the instability and ambivalence of the immediate postwar period in Europe in a way that was not always visible in more propagandistic or didactic films.

Keywords: Billy Wilder / A Foreign Affair / World War II / postwar Germany / surveillance / exile 

The Hollywood director Billy Wilder, famous for sultry film noirs like Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) or boundary-pushing romantic comedies like The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), was not known for political filmmaking. Nor was he known for contemplating World War II or the Holocaust, despite the centrality of these politically and emotionally traumatic events in his own life. A Polish-born, German-speaking Jew, Wilder came of age professionally in Weimar Berlin and, like so many Jewish European filmmakers, artists, writers, and intellectuals, he was forced to flee Nazi Germany. After a brief time residing in Paris in 1933, he emigrated to California, where he remained living for the rest of his life. His family, however, was not so fortunate; his mother, stepfather, and grandmother were victims of the Holocaust. His 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, is in many ways his most personal and certainly most overtly political film, yet it remains curiously marginal in popular and scholarly discussions of his contributions to film history.1

The story of the film’s production draws together Wilder’s personal, professional, and political identities. He returned to Berlin in 1945 hoping to find his family or at least verify his suspicions that they had been killed—verification that he never received.Officially, however, he travelled to Berlin as a colonel in the US Army’s Division of Psychological Warfare, charged with helping to assess and rebuild Germany’s film industry. These reconstruction efforts, seen as crucial to the “denazification” and reeducation of the German people, involved producing and screening films that presented the crimes of Nazism and their impact in no uncertain terms.3 Wilder participated by helping to direct and edit the 1945 documentary Death Mills, based on footage obtained at the Allied liberation of the concentration camps.4 He also interviewed potential directors for what came to be known as “rubble films” for the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), the new postwar German film production studio.

But Wilder was not convinced that the documentary approach, the rubble film, or the mainstream entertainment movie was the best way to represent the war and its aftermath to either German or American audiences. He made his views explicit to the US government in August of 1945 in what became known as the “Wilder Memorandum,” in which he questioned the effectiveness of pure entertainment films from Hollywood, such as Cover Girl (1944), as well as the practice of requiring Germans to sit through films like Death Mills in exchange for rations. Alternatively, he proposed a film along the lines of William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), which he knew had been extremely popular and successful as a political film that encouraged American audiences to support entry into World War II. He described Wyler’s film as one that “did a job no documentary, no 50 newsreels could have done” (41), and began to imagine his own Mrs. Miniver for the postwar period:

Now if there was an entertainment film with Rita Hayworth or Ingrid Bergman or Gary Cooper, in Technicolor if you wish, and with a love story—only with a very special love story, cleverly devised to sell us a few ideological items—such a film would provide us with a superior piece of propaganda; they would stand in long lines to buy, and once they bought, it would stick. Unfortunately, no such film exists yet. It must be made. I want to make it. (40)

A Foreign Affair both was and was not this film. Wilder spent much of his career pushing the limits of the Hays Code and challenging conventional Hollywood expectations, and this filmmaking opportunity was no different.5 Officially, he proposed a formulaic propaganda melodrama but in fact would produce something much more complex and transgressive. A Foreign Affair is the result of Wilder’s dissatisfaction with unambiguous cinema in general and with such cinema as a meaningful instrument for historical reckoning, personal contemplation, and postwar reconstruction in particular.

A Foreign Affair undermines simplistic binaries that might explain away the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust without fully accounting for the difficulty of coming to terms with their all-too human factor. The film suggests that it is not sufficient to conceive of the perpetrators as evil monsters who are clearly distinct from the good Allies. The fact is, the film reminds us, that humans were the architects of Third Reich, and humans are contradictory and changeable. A Foreign Affair is, accordingly, a strange and estranging movie: an ambivalent investigation of occupied postwar Berlin veiled in the often crass garb of the romantic comedy, consistently challenging viewers to come to terms with uncanny transformations of seemingly stable American and German identities and ideologies. The film tells the story of an American congressional delegation that travels to Berlin in 1945 to survey reeducation efforts and the morale levels of American forces. Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is a Republican Congresswoman from Iowa who becomes preoccupied with morally policing the troops. They shock her with their fraternization with German women, entrenchment in the black market, and patronage of less than respectable cabarets. Against her better judgment, Miss Frost falls for one of the American servicemen, Capt. John Pringle (John Lund), who embodies everything she purportedly abhors in postwar Berlin. To make things more interesting, Capt. Pringle is not guilty merely of the occasional black market transaction and casual affair with the local fräulein: he is demonstrably, if covertly, loyal to the former Nazi cabaret singer, Erika Von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich), and she is loyal to him. Various deceptions and revelations ensue, resulting finally in the union of Miss Frost and Capt. Pringle and in Erika’s arrest and presumptive transportation to a labor camp—a grim fate, which, as I’ll discuss later, Wilder manages to convey comically. As the still of Erika ironically addressing Capt. Pringle with the Hitler salute makes jarringly clear, Wilder spared no opportunity to deploy the most symbolically loaded codes of Nazism within an irreverent framework (Fig. 1).

A Foreign Affair is set apart from other films of the immediate postwar by its ambivalence but also by its thorough meditation on surveillance as a political activity, artistic strategy, and tool for existential investigation. The film is triply defined by surveillance. First, the plot revolves around the political surveillance tactics of the American military, which spies on Erika von Schlütow in order to expose persistent and hidden strains of Nazism; this political espionage plot is entangled with the narrative of Phoebe’s romantic and sexual surveillance of Erika as both her rival and object of desire. Second, the myriad genres that Wilder employs and the film’s meta-cinematic references call upon viewers to participate in the network of surveillance as they try to determine what kind of film this really is. Finally, in historical terms, this film is an artifact of Wilder’s experience surveying postwar Berlin—not only for the US government, but for himself. On the whole, A Foreign Affair suggests that surveillance is both the activity that most characterizes daily life in postwar Germany as well as the fundamental practice of postwar filmmaking and film viewing as the world tries to process and move beyond the horrific events of the recent past. Wilder’s position as exile-surveyor, moreover, combined with the spy thriller tropes of the film, reveal the instability and ambivalence of the immediate postwar period in Europe in a way that was not always visible in more propagandistic or didactic films.

After flying over Berlin with a cameraman in 1945, Wilder remarked that “It looked like the end of the world” (qtd. in Sikov 244). Later, reflecting on this period, he recalled, “We wondered where we should go now that the war was over. None of us—I mean the émigrés—really knew where we stood. Should we go home? Where was home?” (qtd. in Sikov, 236). Wilder’s response to the destruction reveals the troubled conception of home experienced by many Jewish refugees who would spend the rest of their lives in exile, even as they became naturalized citizens of new nations, as Wilder did in the United States. For Phyllis Lassner, such an experience aligns the exile with the figure of the spy; both are defined by “displacement and inscrutability” as they “become visible as an adopted persona but with undetectable origins” (9). While Wilder’s work for the US government wasn’t espionage in any conventional sense, it shared with espionage the fact that it was a politically motivated investigation of a time and place that unfolded within seemingly straightforward moral parameters. As an arm of the military, Wilder surveyed the reconstruction efforts and helped to promote the production of films that presented the crimes of Nazism in transparent, large-scale terms. But as with espionage, Wilder’s experience on the ground with the people of Berlin revealed the transgressive, murky realities of the postwar scene, which I discuss in more detail below, that could be difficult to square with the black and white characterization offered by official government-funded films. The character of Phoebe Frost, moreover, and surprisingly, resembles both the spy and the exile as her own identity unravels and is reconstructed throughout the film. With Lassner’s formulation in mind, Wilder’s status as a Polish Jew exiled from Berlin, combined with his own “espionage” and the espionage tropes in A Foreign Affair, encourages us to see how the film itself is constantly displacing meaning, at once making itself visible and inscrutable. It is thus first and foremost not a condemnation of German Nazism but an undercover investigation and exposé of the ambivalence that defined the European Jew’s postwar relationship to nation and home.6

Surveying Postwar Berlin

The Berlin that Wilder encountered in 1945 had been transformed by World War II and the Holocaust into a city that prompted spatial and political surveillance as well as unsettling introspection. In addition to the Nazis’ deportation and killing of more than 60,000 Berlin Jews, the city itself had been decimated by Allied air raids, which had killed as many as 50,000 and led to the evacuation of nearly two million (“Berlin”). Once the capital of Jewish, artistic, and intellectual life in Germany, the city became geographically and culturally unrecognizable.7 In addition to the dislocation experienced by refugees, those who had remained in Germany faced the grim task of coming to terms with Nazi atrocities. As film historian Robert Shandley remarks, the end of the war “signified the end of an entire people’s understanding of itself” (1). Despite the symbolic break with Nazism, however, the transition to a newly defined Germany was to be long and arduous. According to Tony Judt, opinion polls conducted between 1945 and 1949 indicate that the majority of Germans were still firmly entrenched in the values that underwrote an uninterrupted twelve-year period of fascist rule (58). In the immediate postwar years, Judt reports, “a consistent majority of Germans believed that ‘Nazism was a good idea, badly applied.’" In November 1946, as Wilder was preparing to film A Foreign Affair, 37 per cent of Germans questioned in a survey of the American zone took the view that “the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans was necessary for the security of Germans” (Judt 58).

The difficulty of reimagining German identity was intensified by the fact that the country, and Berlin as its capital, lacked a new literal and figurative center. As historian Jennifer Evans describes immediate postwar Berlin, wartime bombing had “altered the physical topography of the city” and in the place of the old, meaningfully ordered Berlin, transient spaces emerged (Evans 150). Transience and division were the order of the day as the city was split into four zones occupied by American, British, French, and Soviet militaries, and there was a constant flux in population consisting of “occupation troops, displaced persons in transit camps, and returning Berliners who had either fled the bombings, served at the front, or had been prevented from an earlier return” (Evans 156). The intellectual and artistic life of the city was drained not only through the killing and displacement of its residents but also through the destruction of landmarks that symbolically confirmed the vibrancy and richness of their creativity. One of the major landmarks to be destroyed by bombs in 1943, for example, was the Romanische Café, a frequent haunt for Wilder and the other directors and actors who defined Weimar cinema, including Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, and Marlene Dietrich, as well as countless writers, critics, and painters (Lacquer 227).

In place of these old cultural landmarks, “a macabre mix of blue movie theaters, shish kebab stands, street prophets, wrestling venues, and ‘circus people shoveling cow manure’ took up shop amidst the rats that still scurried in and around the spaces opened up by the bombing” (Evans 169). For those who had known and loved Berlin in the Weimar period, the immediate postwar years required a constant negotiation between the knowledge of Berlin’s decadent past and the degraded, but almost fantastical, realities of its present. As actor and concentration camp survivor Wolfgang Langhoff described it, “Destruction was the norm and integrity, both spiritual and architectural, was clearly the exception” (qtd. in Evans 156). This sentiment was echoed by many who wrote about the postwar city; in 1955, after a decade of postwar life had elapsed, one Scottish correspondent evoked a gothic environment that recalled the elaborate film sets of German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: “behind the front of normality” there often “lurked an uneasiness and a fear, a sense of dark things moving in a half-world” (qtd. in Evans 158). Uncanny spaces and transgressive, devious behavior thus became the rule, and the underground cabaret, as Wilder depicts with the Lorelei in A Foreign Affair, became the new anti-landmark.

The loss of lives, meaningful landmarks, and recognizable geography meant that postwar Berlin was disorientingly open to new signification. If the cabaret, with its secretive, seedy, and transgressive performances, was the site of popular and unregulated resignification, cinema was a more official and less ambivalent venue for the task. American and Soviet occupying forces were keenly aware of the fact that cinema had been integral to the propaganda machine of the Third Reich, and so they were intent on dismantling and replacing traces of this cinematic past with a heavy hand. The Allies followed a policy developed by Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067 in April 1945 that spelled out four main goals for reconstruction: denazification, democratization, demilitarization, and decartelization (Bathrick 32). In line with this policy, the Allies set to work on Death Mills, an exposé of Nazi crimes intended to shock audiences and collectively indict the German people. Intercutting images from the 1934 Nuremberg rally with footage from the death march to Buchenwald, piles of corpses, and emaciated bodies, Death Mills “brutally encapsulates the disparity between once oblivious adoration and—a scant eleven years later—the seeming remorseless self-pity of these very same Germans” (Bathrick 33). The concluding voiceover, delivered by Oskar Seidlin, an exiled German Jewish professor of German literature at Smith College, hands down a crystal clear judgment:

Yesterday, while millions were dying in German concentration camps, Germans jammed into Nuremberg to cheer the Nazi Party and sing hymns of hate. Today these same Germans who cheered the destruction of humanity, in their own land, who cheered attacks on hapless neighbors, who cheered the enslavement of Europe beg for your sympathy. They are the same Germans who heiled Hitler. (Death Mills).

As an immediate, morally charged response to the devastations of the war and the Holocaust, Death Mills was more an act of accusation and conviction than an attempt to understand how and why these horrific events had transpired. In his 1945 report to the US government, Wilder notes that Germans had been generally receptive to such films, but he also predicted that the “novelty” would soon wear off, claiming that in Berlin it already had: “Will the Germans come in week and after week,” he wonders, “to play the guilty pupil?” (Wilder, “Wilder Memorandum” 40).

Alongside Allied productions like Death Mills, a cycle of 15-20 reeducation feature films, referred to by film historians as “rubble films,” were produced by the Soviet-controlled DEFA between 1946 and 1949, and Wilder helped to interview directors for these productions. Under the encouragement of Soviet officials, these films were intended to emphasize Germans reeducating themselves, and they were to demonstrate a radical ideological and aesthetic break from the recent Nazi past. Robert Shandley insightfully characterizes the distinctive quality of rubble films, describing them as “topical films from a time often regarded as devoid of topics. … [T]hey are films that take the mise en scène of destroyed Germany as a background and metaphor [for] the destruction of Germans’ own sense of themselves” (2).8 Indeed, like the neo-realist approach to filmmaking emerging at the same time in postwar Italy, rubble films were subject to the unique constraints imposed by physically war-torn and economically devastated conditions. On-location shooting, the extensive use of amateur civilian actors, post-dubbing of sound, and gritty black and white film stock were less aesthetic choices than default tactics when more expensive pre-war studio standards were simply unavailable. Rubble films were grimly realistic, heavily censored by the Allies, and hover somewhere between documentary and fiction. Children were a popular focus as they easily figured as unintended bearers of enormous national guilt for whom audiences were likely to feel sympathy. Somewhere in Berlin (dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946), for example, follows a group of children who play at war among the rubble, unaware of the implications of their games. Germany Year Zero, the third installment of Roberto Rossellini’s Italian neo-realist trilogy, often considered an unofficial “rubble film,” also focuses on the devastating story of a young boy in the ruins of Berlin. Rossellini’s film, which Wilder and Marlene Dietrich admired deeply (Gemünden 64), culminates darkly with the child committing suicide by stepping out of a window and plunging into the rubble. The film represents a symbolic destruction of innocence and a sign of the war’s burdensome shadow extending into the future to be faced (or not) by the next generation. In their bleak representation of life in postwar Germany, films with titles such as The Murderers Among Us (1946), Somewhere in Berlin (1947), and In Those Days (1947) left little room for doubt about the burden of the past, but they also introduced the potential for sympathy with a reforming Germany in a way that Allied documentaries like Death Mills did not. In this sense, rubble films were more humanizing in their representations of Germans, but they were also deeply troubling. Shandley observes that many of these films appeared to investigate guilt but actually avoided directly assigning responsibility to the institutions and powerful figures of the Third Reich, and he claims that films such as In Those Days are “far from morally satisfying to today’s viewers” (4). Instead, many rubble films emphasized the suffering of purportedly innocent Germans and even equated the suffering of returning POWs with the victims who had survived the camps (4).

Despite the official break with the recent Nazi past and the undeniably bleak scenario represented in rubble films, the extent of Berlin’s architectural and geographical ruin meant that the city naturally lent itself to ambiguity and to negotiating abstract ethical questions. Many rubble films open by asserting truth-value with documentary or newsreel-style footage of a bombed-out city (in most cases, Berlin). But the ironic truth of such opening surveillance images is their assertion, not simply of the traces of devastation, but, paradoxically, of a kind of placelessness. It is the ambiguity inherent in this paradoxical assertion of placelessness that seems to have captured Wilder’s imagination. With A Foreign Affair, he challenges the notion underwriting the documentaries and rubble films that he investigated and in some cases helped to produce: that surveillance and cinema have a direct connection to creating moral and existential clarity in the postwar years. His film, instead, plays on the difficulty of clearly answering the questions that define this moment of judgment and reeducation: “how could you?” and “who are you, really?” What is under investigation here, unlike in Nuremberg, is not a group of war criminals but the ordinary citizen. In the case of Erika, the film reveals the difficulty of assessing the guilt of former Nazi sympathizers whose allegiances, both past and present, are far from transparent. But Wilder also examines the ease with which the average American citizen, such as Capt. Pringle or Phoebe, can become complicit in the very ideologies and practices that they claim to be working against. As many of Wilder’s films do, this one uncomfortably explores the unanticipated transgressions that accompany efforts to impose rigid rules and hand down over-generalizing judgments in the context of politics, gender, and filmmaking itself.

In the opening sequence, Wilder unsettles the assumptions of truth-value and moral clarity associated with documentary surveillance. As the credits roll, the viewer is situated in the air, watching a plane fly in and out of the clouds. The spectators’ first position is one of undeniable power. Next, the power of this position is confirmed with the result of the Allied bombing campaign, and the truth value of the film is asserted through its documentary surveillance technique (Fig. 2).

Departing from the rubble film aesthetic, however, the documentary mode doesn’t remain uninterrupted for long. Images of the hollowed out city are immediately intercut with Hollywood studio-shot scenes of the Congressional delegation on board the plane comically surveying the scene—a jarring response to the devastation they (and the viewers) have witnessed below (Fig. 3).

Wilder immediately adds a self reflexive layer of surveillance here as the camera films the Congressman filming out the window of the plane (Fig. 4). Viewers are to be just as interested in the act of surveillance itself as they are in whatever it is the characters see.

Clearly, moreover, the entire sequence is a reappropriation of Leni Riefenstahl’s iconic 1935 work of Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will—and an irreverent one at that. Riefenstahl’s film, documenting Hitler’s 1934 Nuremberg rally, also opens in an airplane, with similar intercutting between aerial surveillance and shots of the plane itself as the viewer follows Hitler’s “heroic” descent into Nuremberg, where he is welcomed by a typically massive display of fascist political theatrics: streets lined with exuberant supporters, tens of thousands of soldiers and workers in ornate military formations. In Wilder’s film, the American delegation is also welcomed by the military, but it is a decidedly small and rather feeble affair. It’s a comic send-up, for sure, but one that could easily be seen as too close to home in any number of ways.

With this opening sequence, Wilder initiates the meta-cinematic strain that runs covertly throughout the film, on the one hand calling on viewers to be cinematic detectives and on the other quietly establishing new meanings for canonical works of German cinema.9 The reappropriation of Triumph of the Will gestures toward the new significance of Nuremberg in the late 1940s: no longer the site of Hitler’s rallies and the 1935 anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws, it is now the site of the Nuremberg trials. And so A Foreign Affair acknowledges that the surveillance and ultimate judgment of the Nazi past looms large as the postwar world moves from contending with Nazi triumphalism to the international search for justice. This particular reference is also the first of many boldly ambiguous political moves on Wilder’s part. The allusion does two things at once: it critiques the distorted heroism of Nazism and Nazi propaganda cinema, and it also uncomfortably suggests that the Americans are the new dictators who will use whatever methods they deem most efficient in establishing a democratic German state. No one captures this tension more than Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, whose appearance, costuming, and dialogue characterize her as both a responsible patriotic American and as a kind of Nazi dictator. On the plane, she authoritatively addresses her congressional colleagues, countering their expressed desire to help rehabilitate Germany and instill the people with some hope for the future with a direct allusion to ethnic cleansing: “[The American troops] are being infected by a kind of moral malaria.…It is our duty…to fumigate this place with all the insecticides at our disposal.” Her appearance is also undeniably Aryan, and she proudly sports an American flag armband. A Foreign Affair thus begins with multiple layers of surveillance that yield uneasy results. It is already posing the troubling question: to whom or what should viewers be loyal in the postwar period, whether they be American or German? The film intimates from the very beginning that loyalty, authority, and nation, as these concepts have been traditionally understood since the Enlightenment, are utterly damaged concepts.

This scene also establishes the film’s hybridity. Prefiguring further genre transgressions and recombinations that will mark the rest of the film, conventions of the on-location documentary-style rubble film are jarringly combined with those of the studio-shot Hollywood screwball comedy. Immediately, in other words, the film establishes the uncanny nature of its content and form. As the film unfolds, it continues to vacillate between the familiar and unfamiliar, combining tropes associated with formulaic spy thrillers, film noir, rubble films, and romantic comedy—all of which are at once comical and deadly serious. In one multi-layered reference, for instance, Wilder spoofs rubble films like Somewhere in Berlin and Germany Year Zero (which was being filmed in Berlin at the same time as the on-location shooting for A Foreign Affair) and references M (1931), Fritz Lang’s classic work of German Expressionism, in a comedic scene in which a young German boy gets in trouble for drawing swastikas on people’s backs. Such scenes, in which the boundaries between genres, ideologies, and moral frameworks are transgressively blurred, leave the spectator in the uncomfortable position of feeling the pleasures of comedy and intrigue alongside the disgust of confronting the dark realities of Nazi Germany’s history.


“Now you’re one of us”

The hybridity and ambivalence of A Foreign Affair is most affecting and unsettling in its representation of identity. Through a multi-layered opposition between the two female leads that is mediated by surveillance at every turn, the film reveals the challenge of clearly distinguishing between German and American experiences, identities, and moral positions after the war. My interpretation builds on Gerd Gemünden’s reading of the allegorical characterization of the two women as amounting to “mixed messages” that “embody the paradoxical situation of the exile contemplating a possible return to the land that had chased him out” (72). Pushing Gemünden’s observation further, particularly with Wilder’s extended oeuvre in mind, I read the relationship between the two women as evidence that the film goes beyond presenting paradoxical mixed messages. It calls for attention to those whose experiences under Nazism and in its aftermath are not clearly identifiable as “good” or “bad.” This is not a moral abdication on Wilder’s part but an effort to more truthfully represent what he has personally experienced and witnessed.

In the first part of the film, Phoebe and Erika are characterized as direct opposites. Phoebe is prudish, uptight, naïve, and rigidly judgmental (Fig. 5).

During her initial tour of the city with Col. Plummer, she is whisked away by two American servicemen who mistake her for a local fraulein (she “goes undercover” by telling them her name is “Gretchen Gesundheit”) and who take her to the underground Lorelei nightclub where Erika is the resident cabaret performer. The Lorelei is aptly named after the German water spirit who, like a siren or mermaid, lures men to their deaths with her beautiful singing voice, and Phoebe’s experience there makes the reference comically apparent. The excursion leaves her scandalized, infuriated, and determined to right the moral imbalances she observes. Erika, on the other hand, is knowing, corrupt, and highly sexualized. In her first scene, she is seeing off Capt. Pringle, who has stopped by to deliver black market gifts: nylons and a mattress (Fig. 6). The last thing she says to him in this scene is, “When you come back, bring me some sugar… And some soap… And hairpins… And a pillow to go with that mattress.” She’s no romantic.

Whatever she feels for “Johnny,” as she calls him, is second to the fact that he is pragmatically valuable to her, sexually and economically. Her seductive cynicism is reinforced time and again with her cabaret performances throughout the films. In “Black Market,” for example, she exposes the allure of the debased German woman:

Take all I’ve got

Ambitions, convictions, the works!

Why not?

Enjoy these goods

For boy, these goods

Are hot!

Phoebe’s and Erika’s relationship is, on the one hand, a classic romantic comedy rivalry that sets a love triangle plot in motion, but it could also be read more darkly, as a version of the gothic doubling and often violent opposition between women that is central to film noir, in which the femme fatale is pitted against the embodiment of stereotypical female innocence.10 As the film progresses, their relationship registers narratively within both generic traditions, an uncommonly ambiguous place for viewers to reside in 1948.

At almost the same time that Wilder characterizes the two women as rivals, he provides a few clues that they are not as clearly oppositional as it first seems. In terms of costuming, Phoebe’s plaid suit is white with dark stripes; Erika’s dress is dark with white polka dots—neither suggesting a straightforward moral characterization in the way that Hollywood films of the period, particularly film noir and melodrama, often would. In signifying national identity, Phoebe’s hairstyle is like that of a German milkmaid, while Erika has the more American style.11 Wilder also blurs the lines between the two as they survey each other in terms of physical appearance, sexuality, and national identity. When the two meet, Erika critiques Phoebe’s appearance: “I see you do not believe in lipstick, and what a curious way to do your hair—or not to do it.…We apparently have a false idea about the chic American woman. Oh, I suppose that’s publicity from Hollywood.…Perhaps, if you would change the line of your eyebrow a little…” (Fig. 7). On the one hand, as Erika scrutinizes Phoebe’s appearance in nationalistic terms, Wilder references Erika’s Nazi past and lingering xenophobic gaze. On the other hand, given that Phoebe’s appearance is decidedly Aryan and Erika’s could read as American, Erika’s surveillance actually could be read as turning the xenophobic gaze back onto the German fascist body.

The fact that Erika delivers her line about Phoebe’s eyebrow as Phoebe’s eye comes into focus through a keyhole (that undoubtable symbol for spying), moreover, suggests that another reverse surveillance is happening here as Phoebe returns the gaze. Indeed, it is Phoebe who tells Erika in this scene, “We increased our national debt by some $350 billion to win this war. I would regard it as a waste if we didn't eliminate types like you.” Thus, Wilder establishes the two women as uncomfortably related in the national, sexual, and generic networks of surveillance that seek to position them as opposites.

Just as Wilder immediately troubles efforts to make the differences between the two women clearly legible, narrative expectations are also complicated. Wilder layers a more conventional espionage plot on top of the emerging romantic comedy love triangle and noir rivalry. In their first encounter, Phoebe learns that Erika is having an affair with someone named “Johnny,” and after gullibly accepting Capt. Pringle’s self-defense—“there are a lot of Johnnies in the army!”—she detects something politically fishy is afoot, and she is right. With Capt. Pringle’s reluctant help, Phoebe gets to work spying on Erika, ultimately learning that she had sexual ties with high-ranking members of the Nazi party, including Hitler himself. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, spectators are invited to participate in the espionage as they watch Phoebe and Capt. Pringle watching the footage Phoebe has uncovered that substantiates her suspicions (Fig. 8).

Viewers are both aligned with Phoebe as she makes her politically loaded discoveries and, by virtue of the cinematography that includes Phoebe and Capt. Pringle within the frame, subtly distanced from her experience of taking documentary film surveillance as a simple and unmediated transmission of truth. The viewer thus assumes a privileged place when faced with the increasing mélange of generic conventions, one that emphasizes the need to readjust one’s gaze to read film critically rather than quickly capitulate to simple, formulaic explanations and expectations.

Romance, politics, and moral positions become further entangled and their associated narrative conventions less easy to identify and anticipate as the film progresses. Although A Foreign Affair ends true to the Hollywood romantic comedy formula, with the two Americans together, Phoebe’s transformation en route to this ending has little to do with Capt. Pringle and everything to do with how the revelations about Erika’s sordid political and sexual past seem to change her. The main relationship of the film, in other words, is the one that develops between the two women. Preparing for a date with Capt. Pringle, Phoebe imitates Erika by wearing a revealing black gown that she has purchased on the black market, lining her eyebrows, and putting on lipstick. She then insists that Capt. Pringle take her to the Lorelei, where she gets drunk on champagne. Although the two are on a date, Erika is clearly Phoebe’s real fascination, and indeed, Wilder positions Erika’s reflection between them throughout the scene (Fig. 9).

When Capt. Pringle is called away, Phoebe insists on staying at the club, and Erika agrees, ordering her another bottle of champagne on the house. Before long, Phoebe is the one performing patriotic songs (in her case, a song about Iowa), having lost all inhibitions and prior assertions of moral integrity. When the club is raided, and the two are taken to the police station, Phoebe seems almost elated (Fig. 10). This shot, paired with one from the following scene at the police station, in which Erika bribes a police officer to let them both go free, suggests that the divisions between the two have almost completely dissolved (Fig. 11).



In the next scene, Wilder blurs the distinctions between the two women when he gives the audience reason to sympathize with Erika. She explains her behavior to Phoebe by referring to her experience in wartime Berlin: “You must understand what happened to us here,” she says. “We all became animals with one instinct: self-preservation.” Her comment refers not only the decimation of the city by Allied bombs but to the violent occupation of Berlin by the Soviet army and perhaps even to surviving Nazism.12 In giving Dietrich these lines, Wilder acknowledged the undeniable brutality of this experience, and he avoids providing a simplistic moralizing narrative of the war and its aftermath. Erika is neither good nor bad in any formulaic Hollywood sense, and she is just as likely to be a victim as a perpetrator, even if she is hardly a stereotypical victim.

Back in Erika’s flat, after learning that they both want the same man, Phoebe is forced to reckon with her own corruptibility, her own “animalistic” behavior. In her characteristically straightforward manner, Erika spells out the political implications of Phoebe’s actions: “Four hours ago, you were in a position to have him court-martialed, send me to a labor camp. Not now. Not anymore. Now you’re one of us.” While it might seem that Erika has simply out-manipulated Phoebe, which to an extent she has, the entire sequence reveals that Phoebe was a willing participant. Wilder does not stop there with the complications, however. Positioning Dietrich’s cabaret-singing character as a corrupting force entails multiple references and ironies. Wilder is playing heavily both on Dietrich’s cinematic reputation, which was cemented with her 1930 film The Blue Angel (dir. Joseph von Sternberg), and with her famously strict anti-Nazi politics.13 In The Blue Angel, Dietrich also played a cabaret singer, Lola Lola, who lured an “innocent” man into the depraved world of illicit nightlife. Lola is recognized not only as Dietrich’s breakout role as a star but as one of cinema’s first femmes fatales: attractive, dangerous, but also powerful and self-determined. Wilder references The Blue Angel not only in the storyline of A Foreign Affair, but also in the literal casting and staging of her cabaret performances, which include original music and piano playing by Friedrich Hollaender, the pianist and composer for The Blue Angel. In referencing this classic piece of Weimar cinema in such explicit ways, Wilder is lamenting the cultural losses of the war but also finding a way to resurrect this past, even as an absent presence. As such, the film becomes an ambiguous hybrid, blending a past and present that seem on the surface to be mutually exclusive.

The complex appeal of Erika von Schlütow, moreover, cannot be fully understood without a sense of Dietrich’s own firm rejection of Nazism. Like Wilder, she became an American citizen after migrating to Hollywood in 1930, and she was ever-vocal about her rejection of Nazism and refusal to return permanently to Germany after the war. For her tireless work entertaining American troops on USO tours throughout the war, she was the first woman ever to win the United States government’s Medal of Freedom and is reported to have worn the medal proudly at parties (Bach 329-30). Indeed, she initially refused Wilder’s request to play the part of an unrepentant Nazi. She agreed only after Wilder nonchalantly showed her the screen tests of two American actresses he had in mind for the role should she decline—that changed her mind immediately (Sikov 272). Wilder deliberately references her politics through costuming: the dress that she wears in A Foreign Affair had been made famous in a widely circulated photograph of Dietrich performing on her USO tour (Fig. 12 and Fig. 13). Wilder’s allusions to Dietrich’s Weimar star persona and her wartime activism uncannily turn “the figure of the Nazi sympathizer into a politically much more layered and ultimately sympathetic character” (Gemünden 71).


Wilder provides a number of avenues for interpreting the development of these two characters. On the one hand, he weaves a cautionary tale about the dangerous attractions of fascism, as Phoebe is easily seduced by Erika. On the other, he is referring to Dietrich’s infamous appeal to both men and women, intimating just within the bounds of the Hays Code that the love story here is not a normative heterosexual one. There is, however, another covert interpretive possibility for the film that circles back to Wilder’s personal story: that Phoebe becomes a kind of stand-in for the exiled European Jew and even for Wilder himself. Although on the surface of things, Phoebe couldn’t be farther away from this subject position, the ambivalent situation in which she finds herself in relation to Erika and postwar Berlin resonates with Wilder’s own experience: a complicated mixture of repudiating everything German in the immediate postwar moment and an unmistakable longing to reconnect with the place that was his intellectual and artistic home, a desire to find something redeeming. In this sense, Phoebe’s attraction to Erika is not sexual nor a submissive response to fascism, but an uncanny vacillation between recognition and estrangement, attraction and repulsion that speaks to the unavoidable and complex feeling of the exile upon returning to an absent present “home.”

In his complex depiction of both female characters, Wilder calls on viewers to hold conflicting characterizations of individuals, gender ideals, nationalities, time periods, as well as film genres in their minds all at the same time. As a result, when the political espionage plot emerges to be resolved at the end of the film with the revelation that Erika has been protecting her high-ranking Nazi lover—presumed dead, but actually very much alive—and Col. Plummer orders her arrest and transfer to a labor camp, viewers are certain to have mixed feelings. It does not seem so out of line for Wilder to convey this information with a heavy comic wink: Erika is depicted finally not as the humiliated, defeated foe but being eagerly followed by the US troops who are “lucky” to get to escort her back to her apartment to collect her things. Col. Plummer’s gesture after he gives the order, rubbing the side of his nose with a finger, even suggests that she will not be taken to the labor camp at all. She is an appealing, powerful femme fatale to the end. Gemünden reads Dietrich’s “exit as an unrepentant and unpunished German” as a “strong contrast to the highly conventional (and improbable) melodramatic climax” of the romantic union between Phoebe and Capt. Pringle, which he interprets as “obviously meant to placate Production Code Administration” (71). While I agree with Gemünden that the romantic ending is “too unconvincing to be taken seriously” and that certainly it would have been true to form for Wilder to appease the Hays Code surveillance apparatus, I find this narrative overlay to be crucial in terms of the film’s ultimate commentary on surveillance and postwar ambivalence.

If A Foreign Affair suggests that surveillance is the defining activity of immediate postwar life in Germany, it is because it also reveals ambivalence as omnipresent. Ultimately, surveillance aims to maintain order by eliminating ambiguity. While being under surveillance by Allied forces equates to vulnerability for the postwar German, engaging in surveillance creates and reinforces the new hierarchy of postwar international power relations. For those who are markedly ambivalent, such as the political exile or refugee, there is no such thing as an innocent or neutral gaze; there is only surveillance by the regulating authorities. In A Foreign Affair as well as so many of Wilder’s other films, the moments of redeeming pleasure and freedom are those in which characters temporarily escape the rigid demands of surveillance and revel in gendered and political ambivalence. In these moments, however, they are still being watched—and this is crucial. They perform for an audience who validates, rather than polices, their ambivalence through its gaze. In A Foreign Affair, this moment occurs when Phoebe spontaneously performs at the Lorelei (Fig. 14).

In the liminal, covert space of the underground cabaret, Phoebe may have been manipulated by Erika, but if we take her performance at face value, she seems to experience genuine joy and release. Her identity is completely unraveled and she is free to be someone internally contradictory, someone whom she cannot be in the “above-ground” postwar world that is intent on regulating identity and eliminating potentially troubling political and gendered ambiguity. And so, unconvincing as it may be, the resolution of the romance plot that has Phoebe heading back to a relationship with Capt. Pringle in the United States is more than placating window dressing; it is Wilder’s acknowledgement that the larger surveillance system, with its insistence on normative identities and stories, is both incredibly powerful and deeply insufficient for enabling the full range of human experience to flourish.14 Meta-cinematically, A Foreign Affair calls on spectators to adjust their own viewing practices, encouraging them to maintain an affirming and open-minded, if critical, gaze instead of wielding the restrictive and violent gaze of fascist surveillance. The ending thus leaves the viewer to confront the fact that while surveillance does not always bring moral clarity, it may reveal an ambiguous, unsettling truth: that the most seemingly foreign of affairs might in fact be domestic as well. Reading Phoebe as a potential covert stand-in for the European exile or refugee most pointedly delivers this truth to the average American viewer, for whom such positions remained starkly and troublingly Other. Watching Jean Arthur unravel on screen, they may have come closer to comprehending the ambivalent exile experience as not so foreign after all.


1 For example, Richard Armstrong’s Billy Wilder: American Film Realist (2000) and, in a more popular context, Glenn Hopp’s Pocket Essentials Film guide to Wilder’s work (2001) both discuss sixteen films, but neither includes A Foreign Affair. The notable exception is Gerd Gemünden’s monograph on Wilder’s American films, which takes A Foreign Affair as its title.

2 Wilder assumed that his family had perished at Auschwitz, and during his lifetime was never able to confirm this assumption. It was only in 2011 that his Austrian biographer tracked down archival records of their deaths at Plaszow (mother, 1943), Belzec (stepfather, 1942), and the ghetto at Nowy Targ (grandmother, 1943).

3 Denazification and re-education were official legal responses as well as less formal cultural programs intended to enact retribution and initiate a future-oriented trajectory of reform for postwar Germany. Denazification entailed a series of trials between 1945 and 1947, the best known being the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, in which “the Allied occupying powers in Germany prosecuted Nazis and their collaborators for crimes of war, crimes against humanity, murder and other common felonies committed in the pursuit of Nazi goals” (Judt 53). Tony Judt cites Telford Taylor, one of the key US prosecutors throughout the denazification period, who recalls that “too many people believed they had been wrongfully hurt by the leaders of the Third Reich and wanted a judgment to that effect’” (53).

4 The film was produced by the US Army Signal Corps, and Wilder is listed as the director, but the film was actually a massive collaboration among various Allied contributors. See David Bathrick’s article “Billy Wilder’s Cold War Berlin” for a detailed analysis of the extent of Wilder’s involvement with Death Mills, which Bathrick explains is “still a matter of dispute” (32).

5 Instituted in 1930 and repealed in 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code (known popularly as the Hays Code, after the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will Hays) regulated the cinematic representation of crimes, sex, vulgarity, obscenity, dancing, profanity, costuming, religion, national feelings, intertitles, and repellent subjects. Almost all of Wilder’s films challenge the Code’s moral guidelines, often taking as the very subject of his work those stories and situations that would be labelled as “vulgar.” He seemed to have little time for the Code’s stipulation that “the treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, although not necessarily evil subjects, should be subject always to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.”

6 The fundamental homelessness and instability underwriting Wilder’s life informs not only his representation of postwar Berlin in A Foreign Affair but, more broadly, his abiding interest in liminal, anachronistic, or “empty” spaces (as in Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Ace in the Hole, and The Apartment) as well as the uncanny transformation of a seemingly fixed identity (gender identity in the case of Some Like it Hot or class identity in the case of Sabrina, for example).

7 In his biography of Wilder, Ed Sikov describes the stimulating environment that Wilder would have encountered upon his arrival in Berlin from Vienna in 1926: “Hard, smoky, and driven, Berlin was Billy’s kind of town.… Berlin was a city of Jews. Its spirit was profoundly Jewish.…By the end of the 1920s, the city boasted more papers than any other city in the world [149 of them by 1930]. … Nearly four hundred magazines were published in the city. In addition, Berlin had about sixteen thousand cafés, bars, and dance halls” (32).

8 Like film noir, “rubble films” is a category that refers to a loose cycle rather than a rigidly defined genre, and so there is room for debate about what should be included. In Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich, Shandley considers 17 films, “which range from romances and family melodramas to gangster films and detective stories” and that “constitute a cycle of films insofar as they are all problem films whose problem is the long shadow cast by the legacy of the Third Reich” (3). See his book for a compelling investigation that reveals the variety and complexity of this film cycle. The films Shandley analyzes are The Murderers Among Us (dir. Wolfgang Staudt, 1946), Somewhere in Berlin (dir. Peter Pewas, 1946), Razzia (dir. Werner Klinger, 1947), In Those Days (dir. Helmut Käutner, 1947), Marriage in the Shadows (dir. Kurt Maetzig, 1947), And the Heavens Above (dir. Josef von Báky, 1947), Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (dir. Harald Braun, 1947), Film Without a Title (dir. Rudolf Jugert, 1947), Street Acquaintance (dir. Peter Pewas, 1948), Long is the Road (dir. Herbert Fredersdorf and Marek Goldstein, 1948), Morituri (dir. Eugen York, 1948), ’48 All Over Again (dir. Gustav von Wangenheim, 1948), The Blum Affair (dir. Erich Engel, 1948), The Apple is Off! (dir. Helmut Käutner, 1948), The Ballad of Berlin (dir. R.A. Stemmle, 1948), Love ’47 (dir. Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1949), and The Last Illusion (dir. Josef von Báky, 1949).   

9 For Gerd Gemünden, who considers A Foreign Affair in terms of postwar German cinema, the film “is much more indebted to the cinematic traditions that first shaped Wilder’s own development as a writer, both at Ufa and Paramount [than it is to the rubble film tradition], and it is precisely by consciously alluding to these traditions that the film contributes most to the discourse on postwar German reeducation” (66).

10 Wilder’s own classic works of film noir, Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), both make use of this rivalry, but so do many others, including The Big Sleep (1946) and Mildred Pierce (1945).

11 Gemünden notes in his extended discussion of the two women in terms of national allegory, contemporary German audiences would immediately have seen traces of German identity in Phoebe and of American identity in Erika, particularly given Dietrich’s celebrity persona and her move from Germany to Hollywood in 1930 (69-71).

12 Tony Judt cites the American diplomat George Kennan who described the effect of the Red Army as having “no parallel in modern European experience.…The Russians swept the native population clean in a manner that had no parallel since the days of the Asiatic hordes” (19). Indeed, women were treated with particular violence, with clinics in Berlin officially reporting around 90,000 rapes at the hands of the Soviets, mostly occurring within the five days of the battle for Berlin (Judt notes that this number is almost certainly a gross underestimate) (Judt 20). The ruthlessness of the Soviet Army was made all too clear to Wilder as a result of one particular encounter. Ed Sikov recounts Wilder’s attempt to find his father’s grave in a ruined Jewish cemetery in which he met a rabbi who had survived the war miraculously without leaving Berlin. Overjoyed at the liberation of the city, he and his wife emerged from hiding to celebrate, and the rabbi “watched in horror as their ‘liberators’ raped and killed his wife” (Sikov 245).

13 See Steven Bach’s biography, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend for a full discussion of Dietrich’s resistance to Nazism before, during, and after the war.

14 Similar moments in Wilder’s oeuvre, when characters experience freedom from surveillance and instead accept the gift of the affirming gaze, include the dream-like scene in Stalag 17 (1953) when the POW’s dance together, some dressed in drag. Even more transgressive are the many performances in Some Like it Hot (1959) in which Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne, and most notable is the final shot in which the two remain in drag, discussing why they can’t get married as they head out to sea: a private performance that is only visible to the film spectator.

Works Cited

Bach, Steven. Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Bathrick, David. “Billy Wilder’s Cold War Berlin.” New German Critique, Summer 2010, Issue 110, pp. 31-47.

Berlin.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website. 

Evans, Jennifer. Life Among the Ruins: Cityscape and Sexuality in Cold War Berlin. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Gemünden, Gerd. A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films. Bergham Books, 2008.

Hutter, Andreas and Heinz Peters. “Gitla stand nicht auf Schindlers Liste.” Neue Zürcher Zeitung. 6 October 2011. 

Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Penguin, 2005.

Lacquer, William. Weimar: A Cultural History. 1974. Transaction Publishers, 2011.

Lassner, Phyllis. Espionage and Exile: Fascism and Anti-Fascism in British Spy Fiction and Film. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

“The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.” Reprinted in The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code, by Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons. University of Kentucky Press, 2001, pp. 285-300.

Shandley, Robert. Rubble Films: German Cinema in the Shadow of the Third Reich. Temple, 2001.

Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Hyperion, 1998.

Wilder, Billy, director. A Foreign Affair. Paramount, 1948.

---. Death Mills. Produced by US Army Signal Corps, 1945. Internet Archive.

Wilder, Billy. “The Wilder Memorandum.” 1945. Reprinted in The Americanization of Germany: Post-War Culture, 1945-1949, by Ralph Willett, Routledge, 1992, pp. 40-44.

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