The rubble is still smouldering. “A large part of this picture was photographed in Berlin” proclaim the opening credits. For a comedy, the setting is horrifying.
Wilder’s war-related films are fascinating. While Five Graves to Cairo shared the propagandistic nature of the likes of Casablanca, this post-war production has the director return to the home he fled, and finding not all that much left. When we open with a group of detached American congressmen spectating the city ruins below out of plane windows, there are several inserts – cutaways to aerial shots of the expansive brick cemetery. Though he may have suffered a great deal from the brutality of Nazi Germany (to say the least), Wilder doesn’t just blow the Yankee horn. He is uniquely positioned to wish to document and exhibit the sheer level of destruction of his home – significantly exceeding any bombings perpetrated on Allied cities, an uncomfortable truth. The narrative itself, meanwhile, darkly hints at the consequence on the lives of the surviving populace.
Investigating troop morale, we have congresswoman Phoebe Frost, so idealistic she might have come straight from a Frank Capra film. Indeed Jean Arthur, in sensational form, was best known for her Capra roles. Suspicious of the (overly) guided tour she and the rest of the congressmen are given, she launches her own study and quickly discovers sleazy bars populated by Allied soldiers and a rampant black market in which, the film makes clear, anything can be had for the right trade. One suspects the only way the film gets so much past the censors is that it had a license for historical documentation. Then we have Captain John Pringle, engaged in an affair with (and covering for) a notable Nazi fraterniser, Erika Von Schluetow. The comedy arises when Frost has Pringle assist in her inquiry into the femme. The doubling of good and bad girl is typical of Hollywood, but the condemnation of nasty Erika is rendered uneasy by the knowledge of her living and social conditions. It is probably the greatest triumph of a peculiar film that it is able to ultimately convey a certain humanism within the context of the specific (and contrary) ideological pressures falling upon such productions at the time. The mark of a great auteur.