Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

by on May 28, 2012Posted in: Essay


ERNST LUBITSCH once dubbed Erich von Stroheim the cinema’s only novelist, succinctly defending his fellow director’s ruinous passion for detail and duration. Stroheim wanted to push past the dramatic boundaries of feature filmmaking, but not by piling on more plot; his films are epic in their intimacy. In graphic detail they show us people getting up in the morning, dressing and grooming themselves, preparing and eating meals. Patiently observing his characters in their environment, he dissects them with a fine, unsparing eye.


An infinite capacity for taking pains was not a quality that Hollywood studio moguls looked for in a director. Stroheim’s perfectionism was his creative genius and his professional undoing. While many silent filmmakers did not use written screenplays, Stroheim produced shooting scripts that specified everything to the last eye-blink. His pace in filming seemed excruciatingly slow to producers and stars, though Fay Wray understood what he was up to, writing in her memoir: “Time was his, he owned it. He used it as it should be used by any artist. He ignored it.”


Over the first three decades of the 20th century, the art of silent cinema evolved towards a style of graceful elision and innuendo. Hollywood filmmakers cumulatively refined a propulsive narrative economy that capitalized on a viewer’s ability to fill in the missing pieces. The essence of Stroheim’s art lay somewhere quite different: he was driven by a desire to show everything, to reach some impossible level of verisimilitude and psychological truth. Producer Irving Thalberg was often Stroheim’s adversary, but he nailed the director with his legendary quip, “You, Von, are a footage fetishist.” Thalberg was referring to his exorbitant use of film, but the label also captures Stroheim’s fanatical attention to physical particulars, which gave his films a unique material veracity: as though you could put them under a microscope, and at any magnification they would reveal more authentic detail.


Stroheim, the “footage fetishist,” at work.


He made films for only ten years, but he always remained a director at heart. Perhaps his most enduring and uncompromised masterwork was himself. “He was his own creation, his own mother, his own father,” actor Marcel Dalio said of his Grand Illusion co-star. This self-creation went far beyond the adding of an aristocratic “von” to his name, or the embroidering of his Austrian military background. He wrought a screen persona that blended nastiness with nobility, depravity with refinement, and he transformed an unattractive physiognomy into a riveting image of grotesque chic. His shaved, bullet-shaped head, bulging neck, protruding ears, narrow eyes and scarred forehead summon a host of almost primal fears — yet you can’t take your eyes off him. He adorned this striking face with a monocle gripped in one eye-socket and a cigarette holder clenched between grimacing teeth. Enthralled from youth with the military, he relished uniforms tightly molded to his small, ramrod figure, and indulged his flamboyance with gold braid and epaulets, capes and plumed helmets, white satin knee-breeches and brocade robes. He pinned on his own chest the ribbons and medals that an unimaginative world neglected to give him.


From May 28th to July 30, Film Forum will be devoting Monday nights to an Erich von Stroheim retrospective, showcasing all eight surviving films that he directed, in part or in whole, alongside five of the many films in which he acted for other directors. (A sixth, a magnificent new restoration of Grand Illusion, has been extended past its original two-week run until May 27th.) The series offers a chance not only to survey Stroheim’s mutilated yet endlessly fascinating output as a filmmaker, but to savor his unique screen presence and observe the degree to which his qualities as a performer mirrored the defining characteristics of his films.


Stroheim as Lt. Erich von Steuben in Blind Husbands (1919)


ERICH STROHEIM was born in Vienna in 1885. Even in the years after his death in 1957, writers continued to print the legend he had invented: that he was born Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim; that he was the son of a baroness who had been lady-in-waiting to the Austrian Empress and a distinguished colonel in the dragoons (or, alternately, a count); that he was a high-ranking veteran of combat with three armies. After all the indignities he had suffered in his career, it seemed cruel to strip Stroheim of the identity he had crafted for himself, and Arthur Lennig in his definitive biography was almost apologetic when he revealed the facts he had uncovered. Stroheim was actually the son of a moderately prosperous Jewish hatter, he had a dismal scholastic record, and the extent of his military experience was four months as a cadet in the Austrian army (which ultimately rejected him as “unfit”) and two months in the New York national guard (from which he was also dismissed). Surprisingly, he never attributed his prominent scar to a duel or battle wound; he claimed he had been kicked by horse, which seems prosaic enough to be true.


He arrived in America in 1909, possibly fleeing debts and certainly seeking the grand destiny his homeland denied him. Here he endured years of humiliating poverty, bouncing from one odd job to another, first in New York and then in San Francisco, where he began writing stories and novels. It seems inevitable that he wound up in Hollywood, the one place where he could live out the fantasies that possessed him. Arriving some time in 1914 or 1915, he talked his way into bit parts and offered himself as an advisor on films with continental settings. His eye for detail made him useful as a set dresser; he worked as an assistant to director John Emerson and later for the D.W. Griffith on Intolerance. When America entered World War I he gained notice playing fiendish Huns in propaganda films like The Heart of Humanity, in which he tosses a small child out of a window while attempting to rape a nurse whose uniform he tears with his teeth. If it bothered Stroheim to participate in the demonizing of his own nationality, it certainly didn’t stop him from playing such roles with demonic gusto, or from retaining the mantle of sexual menace, albeit in far more nuanced form, when he acted in his own films. Many who knew Stroheim commented on his paradoxical nature: he enjoyed making himself hateful, yet as his friend the writer Anita Loos noted, “we knew him to be as sensitive as a kitten.”


This complicated personality produced films that merge wild extremes. The “realist” label traditionally assigned to him is far too simple. Stroheim’s obsession with the authenticity of environments created a stylized hyper-reality rather than a documentary naturalism. His down-beat scenarios far surpassed his stated intent to strip away Hollywood’s sugar coating; Stroheim’s determination to tell the unwelcome truth without regard for popularity led to bizarre accretions of ugly and sordid motifs. His visions of decadence ran riot, but were punctuated by glimpses of transcendent purity. He used overt symbolism and schematic plots to convey his themes. His aim was not realism but truth, a much more subjective standard.


An original lobby card for Stroheim’s first film.


There is no other major filmmaker whose works are so difficult to assess for the simple reason that almost none of them survive in the form he intended (even Orson Welles is a distant second). Stroheim’s brief career as a director in Hollywood was a roller coaster: audiences and critics alike alternately embraced and shunned his films; studios sought him out only to banish him. Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924), and The Wedding March (1928) were radically cut down from their original or projected lengths; The Merry-Go-Round (1923), Queen Kelly (1929), and Hello, Sister (1933) were completed by others after Stroheim was fired. His extravagance and intransigence made him the bane of producers, while his relentless focus on human vice and weakness, and the glee with which he dwelled on the grubbier realities of physical existence (from syphilis to morning breath) both titillated and disgusted viewers. American audiences enjoyed debauchery in exotic locations or past eras, but resented unflattering portraits of themselves. Foolish Wives was declared “an insult to every American” by Photoplay magazine. The newspaper mogul and moral crusader Martin Quigley called Greed “the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of motion pictures.” Stroheim retorted, “You Americans are living on baby-food.”


However truncated or fragmentary his movies may be, their fabric is indelibly dyed by his imagination. He was a creator of worlds, and his imperious vision spread itself across a canvas scaled to both the grandeur of European cities (Vienna, Monte Carlo) and the minutiae of flower petals, brass buttons, and women’s shoes. He filled these worlds with his peculiar fixations: crutches and crosses, animals and ambulances, wimples and uniforms, physical deformities—especially involving the feet—and recurring sexual motifs such as brothels, rapes, and sexually available housemaids. Like Cecil B. DeMille’s films, Stroheim’s luridly illustrate sin on the way to underlining moral lessons, but where DeMille comes off as a hypocrite — or, if you prefer, a crafty showman — Stroheim expresses a deeply pessimistic, at times even nihilistic view of human nature. He makes sin look ugly, all hangovers and venereal disease, and innocence look as frail as a will-o-the-wisp.


STROHEIM’S FIRST FILM, Blind Husbands (1919), was based on his original script, and the public fit that he threw when Universal changed the title from The Pinnacle was an omen of things to come. It’s a simple story about an American couple vacationing in the Alps, where the neglected wife is pursued by a lecherous young officer, “Erich Von Steuben.” It’s an assured debut and sophisticated for its time, though without any striking cinematic innovations. Stroheim’s editing and compositions would grow somewhat more fluid and expressive, but he basically adhered to the style of his first film: a series of static compositions that alternate between tight close-ups and distance long shots that fix characters in their broader surroundings. He was not interested in rhythmic editing to create suspense or the use of camera movement to generate kinetic energy. He captured extravagant images in a resolutely unshowy style.


There is one memorable flourish in Blind Husbands when the heroine has a nightmare and Stroheim’s disembodied head advances toward the camera, baring his teeth in an evil grin. Though his character here is despicable—he reveals himself as an incompetent coward in the end when he’s abandoned on a mountain peak by the husband he tried to cuckold—he has a lot of sly charm and panache. He was one of cinema’s greatest smokers, tilting his head back for every drag on his cigarette and blowing the smoke upward in a tight spiral. As a hand-kisser he ranked with Valentino. In his own films he didn’t play the ravening Hun, but variations on an unscrupulous sensualist whose meticulous military grooming and manners counterpoint his lazy amorality.


Stroheim gleefully menaces one of his female victims (Miss Dupont) in Foolish Wives (1922)


Apart from one scene gratuitously featuring a retarded boy, Blind Husbands gives no hint of Stroheim’s fixation on decay and degeneracy, both physical and moral, which would dominate his later films. These themes are front and center in his sophomore feature Foolish Wives (1922), which contains what might be the quintessential Stroheim scene: his depraved anti-hero and the woman he is trying to seduce spend the night in a hut in the marshes along with an ancient one-eyed hag and a goat. Goats are traditional symbols of lust, and for Stroheim it seems that lust always shares close quarters with debility and corruption.


Foolish Wives is a huge advance over Blind Husbands. His budget raised and ambition unbridled, Stroheim made “the first million-dollar movie,” re-creating the central plaza of Monte Carlo with massive and elegant sets. Here Stroheim plays a con man posing as a White Russian count, living on cash as counterfeit as his title (or for that matter, von Stroheim’s). With his two female “cousins” in tow, the phony Count Karamazin plots to bilk the wife of an American ambassador. This is von Stroheim’s vilest character; for breakfast, he washes down caviar with oxblood. Karamazin not only cheats a homely servant out of her life’s savings with false promises of marriage — he discreetly wipes his lips after kissing her — he also rapes a retarded young woman who is mentally a child. Yet his performance is irresistibly enjoyable: relaxed, sexy, with a subtle and wicked comic edge. It was his look in this film, lean and wolfish in a Russian officer’s uniform, that became the defining image of “The Man You Love to Hate.” (It was the outfit worn by cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin when he spoofed Stroheim, and by Buster Keaton for a hilarious moment in his surreal satire The Frozen North.)


The count spends his time manicuring his nails and target-shooting in his bathrobe. The idle, elegant denizens of Monte Carlo watch a shooting match in which the targets are live pigeons shunted out of boxes, then spend their evenings drifting on boats capped with canopies of flowers. These details convey an implicit theme of Stroheim’s films: the relationship between the baroquely over-civilized surface of pre-War European life and the moral void underneath. The American wife who is the count’s victim has a plump, bovine prettiness, and she is seen reading an instructive book: Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Through this in-joke he both presents himself as a sophisticated enlightener of naïve Americans and mocks his pretensions as such.


Prince Nicki (Stroheim) in a Viennese brothel in The Wedding March (1928)


DURING THE MAKING of Foolish Wives, Stroheim went vastly over budget and over schedule, but he countered the studio’s attempt to rein him in by threatening to quit, leaving the production without a star as well as without a director. Thanks to this maneuver, Stroheim was not allowed to appear in other films, like The Merry-Go-Round and The Merry Widow, which had central roles plainly written for him. After the enormous success of the latter film, however, Paramount allowed Stroheim to star in The Wedding March, which opens with a title card announcing “In its entirety an Erich von Stroheim production.” (In fact, the film is only a fraction of his original conception.) What survives, however, is perhaps his most complete and satisfying film, his only romantic tragedy, and his most nuanced and ambivalent performance under his own direction.


He plays Prince Nicki, the scion of a family of minor royalty in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Needing money, he submits to marriage with the crippled daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, despite his love for a poor girl, Mitzi (Fay Wray). The corrosive outcome of loveless marriage is amply illustrated by the prince’s parents, who wake in the morning and regard each other with mutual revulsion. Nicki is a dissipated womanizer, but likable in his raffish way. Stroheim’s simultaneous mastery of the monumental and the intimate is demonstrated in the long scene where Nicki and Mitzi wordlessly flirt during a grandiose military procession (filmed partly in two-strip Technicolor). Nicki is on horseback and Mitzi, standing in the crowd, takes in his outlandish magnificence: polished thigh-boots, cape, and towering horsehair-draped helmet. Poor Mitzi is trapped between her shrewish mother and vulgar fiancé—a continually expectorating butcher so repellant that you expect her to do a Fay Wray-King Kong scream whenever he gets near her.


The Wedding March contains Stroheim’s most extreme contrasts between the gross and the sublime, the savage and the tender. There is the wildest of wild parties at a brothel staffed by a global smorgasbord of women, attended by African servants clad in chains and armor-plated underwear. In the midst of the revelry two decrepit old men, drunkenly slumped on the floor, make a business arrangement for their children to marry. Nicki slips out of the brothel to woo Mitzi under the luminous halo of a blossoming apple tree with a crucifix nailed to its trunk. (There were no apple trees blooming when Stroheim shot the scenes, so he had thousands of blossoms crafted out of wax.) Nicki’s jaded, sardonic face softens into amazement, and the camera too is enraptured by Fay Wray’s beauty and her fresh, vulnerable openness. Their scenes together are filled with the magical rapport she described feeling with Stroheim, whom she loved and admired.


Everything in this film is excessive, from the sweetness of the love scenes to the bitterness of the finale, as Mitzi tearfully watches her love’s grand wedding, with buckets of rain pouring down on her hat. But the operatic heightening is sustained by emotional sincerity, by typically colorful details like Nicki’s cigar-smoking mother sitting on his lap, and by the subtlety of his own portrayal of a weak and only half-sympathetic anti-hero. Another paradox of Stroheim’s nature was that he yearned to be an aristocrat, yet portrayed the aristocracy as corrupt, decadent and heartless. He romanticized the imperial pomp and flowery wine-gardens of Vienna, and at the same time exposed the city’s orgies and its fetid underbelly. The nobility, the nouveau riche, and the working classes appear equally grasping, opportunistic and crude in his films.


Character actress Zasu Pitts plays Nicki’s lame bride as both pathetic and oblivious. Stroheim loved Pitts’s huge Lillian Gish eyes, her wraith-like body and squirming hands; he turned her from a mannered comedienne to a tragic embodiment of consuming neurosis. She was the foremost among the stock company of eccentric “types” who populated his films: homely Dale Fuller with her tiny eyes and jutting brow; Maude George with her smooth, Persian-cat smugness; gaunt, leering Tully Marshall. Like Hogarth in his caustic satires on high society, Stroheim used diseased or disfigured people to represent moral sickness, a habit that peaked in Greed, where virtually every shot contains someone who is obese, a dwarf, an amputee, or sporting a bandage to cover a facial boil.


McTeague (Gibson Gowland) in Death Valley at the end of Greed (1924)


ADAPTED FROM Frank Norris’s McTeague, a novel that pitilessly traces the descent of its simple protagonist into degradation and murder, Greed is both the fullest flowering of Stroheim’s art and his most uncharacteristic film. Its bleak and squalid environments invert the usual pomp and luxury of his settings, and Stroheim even seems to mock his own love of Prussian military parades with a ludicrous German immigrant father marching his scrawny bespectacled boys around. The tone of Greed is unique and almost indescribable, a fusion of comic, grotesque, somber, expressionistic, and tragic.


There are extraordinary panoramas of emptiness, from the flat grey marshes where the courting couple, Trina and Mac, sit on a sewer to the cracked white moonscape of Death Valley, with a dead horse in the foreground and endless barren glare beyond. There are magnified close-ups of birds, cats, hands, and coins, often framed by an iris opening or closing a scene. There are deep-focus compositions that give flashes of electrifying psychological insight. And throughout there is a singularly expressive physicality, a series of linked images that visually connect the mining of gold with the extraction of teeth, a revolting wedding feast with the bride’s horror at her wedding night, the filth and deprivation Trina chooses to live in and her sensual attachment to her hoard of gold coins, which she lovingly polishes and pours on her bed at night in miserly ecstasy. Some of the film’s visual metaphors are a bit heavy-handed—a funeral passing outside during a wedding, caged birds representing a married couple—but the process by which the film’s three main characters are infected and destroyed by their lust for money is traced with harrowing precision. All of this can be fully appreciated despite the notorious studio-enforced edit that hacked the film down by two-thirds, excising whole subplots and secondary characters, as well as destroying meticulously devised structures and thematic patterns. That Stroheim genuinely believed that he could talk the studio into releasing a drastically uncommercial six-hour film in two parts shows he was as naïve as he was stubborn, but the destruction of the excised footage remains one of the most infamous of Hollywood’s industrial atrocities.


Mae Murray and John Gilbert in The Merry Widow (1925)


The Merry Widow was Stroheim’s reparation for the disaster of Greed. Returning to continental splendor and putting a handsome central couple (John Gilbert and Mae Murray) in the midst of risqué spectacle, he proved he could give audiences what they wanted. The film was a huge hit, though Stroheim later dismissed it as a sacrifice to commercialism. He exaggerated: he wrote the script and was allowed broad latitude in adapting the Léhar operetta. He brought the “Ruritanian fluff” down to earth by contrasting magnificent, fairy-tale sets and costumes with mud, pigs, cockroaches, prostitutes, and a syphilitic foot-fetishist baron. John Gilbert is one of the more effective Stroheim stand-ins, his burning eyes and kinetic energy suggesting a man of insatiable appetites. The film is conventional compared with Greed, and Stroheim probably resented its success for that very reason, but it is richly atmospheric, with an overripe sumptuousness and underlying grime.


Stroheim returned again and again to the premise of thwarted love between a nobleman and a commoner, perhaps because none of the versions he produced lived up to his conception. (The Wedding March recycles much of his scenario for The Merry-Go-Round, which was heavily altered by replacement director Rupert Julian.) His last attempt was in his final grand fiasco, Queen Kelly, a star vehicle for Gloria Swanson financed by her lover Joseph Kennedy. It was less than half completed when she pulled the plug. A version of the incomplete film was released, but Stroheim had no hand in its editing. The first part resembles The Merry Widow: opulent sets, a lightly humorous tone with hints of perversity (the mad queen played by Seena Owen drinks champagne in bed, wearing nothing but a Persian cat), a rakishly handsome hero whose passionate love blossoms from a rather underhanded seduction ploy. In recently recovered footage, Swanson marries a slobbering cripple at her aunt’s deathbed in an African brothel. It’s unfair to judge the film as it stands, but it doesn’t suggest an advance in Stroheim’s art. A clip from the film is shown in Sunset Boulevard, in which Stroheim and Swanson both play version of themselves, and it may thus be the most widely-seen footage Stroheim shot; yet Queen Kelly remained Stroheim’s albatross, a career-ending debacle that branded him as unemployably incorrigible.


OFFICIALLY WASHED UP as a director in Hollywood, Stroheim took a job as an actor in James Cruze’s The Great Gabbo (1929), a film that is a contender for the weirdest product of the Hollywood studio system. It is a slight story given a bizarre twist and wrapped around a filmed stage revue that takes up close to half of the total running time. The story is that of an egotistical and abusive performer who drives away his devoted assistant, regrets his cruelty and tries to win her back, only to discover too late that she has married someone else. The twist is that Stroheim’s character Gabbo is a ventriloquist who carries on private conversations with his dummy, Otto, exhibiting a full-blown split personality. The revue goes on and on (Film Forum’s print will include original Technicolor sequences that are not included in the Kino DVD release), and its abysmal quality is only partially redeemed by its mind-boggling surrealism. The film reaches its pinnacle of strangeness, however, in a scene where Gabbo tucks into a gourmet restaurant meal while Otto, seated opposite with his own place setting, sings a song about how he always drops his lollipop and it gets “all over icky.” It’s when you stop to think that in theory it is Erich von Stroheim who is singing this icky-lollipop ditty, while munching on a squab, that incredulity takes over.


Ventriloquist Gabbo (Stroheim) with Otto in The Great Gabbo (1929)


The movie opens with Gabbo slumped over a table in a cheap hotel room, smoking, playing solitaire, and flinging insults at his doormat companion, Mary (Betty Compson.) One might think Stroheim is expressing his own frustration and bruised ego as the ventriloquist spits out his disgust at having to play a small-time theater in Paterson. Certainly this character, an impossible tyrant who demands that everything be done just so, yet who harbors a sensitive side as well as a streak of madness, was inspired by “Von’s” reputation. But Stroheim later declared that he enjoyed working for Cruze; he liked the premise of The Great Gabbo so much that he later tried to purchase the story for a re-make. He gives a performance of utter conviction and almost alarming intensity. From the moment that he lets out a startling howl of rage because Mary has put his hat on the bed (superstition is a theme in Stroheim’s own films), it’s obvious that he is not walking through the part. His creepy scenes with Otto, fraught as they are with the potential for embarrassment and unintended comedy, are emotionally potent, even if they make you feel all over icky.


Otto is a painted wooden doll with popping eyes and the disturbing look of wizened child. He speaks in a falsetto with a German accent much thicker than Stroheim’s. When Mary is finally driven to leave by Gabbo’s incessant scorn and verbal abuse, she offers the parting shot that Otto is the only human part of him. The dummy is a true alter ego, representing all that is sweet and vulnerable in the selfish Gabbo. The notion that the wooden homunculus is the living man’s soul becomes increasingly convincing as the film goes on, so that when Gabbo, shattered by Mary’s admission that she is married, punches Otto, knocking out one of his eyes, his anguish on realizing what he’s done is distressing.


The deranged revue becomes a vehicle for Gabbo’s insanity as he hallucinates Otto dancing, surrounded by chorus girls in chicken costumes. Carrying the battered dummy upside-down by one leg, he has an onstage breakdown and is promptly fired. The film ends with a depressing shot of Gabbo watching as his name is taken down from the theater’s marquee—immediately followed by a reprise of the upbeat music from the revue, a sign of either cruelty or obliviousness on the part of the filmmakers, whose aim in this weird production is impossible interpret. Sadly, it was the first but not the last film to cast Stroheim in the humiliating role of a rejected has-been.


Stroheim with Greta Garbo in As You Desire Me (1932)


BY 1932, Stroheim was in even worse straits, no longer in demand as an actor. Greta Garbo stuck up for him, asking for him as a co-star in her film As You Desire Me, and covering for him when ill-health made him miss days and risk dismissal. He allegedly had difficulty with his lines, and he does seem ill-at-ease in his performance, lacking the relaxed spontaneity that he displayed in his own silents. He does a lot of bad-guy laughing, ferocious shouting, and nervous cane-twirling. But Garbo always dimmed the luster of men in her films, and though she overacts throughout As You Desire Me, she is never less than intoxicating. She first appears looking like a sexy, androgynous Hamlet with bleached hair, slim black pants and a black tunic, slipping off-stage looking radiantly exhausted after singing a cabaret number. She’s a jaded, cynical “casualty of the war,” living the lush life amid a crowd of fawning men. Amnesia has made her “a woman without a soul,” and when she is recognized and brought back to her husband (Melvyn Douglas), neither she nor anyone else is sure that she’s really the woman who vanished after suffering unspeakable horrors at the hands of invading soldiers. The Pirandello premise offers a plausible account of Garbo’s otherworldliness and the bafflement of the mortals around her.


Stroheim plays Carl Salter, a famous novelist with whom she is living at the outset, and who spends the rest of the film trying to disprove her new identity in order to get her back. We never know much about him, except that he embodies the soulless, dissolute life she has been leading in Paris. He and Garbo have some nice business casually flinging champagne and cigarettes all over the carpet, and in an iconic, sinisterly backlit shot, Garbo drapes her head back on the sofa and Stroheim stoops over her from behind to kiss her, summoning a bit of his old silent menace.


1932 was also the year that Stroheim directed his last film, a dismal coda to his aborted career. Walking Down Broadway was adapted from a delicate, keenly observed play by Dawn Powell (a writer as devoted as Stroheim to telling the unpleasant truth about human nature), in which an innocent young couple’s relationship is poisoned by the interference of older friends, who infect them with their cynical prejudices about the opposite sex. Stroheim’s version zoomed in on the darker themes of the work and its sexual frankness, dwelling especially on a neurotic secondary character played by Zasu Pitts, who loves accidents and funerals–and “big dill pickles.” At a preview, audiences laughed derisively, and the producers at Fox decided to remake the film almost entirely, releasing it without a director credit under the title Hello, Sister. Less cohesive and compelling than Stroheim’s script, the film is no less strange, thanks to the gratuitous addition of a demented drunk who hoards dynamite. A few of Stroheim’s scenes survive, but it is the most thoroughly effaced of his films.


De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Stroheim) in Grand Illusion (1937)


The early thirties were Stroheim’s darkest years; in 1933 his wife Valerie suffered horrific burns in a freakish explosion at a beauty parlor, and he made money any way he could while caring for her, acting in low-budget movies and taking a modest job as a staff writer at MGM. At one point he was so destitute that a collection was taken up for him at the studio, which humiliated him so deeply that he threatened suicide. Then, in 1936, he got an offer to act in a French film, Marthe Richard, and his presence in France led to his being cast in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1936), resulting in one of his finest performances and, with all respect to his own works, perhaps the greatest film he ever appeared in. Renoir cited Foolish Wives as one of the films that had inspired him to become a director, and he treated Stroheim with the utmost respect, allowing him to contribute extensively to the development of his character, the aristocratic German WWI pilot and later prison camp commander, von Rauffenstein. He first appears in a flight suit, courteously inviting to lunch the two French pilots he has just shot down—the farthest cry from the savage Huns he had played during the First World War.


When Rauffenstein reappears in the latter half of the film, he is introduced indirectly through a precise inventory of significant details. A pan around the room takes in a parade of luxurious objects, the trappings of a gentleman. A manservant prepares his master’s white kid gloves by blowing into them; gloved hands lift a porcelain coffee cup from a breakfast tray; the valet spritzes perfume on his master’s uniform. Suddenly it’s as though we have wandered into an Erich von Stroheim movie. In a sense we have—as to a greater or lesser degree we do whenever he is onscreen. Stroheim’s acting style is thrown into sharp relief in Grand Illusion by the presence of Jean Gabin in the central role of the working-class French prisoner Maréchal. Gabin is so natural and un-stylized that it seems wrong to speak of his “performance.” You never notice exactly what he does, you only feel that he is. With Stroheim, by contrast, you constantly notice his specific gestures: his facial twitches, his handling of props, and the ornamental detail of his appearance. Rauffenstein’s neck brace was Stroheim’s idea, a clever way of instantly conveying the injuries that have sidelined him.


But this plot contrivance is insignificant compared with Stroheim’s brilliant incorporation of the brace into his performance: the way he throws his whole body backwards when he takes a shot of liquor, the awkward stiffness when he has to bend at the waist to water his geranium or approach the bedside of a dying friend. Stroheim’s mastery of gesture makes him riveting, but there’s nothing superficial about his performance. The rigidity imposed by the brace conveys the tragic rigidity of Rauffenstein’s character; he knows that he is an obsolete relic of a passing world, yet is incapable of abandoning his aristocratic devotion to honor and rank. As Pauline Kael pointed out, the contrast between Gabin’s and Stroheim’s acting styles works because it expresses the different personalities and backgrounds of their characters. Stroheim becomes a physical embodiment of a whole lost world, his tiniest mannerisms evoking a culture in all its refinements and flaws.


If Renoir learned from Stroheim, it comes out in the brilliant use of detail throughout the film to create characters and environments that feel incomparably true and alive. Each of the prisoners decorates his bunk in a telling manner; a German guard responds to Maréchal’s despairing outburst in solitary confinement by giving him a harmonica; French soldiers in drag sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in a stage show; Rauffenstein and his aristocratic French counterpart de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) share their private world by speaking in English about racehorses and girls at Maxim’s. These details also quietly carry the film’s message: that all barriers, boundaries and distinctions between men—class, nationality, and war—are “the great illusion.” Few works of art have ever more movingly depicted brotherly love. Escapees Maréchal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) sleep huddled together on the cold ground in their overcoats and hats; Rauffenstein and Boeldieu commiserate over the futility and imminent disappearance of their class. Here, at last, Stroheim got to embody a true aristocrat, a man of snobbish limitations (he calls Rosenthal and Maréchal “a charming legacy of the French revolution”), but also of honor and grace. After fatally shooting Boeldieu, he apologizes for his clumsiness in hitting his stomach when he aimed for his legs, and they agree that for men like them, dying in battle is “a good way out” of a useless existence. In a final detail that Stroheim may well have supplied, Rauffenstein cuts the blossom from his lovingly tended geranium, “the only flower in the fortress.”


Sharpshooter Flamarion (Stroheim) with Connie (Mary Beth Hughes) in The Great Flamarion (1945)


IN THE END, Stroheim was trapped by the persona he had worked so hard to create. After his fall from grace, he was forced to play caricatures of himself: relics, has-beens, crazed egotists undone by their own obsessions. In the 1940s, film noir—with its bitter perspective on sexual manipulation and romantic delusions—brought out a new aspect of Stroheim’s familiar character, making him the victim rather than the predator of women. Director Anthony Mann’s The Great Flamarion (1945) follows the standard formula of a male dupe destroyed by a heartless femme fatale, but the peculiar embellishments of the tale, the crisp and forceful direction, and a few exceptional flourishes in Stroheim’s performance make the film a neglected delight. In typically fatalistic noir fashion, it starts at the end and proceeds through flashbacks as Stroheim narrates the whole story with his dying breaths—a feat akin to those arias sung by operatic heroines on the verge of expiring from tuberculosis.


Again Stroheim is a vaudeville star, this time a sharp-shooter whose polished act has him discovering his wife with another man and shooting up the stage, blasting a glass out of his assistant’s hand, lighting her cigarette with a bullet, and shooting off her garter and the shoulder strap of her dress. The assistant, Connie (Mary Beth Hughes), works relentlessly at seducing Flamarion, telling him how the act thrills her: “Every bullet is a caress!” An austere, repressed loner nursing the old wound of a woman’s betrayal, he resists her at first. Only his work matters: he spends hours firing at mechanical targets in his hotel room, clad in black satin pajamas. As in many of his later roles, Stroheim does a lot of his acting with the back of his head, the fat neck and shaved scalp expressing the sclerotic, unbending nature of his characters. But before too long he’s acting like a besotted schoolboy, and Connie has little trouble ensnaring him in her scheme: she wants him to kill her drunken husband Al (Dan Duryea) and make it look like a tragic accident.


Once the deed is done, she promises to meet him at a hotel after they separate for a few months to throw off suspicion. On the appointed day Flamarion fills the bridal suite with flowers. Anticipating the arrival of his love, he does a little Viennese waltz around the room, whistling a tune, light on his toes despite the grim sadness that had settled by this point over his stocky figure. The moment is so unexpected, so endearing and heartbreaking, that it elevates the film; it crystallizes that naïve idealism that was always an incongruous yet integral part of Stroheim’s nature. Like Chaplin’s dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush, this outburst of high spirits sharpens the long agony of being stood up. Flamarion never recovers, pawning his guns and becoming a homeless bum as he hunts for the woman who double-crossed him. A scruffy and unshaven Stroheim in a battered hat is a disturbing sight; a close-up of his dark, pain-filled eyes leaps from the screen, too real for this brisk B movie.


Stroheim as butler Max von Meyerling in Sunset Boulevard (1950)


Fatigue and resentment at having to play so many parts that unkindly alluded to his downfall fed Stroheim’s preference for acting in France, where, as he famously declared, an artist was still respected even if his masterpieces were far behind him.


He was understandably reluctant to take the role of Max von Meyerling in Sunset Boulevard (1950), forgotten genius of the silent era and butler to the delusional ex-star Norma Desmond, played by none other than the woman who hammered the last nail into the coffin of his career, Gloria Swanson. Billy Wilder was able to tempt him with a large salary, and Wilder had previously given him one of his best roles, as General Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo (1943)–an intelligent, wryly witty, fastidious villain in an uncommonly nuanced and entertaining wartime movie. However he may have disdained playing a servant, he wore his butler and chauffeur uniforms with his usual military bearing. Wilder respectfully rejected many of his suggestions (he wanted Max to be seen tenderly washing out Norma Desmond’s lingerie), but Stroheim managed to inject some personal touches: the white gloves he wears while playing the pipe organ, the relish with which he describes the maharaja who strangled himself with one of Norma’s silk stockings, the recollection of his long-ago office lined with black patent leather. (When Norma subjects herself to a punishing beauty regimen, we see her wearing a strap under her chin and a triangle of adhesive on her forehead, exactly like Maude George in The Wedding March.) These details help to flesh out what is really a slight and underwritten part. Max has one strong scene when, his face half eaten away by dark shadows in the garage, he reveals to the young screenwriter Joe Gillis that he was Norma’s first husband; but the speech doesn’t do enough to explain the selfless devotion that led him to sacrifice his own career, and to stop at nothing in protecting her from the reality of how completely she’s been forgotten.


Sunset Boulevard has a layered ambivalence, because it is narrated by Joe (William Holden), who regards Norma, Max and the other “waxworks” as creepy old bores; yet they hold the strongest fascination for the viewer, while Joe’s own words reveal his shallow, opportunistic self-absorption. His scenes with the fresh-faced Betty Schaeffer (Nancy Olsen) are smart and sexy, but who would want to watch the movie they’re writing (“it’s about teachers, their threadbare lives, their struggle”) when they could watch a pet chimp being buried in the garden of a moldering villa, or Gloria Swanson standing on a coffee table, grotesquely reenacting her days as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty?


Stroheim’s best scene comes at the end, when he resumes his role as director, creating for Norma the illusion that she is making a movie rather than being taken away by the police in front of a gawking news mob. He takes up his position by the cameras and barks orders to the newsreel men, momentarily reliving his own former glory as he watches with deep, restrained sorrow the spectacle of madness engulfing the woman he loves. Nancy Olsen described Stroheim on the set of Sunset Boulevard inching his chair closer and closer to the cameras where Wilder reigned as director: a heart-rending image of the exiled artist, tantalizingly close to the throne from which he was banished.


Imogen Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.


The films of Erich Von Stroheim are playing at Film Forum, Mondays from May 28th to July 30th.

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