Erich von Stroheim Essay - Critical Essays

Stroheim, Erich von


Erich von Stroheim 1885-1957

(Erich Oswald Stroheim) Austrian-born American film-maker, actor, and novelist.

A prominent figure in the early years of the motion picture industry, Erich von Stroheim is regarded as an innovative director of silent films and as a gifted actor whose famous portrayal of a cruel Prussian army officer earned him the popular appellation "The Man You Love to Hate." Witty, sophisticated, and satirical, his epic-length films, most of which were dramatically reduced in size and heavily edited before being released to the public, depict a world of cynicism, greed, decadence, and corruption often set in post-World War I Europe or the closing days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Stroheim's cinemagraphic style is typified by his meticulous attention to detail, construction of lavish sets, and dark evocations of mood using innovative lighting effects and filmic composition. He wrote and directed nine films, including his directorial masterpiece, Greed (1923), which was originally some 40 reels (more than seven hours) long. An obsessively perfectionistic director, Stroheim clashed with studio executives on many occasions when the demands of his extravagant, even self-indulgent productions ran over-budget. By the late 1920s Stroheim's films ceased to provide mass audience appeal or profits for the major film studios. Unwilling to sacrifice his artistic vision to monetary imperatives, Stroheim ceased to direct, and instead focused on acting, winning international acclaim for roles in such films as La Grande Illusion (1937) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Biographical Information

Stroheim was born in Vienna, Austria, on 22 September 1885. His father was a middle-class Jewish hat manufacturer, and not a member of continental aristocracy, though Stroheim continued to perpetuate this fiction throughout his lifetime, adding the title "von" to his name in order to create the illusion of nobility. Sometime between 1906 and 1909 Stroheim emigrated to the United States and was eventually granted citizenship in 1926. He undertook a variety of jobs until 1914 when be began acting in bit parts in the films of John Emerson and D. W. Griffith. Small roles in Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) also afforded Stroheim a measure of fame and the opportunity to assist in directing these and other films. By 1917 he had performed his famous role as a Prussian officer in the motion picture For France, for which he was billed "The Man Who You Love to Hate." In 1918 he sold the screenplay for Blind Husbands to Universal Studios and directed the film. Three years later he directed his first international success, Foolish Wives (1921). Conflicts with producers over stories, budgets, and methods throughout the 1920s—including his legendary clashes with Universal's Irving Thalberg—led to a decline in esteem for his work in Hollywood. By January 1929, filming of his Queen Kelly was halted, and the picture was not completed in his lifetime. Destitute by the mid-1930s, Stroheim concentrated on his acting career and left the United States for France. Between 1929 and 1955 he acted in numerous films, reprising his Prussian role for Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion. Stroheim died in Maurepas, France on May 12th, 1957.

Major Works

Stroheim's first three films, Blind Husbands, The Devil's Passkey (1919) and Foolish Wives represent his exploration of a common theme, the corrupting power of European decadence over American innocence and simplicity. In each picture Stroheim portrayed a love triangle of sorts, featuring an undiscerning husband whose unhappy wife is seduced by a cynical and sardonic aristocrat—played by Stroheim in Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives. The latter film complicates the formula by high-lighting the wantonness of its female lead, and features elaborate social settings, lavish banquets, and provocative boudoir scenes. Set in Vienna just prior to and during the First World War, Merry-Go-Round (1922) is a dark story of love between an Austrian count and a circus girl. Stroheim's career reached a significant turning point with the production of his fifth film, Greed. Based on Frank Norris's novel McTeague, the picture represents Stroheim's psychological study of avarice and its consequent moral degradation. Largely realistic, but with expressionistic touches, Greed details McTeague's murder of his wife, Trina, after she has won $5,000 in a lottery and contains disturbing images of the sewers of San Francisco and an unsettling murder scene in California's Death Valley. The Merry Widow (1925) is an adaptation of the ironic operetta of the same name, while The Wedding March (1927) and its sequel The Honeymoon (1928) bear similarities to Merry-Go-Round, sharing the theme of love between social classes. Stroheim asked to have his name removed from the credits of Walking Down Broadway (1933), his last film and only one in sound, because the work in its publicly released form had been rewritten and largely reshot.

Critical Reception

Reaction to Stroheim's work underwent considerable re-assessment during his own lifetime, ranging from the critical success of his silent films Foolish Wives and Greed—which led to his being named one of the world's six best directors in 1925—to the virtual destruction of his reputation only five years later. In addition, while the advent of talkies contributed to the end of his career as a filmmaker, Stroheim rebuilt his popular reputation through acting over the next three decades. In the years since his death, Stroheim's directorial work has likewise been vindicated by critics who acknowledge that his films were distorted by the studios that so extensively edited them, sometimes removing three quarters or more of the footage that Stroheim intended to include. Likewise late twentieth-century scholars consider Greed to be not only his personal masterpiece, but also a classic example of realistic American filmmaking, and place Stroheim among the greatest directors of silent film.

Principal Works

Blind Husbands (film) 1918

The Devil's Passkey (film) 1919

Foolish Wives (film) 1921

Merry-Go-Round (film) 1922

Greed (film) 1924

The Merry Widow (film) 1925

The Wedding March (film) 1927

The Honeymoon (film) 1928

Walking Down Broadway (film) 1933

Paprika (novel) 1935

Queen Kelly (film) 1985


Peter Noble (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Stroheim, Sex and Symbolism," in Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim, The Fortune Press, 1950, pp. 82-92.

[In the following essay, Noble examines Stroheim's portrayal of sexuality.]

Thanks to Stroheim the women and young girls of America learned to prefer the slick, insolent archdukes, whose kisses burned like the lash of a whip, to the bucolic American heroes. He was the true creator of a sophisticated cinema.

[Herman Weinberg in Film Art (Spring 1937)]

Foolish Wives is an insult to every American … Stroheim has...

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André Bazin (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Erich von Stroheim: Form, Uniform, and Cruelty," in The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock, edited by Francois Truffaut, translated by Sabine d'Estree with Tiffany Fliss, Seaver Books, 1982, pp. 3-16.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1949, Bazin considers themes of violence and cruelty in Stroheim's films.]


The films of Erich von Stroheim rightfully belong to the critics and filmmakers of the post-World War I period. And his work cannot be well known by anyone who is unfamiliar with the last five years of silent films. Perhaps because it is more recent...

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Erich von Stroheim (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Introducing The Merry Widow," in Film Makers on Film Making: Statements on Their Art by Thirty Directors, edited by Harry M. Geduld, Indiana University Press, 1967, pp. 74-8.

[The following essay is a transcript of Stroheim's introductory remarks to a 1955 showing of The Merry Widow.]

… I would like to introduce to you my friend, my collaborator, Denise Vernac … [applause].… It is always a very bad sign when a director has to speak before one of his own films … [laughter] … because he will be making excuses … and that is exactly what I want to do. I have many reasons for it and for asking your patience. In the first place, because I speak...

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William K. Everson (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Erich von Stroheim," in Films in Review, Vol. VIII, No. 7, 1957, pp. 305-14.

[In the following essay, Everson surveys Stroheim's films.]

Erich von Stroheim's death in Paris on May 12, 1957, has further reduced the rapidly diminishing number of directorial "giants" of the silent screen. First Murnau, then Griffith, Eisenstein and Pudovkin. With Stroheim's death, only two are left—Carl Th. Dreyer, the greatest living silent director, and probably the greatest director making films today, and Charles Chaplin, whose latest film appears to be a disappointment and an unhappy swan song.

Though not the most important of the seven "giants" just...

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Joel W. Finler (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Norris & McTeague," in Stroheim, University of California Press, 1968, pp. 23-97.

[In the following essay, Finler provides a scene-by-scene analysis of Greed.]

Stroheim's … film [Greed] was shot for the Goldwyn Co. It was to be a vast adaptation of Frank Norris's novel McTeague. The fidelity of the screenplay to the novel is such that any consideration of the film should involve Norris as well as Stroheim.

Frank Norris was born in Chicago in 1870. He lived and studied for a while in San Francisco, but much of his life was spent travelling as a foreign newspaper correspondent. When he died at the age of thirty-two he...

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Jonathan Rosenbaum (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Second Thoughts on Stroheim," in Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1974, pp. 6-13.

[In the following essay, Rosenbaum reexamines Stroheim's canon, noting especially the discrepancy between the "legend" of the director and his actual work.]


Total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object. Question of degree.

—Samuel Beckett, "Three Dialogues"

Two temptations present themselves to any modern reappraisal of Erich von Stroheim's work; one of them is fatal, the other all but impossible to act upon. The fatal temptation would be...

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Tom Milne (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Sparing No Hint of Verismo," in Sight & Sound, Vol. 54, No. 4, 1985, pp. 301-2.

[In the following essay, Milne examines a restored version of Stroheim's Queen Kelly.]

Hitherto, prints of Queen Kelly have ended, satisfactorily if unsatisfyingly, with Gloria Swanson's despairing leap from the bridge (followed, in the version issued by Swanson in 1931, by a coda not directed by Stroheim in which Prince Wolfram made it a double suicide). Although the watchman is seen jumping to the rescue, making it obvious that the convent-bred innocent deflowered by her princely admirer would in fact be saved and go on to justify the title through her...

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Thomas K. Dean (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Thematic Differences between Norris's McTeague and von Stroheim's Greed," in Literature Film Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1990, pp. 96-102.

[In the following essay, Dean discusses the differences between Stroheim's Greed and the original novel on which it was based.]

The surprisingly few critics who have compared Frank Norris's novel McTeague and Erich von Stroheim's film adaptation Greed invariably assume that Norris is an imitator of Emile Zola rather than an author with his own thematic program, and they fail to take into account von Stroheim's consistent Judeo-Christian sin/punishment ethic that informs all his other...

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Jared Gardner (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "What Blood Will Tell: Hereditary Determinism in McTeague & Greed," in Texas Studies in Literature & Language, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 51-74.

[In the following essay, Gardner examines the realism of Stroheim's films and Frank Norris's novels.]

We Anglo-Saxons are a fighting race … Civilization is far from that time when the fighting man can be dispensed with.

—Frank Norris (Literary Criticism)

Against these assaults of inferiority … where can civilization look for its champions? Where but in the slender rank of the...

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Further Reading


Film Culture: The Motion Picture and TV Monthly IV, No. 3 (April 1958): 1-22.

Contains articles on Stroheim's life and film career by various contributors, including Stroheim's own introduction to The Merry Widow and an essay on his cinemagraphic style.

Koszarski, Richard. The Man You Loved To Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 343 p.

Detailed examination of each of the films that Stroheim directed in light of "his great contribution to cinema: his ability to marshal the resources of mass production in the service of a single artistic vision."


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