Berlin, 1961. Mac (Jimmy Cagney) is the ambitious head of Coca Cola West Germany. He’s having an affair with his secretary (natch), but his wife is getting a bit sick of it all, and wants to move back home. Mac has other ideas, and has his eyes on the Head of Europe job based in London.
So when the Big Boss rings and says that his 17 year old daughter Scarlett will be visiting Berlin for two weeks, Mac does everything he can to ingratiate himself. As 2 weeks become 2 months, Scarlett manages to marry, and fall pregnant to Otto, an East Berliner and card carrying member of the Communist Party. This is when Scarlett’s father rings again and says he’s coming to Berlin to take her home.
Of course the father doesn’t know of the marriage or pregnancy, and Mac needs to conceal them if he’s going to get the London job. So he first arranges for Otto to be arrested by the East German police, then springs him and gets him adopted by an old count, now just about making a living washing dishes in a local restaurant.
There are two ways in which you can view this film. On the one hand, it is the film Billy Wilder made after the Apartment and Some Like It Hot, and doesn’t even come close to matching their peerless brilliance. But if you judge it on its own merits, there is much to enjoy despite the flimsy plot and the broad brush Cold War politics.
Firstly, the pace is frenetic, egged on by a score of Andre Previn conducting Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”. Cagney never lets his voice drop lower than rapid shouting, and the speed of it all means that even if not all the one-liners really work, there’s always going to be another 10 along in a minute.
The sexual politics are often dubious, particularly in the treatment of Mac’s secretary, but the men don’t come out of it looking good either, and at least Mac’s wife is portrayed as a no-nonsense strong woman. Similarly, although the ultimate message is that the USA is not great, but at least its not as repressive as the Eastern Bloc, this isn’t really a great advertisement for Coca Cola Capitalism.
There is a degree of national stereotyping (the US Americans are entrepeneurial go-getters, the Russians are not to be trusted and the Germans are only obeying orders – indeed the title comes from the barked orders that the not-quite-denazified West German workers best respond to). But the film is more cynical than patriotic – we are partly encouraged to share the idealist Otto’s despair that everyone seems to be on the take.
In addition to all this, there are some stunning shots of early-1960s Berlin. Fun fact: the Berlin wall came up while the film was being made, so some of the filming hat to be moved to Munich. I guess that’s why its being shown now, what with it being the anniversary of die Wende and all that.
Its probably best to view the film as being an interesting chronicle of its time. In that way, you can accept some of the stereotyped behaviour and despair a little that a lot of it still exists, nearly 60 years on. Its not as good as Wilder’s best films, but then again very little is.