BillyWilder's 1947 romantic comedy A Foreign Affair, which screened in Berlinas the closing night attraction in the Selling Democracy series, may seemcharming to many - but it re-appears in Berlin with a legacy of controversythat saw the film banned in Germany for years after the war.
Thefilm was made by Wilder in response to an invitation by the US Office Of WarInformation in 1945 to "produce an anti-Nazi propaganda film aimedspecifically at German audiences." Wilder who, like his star Marlene Dietrich,was a refugee from the Nazis, chose romantic comedy as his genre for the pieceand the idea was greeted with enthusiasm by Erich Pommer, the German-bornproducer engaged by the US to put theGerman film industry back on its feet.
SandraSchulberg, the co-curator of the Selling Democracy series with Rainer Rother,has close ties to the film. Her father Stuart Schulberg worked with Pommer asone of the OMGUS (Office of Military Government/US) film officers who ended upbanning the film in Germany. Schulberg herself has researched in detail thedeliberations that led to the banning and denouncing of the film on the floorof US Congress for portraying Germans and Americans as equally corrupt, not tomention for placing a wisecracking comedy in the heart of the devastation ofpostwar Berlin.
Schulbergexplained that the controversy over the film resurfaced again in the early1950s. A Dachau survivor Herbert G Luft living in the US wrote an articlecalled A Matter Of Decadence in influential publication The Quarterly, accusingWilder of being a traitor to both Germany and his adopted homeland. AForeign Affair, he wrote, mocked the suffering of Holocaust victims andequated Americans with Nazis.
TheQuarterly invited Wilder's co-screenwriter Charles Brackett to respond to thepiece which described A Foreign Affair as "one of the mostrevolting episodes ever projected onto the screen." Brackett's arcticle,entitled A Matter Of Humour rebutted Luft's charges, saying: "It is likereading an essay about Van Gogh by someone who is colour blind." Lettersflew in to The Quarterly and one was printed by Stuart Schulberg, whose workwith Pommer included wrangling with the Motion Picture Export Association overthe selection of US features for Germany. "US film imports were evaluatedstrictly as "good orientation" or "bad orientation," heexplained. "For some reason or other (perhaps because his films werealways so provocative), Billy Wilder's pictures became our specialconcern."
Herecalled the first screening of A Foreign Affair in Berlin and the"disgust" it provoked in the group of officers watching it. "Wecould not excuse a director who played the ruins for laughs, cast MilitaryGovernment officers as comics, and rang in the Nazis for an extra boff,"he said, adding that Wilder was deemed "irresponsible" for his film.
SandraSchulberg sees A Foreign Affair as a classic example of one film beingsubject to myriad interpretations - an invaluable "Rorschach" test,as she puts it. But, she adds, she also sees the controversy as a tellingharbinger of the decade that would see the word "un-American" bandiedaround and destroying lives. " Can anyone read the arguments put forth byLuft and Brackett and not shiver at the accusations of anti-Americanism, andthe tussle over who loves his country more'" she concludes.