One, Two, Three

A Guest Review by Martin Duffy.

There’s a shot in Billy Wilder’s film One, Two, Three of Horst Buchholz riding his motorbike towards the Brandenburg Gates. He is approaching an East German checkpoint – not knowing that from the tail of his bike flies a large balloon with the words ‘Russki go home’. The scene, shot in mid July 1961, was one of several in the script to be shot at the Gates. Wilder had already cleared permission from the East Germans to do the shooting, but when he went back with cast and crew the following day to continue work East German troops blocked the Gates and he was refused access. Trying to negotiate, Wilder was told that first the East German authorities would have to read his script. Wilder replied: ‘I wouldn’t show my script to President Kennedy’.

The shooting plan had been to do exteriors and other locations in Berlin, then move into studio in Munich. Because of the East German refusal, however, the films budget took a jump because a section of the Gates and Unter den Linden had to be recreated in Munich. It had become a troubled return for Wilder to a city that had been his home in pre-Nazi times: some think the Vienna-born Wilder worked as a gigolo in Berlin, but he said he had only been a dancing partner for lonely older women in a nightclub.

The problem Wilder did not foresee in making this film was that tensions were building in Berlin, with an ever-growing tide of people fleeing the East. And an important part of world history struck a blow to the making of his film: a month into the shooting of One, Two, Three, the Berlin Wall was erected. Wilder described making the film as ‘making a picture in Pompeii with all the lava coming down’. The crew were relieved to move to Munich.

Recreating the area around the Brandenburg Gates was not the only fake in the film. The arrivals area of Tempelhof Airport was built on set in Munich. Then Buchholz had a motorcycle accident that threw the schedule into disarray and this set had to be taken down and rebuilt in Hollywood to complete the film after his recovery.

Though the film is a comedy, it was not a happy shoot. Wilder didn’t like Cagney. Cagney didn’t like the frantic performance Wilder demanded of him. Cagney also thought Buchholz was arrogant. Cagney retired after the film (making one feature film appearance twenty years later). Cagney loved sailing and the final – unintended – tipping point was when friends sent him a photo of themselves having a fine time on his yacht while he was miserably working in Berlin. All this, and a political landscape changing under their noses, was going on as Wilder was trying to take his swipe at Communism, Capitalism, and greed. Wilder was on a roll from the classic and hugely successful comedies Some like it Hot and The Apartment, and was doggedly sticking with black and white cinematography. But One, Two, Three failed at the box office and marked the start of a career decline. He rarely hit the box office jackpot again despite his towering reputation.

And so, for a comedy film set in Berlin, One, Two, Three is actually mostly faked Berlin and was an unhappy experience for many involved. But that shot of the laughing Horst Buchholz driving on his motor-scooter through the Brandenburg Gates is a major piece of Berlin film history.

Most of the above information is taken from Ed Sikov’s brilliant book: ‘On Sunset Boulevard, the Life and Times of Billy Wilder’.

Starring: James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin. Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Wilder with I.A.L. (‘Izzy’) Diamond.

The film is available on DVD.

About the author: Martin Duffy is a storyteller; he works as a film director, writer and editor. He also writes songs and has written several novels for young people and some non-fiction books. For more information please check the links below:

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