Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair: Marlene Dietrich's Star Persona and American Interventionist Strategies in Postwar Berlin
by Christina Riley
Bright Lights Film Journal
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.
Along with Sternberg and Dietrich, another young cinema maverick fled Berlin for the safety of Hollywood: Billy Wilder. He arrived in 1934, and immediately began working as a screenwriter. Along with other émigrés, Wilder and company began to employ their alien influences across the American cinematic machine. Wilder first worked with Dietrich in A Foreign Affair (1948). The film focused on the American reconstruction of postwar Berlin, with Dietrich playing an ex-Nazi seductress opposite Frank Capra's girl next door, Jean Arthur, and Joseph Lund, a poor man's Gary Cooper. The film, with its manifold ur-texts and multinational insights, provides a cinematic exposé that attempts to deconstruct codified notions of nations and their people while exposing the jingoism of postwar U.S. interventionist policies. Revolutionary in its cinematic and historical context, A Foreign Affair wryly questions American interventionist policies in postwar Berlin, while Dietrich's Erika von Schlütow works as a tool to dislocate conceptions of a fixed national identity.
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.
Billy Wilder was given the task of returning to his former home of Berlin to aid the military in its reconstruction of the German cinema. Films that occupied Berlin's theaters carried two goals: to serve as diversions from the horrid conditions of Germany; and to provide educational, democratizing tools for the German public. Gerd Gemünden, a Wilder scholar, considered his role in Germany's cinematic restructuring, writing, "Wilder postponed his actual task . . . which was to write a report on the state of the production facilities and personnel available for use in the industry, and instead pitched his own idea about a film to the Office of Military Government in Germany" (58). What the director actually wrote became known as the "Wilder Memorandum," elucidating his beliefs regarding the politics of filmic propaganda. While discussing the shortcomings of Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth's Cover Girl (1944), Wilder's profound understanding of the potentiality of filmic indoctrination was exhibited by his call for "an entertainment film with Rita Hayworth or Ingrid Bergman . . . with Gary Cooper 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 serious piece of propaganda" (58). Wilder then goes on to outline the plotline of what was to be A Foreign Affair — a film that was a commercially viable option while simultaneously incorporating Wilder's own brand of au courant propaganda.
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