Billy Wilder has a filmography like none other. Between the mid-forties and early 60s, he directed such classics as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, Witness For the Prosecution, Some Like it Hot, and The Apartment.
Born 1906 in a small town near Vienna, Wilder spent eight years as a budding screenwriter in Berlin, before fleeing the rise of Nazism in 1933 and entering the U.S. on a 6-month visa. After five years in Mexico, waiting for his papers to be processed, his Hollywood breakthrough came when he co-wrote the comedy Ninotschka (1939) with Charles Brackett, leading to a long and fruitful collaboration with Brackett and the opportunity to direct.
Wilder’s mother, grandmother and stepfather were victims of the Holocaust. In 1945, he accepted a commission from the U.S. Dept. of War to return to Germany and direct a documentary directed at German audiences to educate them about the atrocities committed. The experience kindled Wilder’s interest in making a less didactic film for the American public about the situation in Germany: something lighter and more entertaining that would speak to a wider audience.
Wilder was promised government support for his new project, provided he make a film about Allied-occupied Germany. This sowed the seeds for A Foreign Affair, although, in the end, the government pulled out. Shot among the ruins of the city, the finished film was frowned upon by the US military in Germany and banned outright in the American zone of Berlin.
His German-born star Marlene Dietrich had been vociferously anti-Nazi. She teamed up with Wilder in the 1930’s to help Jews and dissidents leave Germany and spent the war years boosting the morale of Allied troops. Dietrich was not invited to perform publicly in Germany until 1960 and received a lukewarm reception, due to lingering resentment at what many saw as a betrayal of her country.
“Maybe you think there’s nothing funny about the current situation of American troops in the ticklish area of Berlin. And it’s serious enough, heaven knows […] But, at least, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder have been happily disinclined to wax morose about the problems presented by occupation —and by ‘fraternization,’ specifically. Rather these two bright film-makers have been wryly disposed to smile upon the conflicts in self and national interests which proximities inevitably provoke.” Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 1 July 1948