Editor's note: A look at the works of Erich von Stroheim begins a five-week online-only series, "Revisiting the Masters," a look at DVD gift sets of some of film's great directors.
"In Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture. If you didn't have one in production in your last three months, you're forgotten., no matter what you have achieved. If you live in France, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed an outstanding film, 50 years ago and nothing ever since, you are still recognized as an artist ... they do not forget." -- Erich von Stroheim
He was an actor and a director, a European and an American, a genuine artist and a big fake, a hero and a villain, a genius and a fool. Is there a calculator with enough battery strength to total up the contradictions surrounding Erich von Stroheim, one of Hollywood's earliest auteur directors whose mammoth battles with the studios made him famous and infamous all at once?
Until recently, appreciating the complexity of von Stroheim's limited directing output has been a challenge. So controversial has his work been that assembling worthy interpretations of his original vision has taken decades. With Kino International's three-DVD Erich von Stroheim Collection, the average movie fan can begin to understand. Three of his greatest works of the silent era -- 1919's Blind Husbands, 1922's Foolish Wives and 1929's Queen Kelly (if you count a film from which he was removed) -- are included in this collection, along with one of his acting-only roles (James Cruze's The Great Gabbo in 1929) and the Patrick Montgomery 1979 documentary, The Man You Loved to Hate. (The latter film was written by Richard Koszarski, author of Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim, who also provides insightful commentary for both Foolish Wives and Queen Kelly.)
This collection helps us see von Stroheim in all of his glory -- how he provided a crucial filmmaking bridge between D.W. Griffith (who cast von Stroheim in bits parts in his films) and Billy Wilder (whose casting of von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard remains a curiosity to this day). The movies show von Stroheim's obsession with a young America vs. an old Europe, temptation and seduction, the sacred and the profane.
He came to America in 1909, the son of a Jewish haberdasher, and immediately seized on the very American notion of reinvention: Erich Oswald Stroheim became Erich von Stroheim, with its accompanying suggestion of European aristocracy. He puffed up his little-known military record (as he did later in film) and eventually wound up in Hollywood looking for work and finding it with Griffith. There's a scene in Birth of a Nation where a soldier tumbles mightily from a roof after being shot. That's von Stroheim, who cracked two ribs in the fall but impressed Griffith with his dedication.
He had the look of a European that served him well as a villainous soldier in countless World War I-era films: his pointy features were made almost obscene by a jagged scar that covered the length of his prodigious forehead, with a nearly shaved head and piercing eyes set off by a monocle covering the right. (He would later add a phallic cigarette to his repertoire.) The acting jobs dried up after the war, so he turned to writing and directing. Blind Husbands, his debut for Universal, made him an overnight sensation. It is widely hailed as one of the first films to take a mature, open-minded look at marital infidelity, with von Stroheim playing a European officer trying to seduce an unhappy American wife who is vacationing with her husband in the Alps. The original title of the film was The Pinnacle, but producer Carl Laemmle, a notorious gambler, feared audiences would confuse it with the card game pinochle (infuriating von Stroheim for the first of many times). Still, he managed to create the Alps' Pinnacle as an Eden, which he underscores with the poetic inter-title: "The Pinnacle -- at the very feet of God -- where man forgets his baser self and the soul beneath his mind grows clean."
There is a scene in Blind Husbands shot diagonally across from behind the wife's right shoulder. The camera cuts across to a reflection of her face in the mirror on the right, and on the left, in deep focus of her sleeping, delinquent husband. His image is then replaced by that of a honeymooning couple whose young bride begged her husband moments earlier never to ignore her and repeat the mistakes of the older couple. What the scene might lack in subtlety it more than makes up for in simple poignancy. In the movie's prologue, von Stroheim rather boldly questions not a wife's role in infidelity -- weren't women blamed for everything back then? -- but the husband's, particularly through neglect.
As mature as von Stroheim's story is, he may have miscalculated the effects of what would be countless portrayals by him of the out-and-out cad -- an extension of his WWI roles. He had no problem playing truly despicable people if it meant serving his own narrative, often failing to realize that his own acting was so believable that movie goers couldn't get past his acting to his message. As an actor, Universal had billed him as "The Man You Love to Hate," and in some ways he never transcended that label.
In Foolish Wives, for instance, von Stroheim reached for a complex, epic tale in which he would contrast American and European society, making the nouveau-riche Americans look unsophisticated but ultimately unpretentious and sincere, whereas Europeans would seem sophisticated but ultimately devoid of moral values. (Again, he plays a cad, a fraudulent Russian count, who with his two "cousins," seeks to seduce an American wife and swindle her diplomat husband. The film is loaded with juxtapositions of religious iconography and sexual imagery.) He might have succeeded with his first cut of the film, which checked in at a whopping seven hours. The critics, who were given an intermission at the screening, loved it, but Universal's Irving Thalberg couldn't imagine a seven-hour film and eventually cut it down to less than two hours.
By then, von Stroheim's reputation for going over budget and schedule were becoming legendary. Foolish Wives was being hailed, unfortunately, as "the first million-dollar film," due to von Stroheim's insistence on recreating Monte Carlo near the San Francisco bay and extravagances such as using real caviar in a scene that required countless takes. Von Stroheim didn't see the problem, in more ways than one, and it would later doom him. (The DVD version was restored by the American Film Institute.)
He bounced from studio to studio, making such remarkable films as Greed (based on Frank Norris' scathing critique on materialism, McTeague), which MGM supposedly butchered in the editing process. By the end of the 1920s, von Stroheim's reputation was all but solidified (despite commercial successes such as The Merry Widow) when he was approached by actress Gloria Swanson and wannabe producer Joseph Kennedy (Swanson's rumored lover at the time), who were searching for a maverick director to make a star vehicle for her. Von Stroheim wrote and directed Queen Kelly, a story about an engaged prince who falls for a feisty orphaned teen (Swanson), but Swanson had von Stroheim replaced -- with only a third of the film shot -- once the bills started piling up and the schedule overruns began. In the DVD version, Kino attempts to properly finish the film with the use of still photographs according to von Stroheim's original script.
Queen Kelly was all but the directing end for von Stroheim, who wound up back in Europe -- France, to be exact -- where he became hailed as a genius and found numerous acting jobs. (The same year Queen Kelly fell apart, he starred as a delusional ventriloquist in The Great Gabbo, in a performance that predates Anthony Hopkins' eerie turn in 1978's Magic.) One of his earliest post-directing roles was a widely acclaimed turn as Captain von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion. He returned to America for sporadic, sometimes embarrassing roles, including one in which one of his acolytes, Billy Wilder, cast him as the butler Max von Mayerling opposite Gloria Swanson's Nora Desmond in 1950's Sunset Boulevard. Many wondered why von Stroheim, who had performed magnificently for Wilder as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in 1943's Five Graves to Cairo, would agree to such a self-parody. But von Stroheim knew what he was getting into, explaining, "I read in the old bitch (gossip columnist Louella) Parsons' column that Billy wants me to play the role of a crazy motion-picture director. ... He likes his actors true to type, does not he? Tell him for me that if he were as smart as he likes to be considered he would play the part himself! But even in craziness I prefer to be the first and therefore I would accept his proposition."
Von Stroheim's reputation as a filmmaker -- however textured, however self-produced -- remains intact, and this Kino International collection does the man justice. We once again get to see him for who he was, and wasn't. The contradictions remain, but with a little more clarity.
Next week: Alfred Hitchcock