Berlin, 1947, two years past the end of the war in Europe and the fall of the Third Reich, and what was once the cultural capital of the continent is in ruins, the city divided under the administration of the American and Russian occupying armies who try to maintain order while the nation rebuilds itself.
A United States congressional committee flies in to assess the complicated situation, the morale of the troops and questions of charity versus imperialism, but for Iowan congresswoman Phoebe Frost the question is more one of morality as she finds that the black market is booming and that American officers are turning a blind eye.
A stolen birthday cake she had couriered for Captain John Pringle from his sweetheart back home turning up on the tables in a notorious nightclub, the Lorelei, it also plays host nightly to the cabaret chanteuse Erika von Schlütow, believed to have had connections to the Nazi party and who should have been arrested, but whom Frost comes to believe is being protected, and as the one man she can trust she approaches Captain Pringle to aid her investigation.
A city which was familiar to both writer/director Billy Wilder and the iconic Marlene Dietrich who stars as Erika, he had worked there as a journalist before entering the world of film while she had been a star of the stage; both of them having become American citizens in the intervening years, she was reluctant to take the lead in A Foreign Affair but Wilder could conceive of no other performer.
Filmed on location in the summer of 1947 with studio work following in Hollywood until early the following year, A Foreign Affair was released in 1948 and is now presented on Blu-ray by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series, masquerading as a sharply observed tangled romantic comedy of the type of which Wilder was famed but actually concealing much in its left hand while dazzling and distracting with the right.
With Jean Arthur as the appropriately named Phoebe Frost, representing her state which voted 62% Republican, she expects efficiency and discipline, but Berlin is another country for which she has no map; magnificent and proud yet resigned to her inevitable fate, Erika is a survivor whose loyalty may seem to blow with the wind but whose honour would still rather save others than trample them, even her rival.
Caught between these two wilful women, romantically and politically, is John Lund as Captain Pringle, and in an unusual reversal he is fully ten years younger than either of them, trying to steer a course without hurting either while performing his duty in a city where cigarettes, stockings and candy bars are currency and every customer of the nightclubs is slippery.
A very different Berlin he revisited over a decade later in One, Two, Three, the new edition of A Foreign Affair also contains a video essay by critic Kat Ellinger considering the shared history of Wilder and Dietrich, as fascinating as any of their films, an archive interview with Wilder and two radio versions of the story from 1949 and 1951 featuring, among others, Wilder, Dietrich, Lund and Lucille Ball.