Erich von Stroheim is a man of many myths. From the myth of his aristocratic background to the myth surrounding his lost movies, he has certainly had his ups and downs at the hands of critics, writers and historians. It’s been interesting to watch over the years as his reputation rose, primarily based on the tantalizing thought of those just out of reach missing masterpieces, only to dip as the restored (or as near restored as possible) versions of his films became more easily viewable. Tastes change also, and his seemingly adult viewpoint in the twenties seemed starkly realistic to sixties critics, but those same viewpoints have been overtaken by the supposed deeper sophistication of contemporaries such as Lubitsch and Murnau. In fact, the consensus thought as far as I can gather these days is that he was an arrogant and foolish man with dreams bigger than his abilities and who was quite possibly a bit mad.
Though I run the risk of being thought a simpleton for my views and I fully understand any objections, I firmly believe that Erich von Stroheim was quite simply the greatest director that ever lived. Better than Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Lubitsch and all those other ones who currently find favour with the smart set. Though undoubtedly in terms of consistency, longevity or popularity he cannot stand up to any comparison, in terms of his passion, obsession, vision and forward thinking he stands head and shoulders from the crowd. Of all his contemporaries he is the most modern, both aesthetically and philosophically.
Like all great directors, he really only has a handful of things to say. Indeed, his pictures are littered with the same symbols, characters, times and places. What sets him out from his contemporaries is his incredibly adult approach to his material. While Cecil B. DeMille undoubtedly started the cycle of social realism in silent cinema, it is Stroheim that takes the concept and shows it in all its harsh, grotesque glory. His oft quoted comparison of himself with Ernst Lubitsch that, “he (Lubitsch) shows you the king on his throne and then he shows the king in his bedroom. I show the king in his bedroom first. In that way, when you see him on the throne, you’ve no illusions about him” holds true and perfectly highlights his thinking about the inner corruption and depravity that exist in the world as he saw it.
I could go on to give endless examples of this in his films but the point is that no one else in the twenties was thinking this way. No one else was so actively defying the morals of the time in the name of art and no one else thought to attempt to expose not just the seedier side of life and social classes, but while doing so to expose the corruption and disintegration of the post war society around him. By cleverly transplanting most of these situations to post or pre war aristocratic Europe, Stroheim was given free will to shape a world of his own choosing and to strip away the artifice of the very people around him in Hollywood.
However, what marks Stroheim, as a director of the very highest caliber is his all encompassing, obsessive worldview. On one hand this exhibits itself in all aspects of the film making process, not just in writing, directing and starring in his own productions but to his minute, compulsive attention to the details of set dressing, costuming and even the casting of extras. To some, the stories of footwear being bought at great cost for banquet scenes in which they are never even seen may seem ridiculous and unnecessary, but to me they strike me as the work of a man driven by his art. Stroheim also pioneered the use of real locations for films, used character actors in starring roles and used untrained extras in an attempt to put the microscope of the camera up as close to real life as was possible with scant regard to commerce. Others doing this would be applauded but it seems Stroheim isn’t in that select club.
Of course, as a director Stroheim is famous for two things. Firstly it is as the blueprint for every parody of the mad, tyrannical and aristocratic film director. This is perhaps justified, due to his habit of putting his cast and crew in danger in the name of a good take. From the swelteringly dangerous heat of Death Valley in Greed where he almost killed his actors in an attempt to get them to convey pure hatred and blood lust, to the use of real prostitutes to play prostitutes in orgy scenes (not to mention getting his extras drunk and filming it), his quest for the realest of the real was at the expense of all else. Once again, others (for example Werner Herzog) are mostly lauded for this life or death obsession with art, but Stroheim, it seems is just labeled crazy.
The second thing that he is famous for as a director is for probably being the only person that Hollywood effectively “banned” from directing films. In 1933, after being pulled from what would have been his first sound feature, Walking Down Broadway, Stroheim was never to direct again. His arrogance and excess finally ensured that no one wanted to work with him or employ him to be in charge of a film. In the space of a year, Stroheim went from being the infamous director of scandalous films, to being the subject of a begging letter sent round the MGM stars by a friend so that he and his family could eat at Christmas. In the end the money was raised but Stroheim was so ashamed that he threatened to kill himself that Christmas Eve. He was the living embodiment of the phrase “You’re only as good as your last picture”
I think only Buster Keaton had a similarly spectacular fall from grace. Of course both their declines involve Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg and highlight the then growing power of the producer in Hollywood over the artist. Those that couldn’t play ball with the big studios just had to find somewhere else to work. In the cases of both Keaton and Stoheim, they had families to feed so just had to take whatever work was available. Both ended up playing bit parts in poor films and having a stint in the MGM script department brushing up scripts unworthy of their talents. Similarly, both would eventually find their reputations restored in Europe before the end of their lives.
One of the most admirable traits of Stroheim was his inability to entirely give up on his art. Even though he spent the remainder of his life as a jobbing actor he still had the strength of will to impose his unique character and obsessions on each of his parts. Sometimes this meant subtle rewriting of scripts and sometimes it meant challenging the director to a battle of wills but in each time his part and usually the film benefited greatly from his input. His acting appearances are littered with aristocrats, disability, deformity, orthopedic braces, white gloves, religious imagery (Christian and voodoo), insanely detailed set dressing and sly references to Christmas and geraniums (a Stroheim signature). He even wrote a couple of pot boiling novels that neatly synthesized all his obsessions into pulpy, trashy episodes. In short, his dreams had been taken from him but he never gave up.
In the end the myths endure. Stroheim is a director who only made ten films, the vast majority of which were never released as he intended and which now exist (if they exist at all) in mutilated versions. What other director is held in such high regard with such little evidence available? I believe that his reputation goes beyond tales of the grail-like uncut version of Greed, or the anecdotes of insane extravagance and is due to his unique understanding of the motion picture as a medium of boundless potential, one that has no need to justify itself as art and which can and should peek behind the veil of lies that life presents. His obsessional need to explore this world, crumbling as it was, in any medium that would have him, marks him out as not only a great director but as an exceptional artist. That petty minded studio bosses ultimately curtailed the reputation, genius and development of such a dynamic and unusual talent is one of the great tragedies in film history.