A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films

Gerd Gemünden,
A Foreign Affair: Billy Wilder’s American Films.
New York: Berghahn Books, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84545-419-7
US$27.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Berghahn Books)

When asked about the meaning of one of his paintings, Picasso reportedly shrugged, “Don’t ask me. I’m the artist.” I thought of this quote when pondering Gerd Gemünden’s book on Billy Wilder. Gemünden says his premise is that Wilder’s films “tally with great accuracy the losses and gains of translating oneself into another culture” (p. 5) and that this is what he intends to explore. After reading the book I have very little sense of any such reckoning in Wilder’s films. But I have gained a richer understanding than I had had of something more central to Wilder, something Gemünden mentions in passing but proceeds in his book to illuminate willy-nilly: Wilder’s “cynicism”.

“Because of Wilder’s disenchanted views of sordid human frailty,” Gemünden writes,

his films have been called cynical, bitter, and misanthropic. I would argue that they simply tell the truth about unpleasant areas of human behavior . . . .

[His protagonists] may be cynics, but their cynicism shows off a society morally far inferior, attributing to these antiheroes a sense of courage and integrity. Many of Wilder’s films celebrate the humanism of the survivor, no matter how scarred. (p. 3)

This insight, I think, is what the book is about (i.e., what’s interesting about the book), despite the author’s attempt to subsume it under the experience of exile. He spends a lot of time tracing Wilder’s early experiences with the Berlin film industry and his sense of displacement after emigrating, but while scores of European artists fled to Hollywood in response to Nazism, only one made films that frolic with sardonic but empathic pleasure in moral hypocrisy.

Gemünden examines only seven films in any detail: Double Indemnity (USA 1944); A Foreign Affair (USA 1948); Sunset Boulevard (USA 1950); Some Like It Hot (USA 1959); The Apartment (USA 1960); The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (UK 1970); and Fedora (France/West Germany 1978). None of these films trade in exile, and although Wilder’s experience of displacement undoubtedly informs his writing and direction of these films, especially A Foreign Affair, it’s just too much of a stretch, and to my mind a pointless one, to find exile prominently in the films themselves without diluting the meaning of the word beyond usefulness. For instance, Gemünden repeatedly links Wilder’s interest in masquerade to his immigrant status, as if masquerade weren’t a fundamental literary and theatrical trope pervasive in Western literature, e.g., Greek tragedy, Boccaccio, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. You don’t have to be an immigrant to dress up in drag.

Nevertheless, Gemünden’s exploration of Wilder’s sense of displacement in these films leaves much of value in its wake. I found his discussion of A Foreign Affair particularly interesting. In this film, Jean Arthur is cast as an uptight American congresswoman with disturbingly (if superficially) Nazi-like traits, while Marlene Dietrich, made up to resemble Leni Riefenstahl, nevertheless reminds one of Wilder’s worldly wise American protagonists, such as Tatum in Ace in the Hole (USA 1951) or Sefton in Stalag 17 (USA 1953). The film itself mimics, in its early minutes, the opening of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (Germany 1935). An arriving delegation of American officials fly over Berlin and descend from the clouds. We see aerial point-of-view shots of Berlin just as in Triumph of the Will – only the Berlin of the new film is a city of bombed-out buildings. Yet there’s no real gloating in this post-war film, and even the Riefenstahl/Dietrich character, who is opportunistic to the end and by implication escapes punishment, comes off as a rounded human being who bears the scars of suffering.

Gemünden’s focus is too narrow – just seven films; little attention to cinematic details – to do much to raise Wilder’s status among the great directors, but hopefully it might provoke others to take another look at Wilder. Gemünden himself calls for a critical reassessment, and I think he rightly attributes the neglect of Wilder in part to the lingering influence of auteurist criticism. However, I don’t think the problem is that Wilder lacks what’s required to be considered an ‘auteur’, but rather that auteurist criticism heretofore has lacked the scope and/or acumen to perceive constancies and idiosyncrasies in Wilder’s work. Wilder’s credo was to “never be boring,” and he rarely was. His success in this regard must be rooted in something personal and distinctive in his work, perhaps an interest in “the humanism of the survivor.”

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 26 March 2009

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →