Erich von Stroheim Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.