Erich von Stroheim - Director

Nationality: Austrian. Born: Erich Oswald Stroheim in Vienna, 22 September 1885; became U.S. citizen, 1926. Education: According to von Stroheim he attended Mariahilfe Military Academy, though several biographers doubt this. Military Service: Served briefly in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Family: Married 1) Margaret Knox, 1914 (died 1915); 2) May Jones, 1916 (divorced 1918), one son; 3) Valerie Germonprez, 1918 (separated), one son. Career: Moved to America and worked as salesman, railroad worker, short story writer, and travel agent, 1909–14; actor, assistant and military adviser for D.W. Griffith, 1914–15; assistant director, military adviser, and set designer for director John Emerson, 1915–17; became known as "The Man You Love to Hate" after role as Prussian officer in For France , 1917; directed Blind Husbands for Carl Laemmle at Universal, 1918 (terminated contract with Universal, 1922); directed Greed for Goldwyn Co., his version cut to ten reels by studio, 1924; moved to France, 1945. Died: 12 May 1957.

Films as Director:


Blind Husbands (+ sc, art d, role as Lieutenant von Steuben)


The Devil's Passkey (+ sc, art d)


Foolish Wives (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume, role as Count Wladislas Serge Karamazin)


Merry-Go-Round (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume) (completed by Rupert Julian)

Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim


Greed (+ sc, co-art d)


The Merry Widow (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume)


The Wedding March (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume, role as Prince Nicki)


The Honeymoon (+ sc, role as Prince Nicki—part two of The Wedding March and not released in United States); Queen Kelly (+ sc, co-art d) (completed by others)


Walking down Broadway (+ sc) (mostly reshot by Alfred Werker and Edwin Burke and released as Hello Sister )

Other Films:


Captain McLean (Conway) (role)


Old Heidelberg (Emerson) (asst d, military advisor, role as Lutz); Ghosts (Emerson) (role); The Birth of a Nation (Griffith) (role)


Intolerance (Griffith) (asst d, role as second Pharisee); The Social Secretary (Emerson) (asst d, role as a reporter); Macbeth (Emerson) (asst d, role); Less than the Dust (Emerson) (asst d, role); His Picture in the Papers (Emerson) (asst d, role as the traitor)


Panthea (Dwan) (asst d, role as Russian policeman); Sylvia of the Secret Service (Fitzmaurice) (asst d, role); In Again— Out Again (Emerson) (asst d, art d, role as Russian officer); For France (Ruggles) (role as Prussian officer)


Hearts of the World (Griffith) (asst d, military advisor, role as German officer); The Unbeliever (Crosland) (role as German officer); The Hun Within (Cabanne) (role as German officer)


The Tempest (sc)


The Great Gabbo (Cruze) (role as Gabbo)


Three Faces East (del Ruth) (role)


Friends and Lovers (Schertzinger) (role)


The Lost Squadron (Archimbaud and Sloane) (role); As You Desire Me (Fitzmaurice) (role)


Crimson Romance (Howard) (military advisor, role as German pilot); Fugitive Road (sc/co-sc, military advisor)


The Crime of Dr. Crespi (Auer) (role as Dr. Crespi); Anna Karenina (Brown) (military advisor)


Devil Doll (Browning) (sc/co-sc); San Francisco (Van Dyke) (sc/co-sc); Marthe Richard (Bernard) (role as German officer)


Between Two Women (sc/co-sc); La Grande Illusion (Renoir) (role as von Rauffenstein); Mademoiselle Docteur (Gréville) (role as Col. Mathesius); L'Alibi (Chenal) (role as Winkler)


Les Pirates du rail (Christian-Jaque) (role as Tschou-Kin); L'Affaire Lafarge (Chenal) (role as Denis); Les Disparus de Saint-Agil (Christian-Jaque) (role as German professor); Ultimatum (Wiene and Siodmak) (role as Général Simovic); Gibraltar (role as Marson) ( It Happened in Gibraltar ); Derrière la façade (Lacombe) (role as Eric)


Menaces (Gréville) (role as Hoffman); Rappel immédiat (Mathot) (role as Stanley Wells); Pièges (Siodmak) (role as Pears); Tempète sur Paris (Bernard-Deschamps) (role as Kohrlick); La Révolte des vivants (Pottier) (role as Emile Lasser); Macao l'enfer (Delannoy) (role as Knall); Paris— New York (Heymann and Mirande) (role)


I Was an Adventuress (Ratoff) (role); So Ends Our Night (Cromwell) (role)


Five Graves to Cairo (Wilder) (role as Field Marshall Rommel); The North Star (Milestone) (role as German medic)


The Lady and the Monster (Sherman) (role); Storm over Lisbon (Sherman) (role)


The Great Flamarion (Mann) (role as Flamarion); Scotland Yard Investigation (Blair) (role); The Mask of Dijon (Landers) (role as Dijon)


On ne meurt pas comme ça (Boyer) (role as Eric von Berg)


La Danse de mort (Cravenne) (co-adapt, co-dialogue, role as Edgar)


Le Signal rouge (Neubach) (role)


Portrait d'un assassin (Bernard-Roland) (role)


Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) (role as Max)


Minuit, quai de Bercy (Stengel) (role); Alraune ( La Mandragore ) (Rabenalt) (role)


L'Envers du paradis (Gréville) (role as O'Hara); Alerte au sud (Devaivre) (role)


Napoléon (Guitry) (role as Beethoven)


SĂ©rie noire (Foucaud) (role); La Madone des sleepings (Diamant-Berger) (role)


By von STROHEIM: books—

Paprika , New York, 1935.

Les Feux de la Saint-Jean: Veronica (Part 1), Givors, France, 1951.

Les Feux de la Saint-Jean: Constanzia (Part 2), Givors, France, 1954; reissued 1967.

Poto-Poto , Paris, 1956.

Greed (full screenplay), Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels, 1958.

By von STROHEIM: articles—

Interviews, in Motion Picture (New York), August 1920, October 1921, May 1922, September 1923, and April 1927.

"Charges against Him and His Reply," with C. Belfrage, in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), June 1930.

"My Own Story," in Film Weekly (London), April/May 1935.

"Stroheim in London," with Karel Reisz, in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1954.

"Erich von Stroheim," in Interviews with Film Directors , edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

" Citizen Kane ," in Positif (Paris), March 1968 (reprinted from 1941).

" Les Rapaces (Greed) ," (scenario), in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), September 1968.

On von STROHEIM: books—

Atasceva, P., and V. Korolevitch, Erich von Stroheim , Moscow, 1927.

Drinkwater, John, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle , New York, 1931.

Fronval, Georges, Erich von Stroheim, sa vie, ses films , Paris, 1939.

Noble, Peter, Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim , London, 1951.

Bergut, Bob, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1960.

Barna, Jan, Erich von Stroheim , Vienna, 1966.

Gobeil, Charlotte, editor, Hommage Ă  Erich von Stroheim , Ottawa, 1966.

Ciment, Michel, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1967.

Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By . . . , New York, 1968.

Finler, Joel, Stroheim , Berkeley, 1968.

Curtiss, Thomas Quinn, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1969.

Buache, Freddy, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1972.

Pratt, George C., Spellbound in Darkness , Greenwich, Connecticut, 1973.

Weinberg, Herman G., Stroheim: A Pictorial Record of His Nine Films , New York, 1975.

Bazin, André, The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock , New York, 1982.

Koszarski, Richard, The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood , New York, 1983.

Bessy, Maurice, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1984.

Lignon, Fanny, Erich von Stroheim: Du ghetto au Gotha , Paris, 1998.

Lennig, Arthur, Stroheim , Lexington, 2000.

On von STROHEIM: articles—

Yost, Robert, "Gosh, How They Hate Him!," in Photoplay (New York), December 1919.

Weinberg, Herman G., "Erich von Stroheim," in Film Art (London), Spring 1937.

"Tribute to Stroheim," in Film Quarterly (London), Spring 1947.

"Von Stroheim Issue" of Ciné-club (Paris), April 1949.

Schwerin, Jules, "The Resurgence of von Stroheim," in Films in Review (New York), April 1950.

Lambert, Gavin, "Stroheim Revisited: The Missing Third in American Cinema," in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1955.

Eisner, Lotte, "Notes sur le style de Stroheim," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1957.

"Von Stroheim Issue" of Cinéma (Paris), February 1957.

Everson, William K., "The Career of Erich von Stroheim," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1957.

"Von Stroheim Issue" of Film Culture (New York), April 1958.

Marion, Denis, "Stroheim, the Legend and the Fact," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1961/62.

Weinberg, Herman G., "The Legion of Lost Films," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1962.

Weinberg, Herman G., "Sternberg and Stroheim," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1965/66.

"Von Stroheim Issue" of Etudes Cinématographiques (Paris), no. 48/50, 1966.

Gilliatt, Penelope, "The Scabrous Poet from the Estate Belonging to No One," in the New Yorker , 3 June 1972.

"Von Stroheim Issue" of Cinema (Zurich), December 1973.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Second Thoughts on Stroheim," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1974.

Koszarski, Richard, and William K. Everson, "Stroheim's Last 'Lost' Film: The Making and Remaking of Walking down Broadway ," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1975.

Cappabianca, Alessandro, in Castoro Cinema (Milan), special issue, no. 63, 1979.

Brownlow, Kevin, "The Merry Widow Affair," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1981.

Wilder, Billy, "Stroheim, l'homme que vous aimerez," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1983.

Adrejkov, T., "Erih fon Strohajm—sto godini sled rozdenieto mu," in Kinoizkustvo , July and August 1986.

Grindon, Leger, "From Word to Image: Displacement and Meaning in Greed ," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), vol. 41, no. 4, 1989.

Bourget, J.-L., "Erich von Stroheim," in Positif (Paris), January 1991.

Gauteur, C., "Stroheim, acteur français (1937–1939). L'inquiétant étranger," in Revue du Cinema (Paris), no. 468, February 1991.

Brun, D., "Cinémathèque française: Les documents de travail d'Erich von Stroheim," in Cinémathèque (Paris), no. 1, May 1992.

Amengual, B., and others, in Positif (Paris), special section, no. 385, March 1993.

Habel, F.-B., "Der Mann, den man gernt hasst. Zur Erich von Stroheim Retrospektive," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 22, no. 2, 1994.

Wecker, C., in Filmfaust , vol. 18, no. 91–92, March-June 1994.

Kothenschulte, D., "Geliebter haustyrann," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), vol. 47, no. 8, 12 April 1994.

EPD Film (Frankfurt), special section, vol. 11, no. 8, August 1994.

Narboni, J., "Pendant que l'herbe pousse," in Cinémathèque (Paris), no. 6, Autumn 1994.

Fisher, L., "Enemies, a Love Story: Von Stroheim, Women and World War I," in Film History (London), vol. 6, no. 4, Winter 1994.

Tournès, André, "Éric von Stroheim. Personne et personnage: Les vases communicants," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), no. 230, January-February 1995.

Reisz, Karel, "Stroheim revu par Karel Reisz," in Positif (Paris), no. 411, May 1995.

* * *

Erich von Stroheim had two complementary careers in cinema, that of actor-director, primarily during the silent period, and that of distinguished character actor when his career as a director was frustrated as a result of his inability to bring his genius to terms with the American film industry.

After edging his way into the industry in the humblest capacities, von Stroheim's lengthy experience as bit player and assistant to Griffith paid off. His acceptance during the pioneer period of American cinema as Prussian "military adviser," and his bullet-headed physical resemblance to the traditional monocled image of the tight-uniformed Hun officer, enabled him to create a more established acting career and star in his own films. With his first personal film, Blind Husbands , he became the prime creator in Hollywood of witty, risqué, European-like sex-triangle comedy-dramas. His initial successes in the early 1920s were characterized by subtle acting touches and a marked sophistication of subject that impressed American audiences of the period as essentially European and fascinatingly decadent. Blind Husbands was followed by other films in the same genre, the 12-reel The Devil's Pass Key and the critically successful Foolish Wives. In all three works, women spectators could easily identify with the common character of the lonely wife, whose seduction by attractively wicked Germanic officers and gentlemen (usually played by von Stroheim, now publicized as "the man you love to hate") provided the essential thrill. Von Stroheim also cunningly included beautiful but excitingly unprincipled women characters in both The Devil's Pass Key and Foolish Wives , played by Maude George and Mae Busch. Details of bathing, dressing, and the ministration of servants in the preparation of masters or mistresses in boudoir or dressing room were recurrent, and the von Stroheim scene always included elaborate banquets, receptions, and social ceremonies.

Von Stroheim's losing battle with the film industry began in his clashes with Irving Thalberg at Universal. His obsessive perfectionism over points of detail in setting and costume had pushed the budget for Foolish Wives to the million-dollar mark. Though the publicists boasted of von Stroheim's extravagance, the front office preferred hard profits to such self-indulgent expenditures. Thalberg also refused von Stroheim's demands that his films should be of any length he determined, and Foolish Wives (intended to be in two parts) was finally taken out of his hands and cut from 18–20 to some 12–14 reels. Although a critical success, the film lost money.

Foolish Wives was von Stroheim's most discussed film before Greed. In it he played a bogus aristocratic officer, in reality a swindler and multi-seducer. His brilliant, sardonic acting "touches" brought a similar psychological verisimilitude to this grimly satiric comedy of manners as Lubitsch was to establish in his Kammerspielfilme (intimate films). He also specialized in decor, photographic composition, and lighting. The latticed light and shadow in one sequence, when the seducer in full uniform visits the counterfeiter's underworld den with hope of ravishing the old man's mentally defective daughter, is unforgettable.

Greed , von Stroheim's most important film, was based meticulously on Norris's Zolaesque novel, McTeague. Von Stroheim's masterpiece, it was eventually mutilated by the studio because of its unwieldy length; it was reduced over its director's protests from 42 reels to 24 (between 5 and 6 hours), and then finally cut to 10 reels by the studio. Von Stroheim's emphasis on the ugly and bizarre in human nature emerged in this psychologically naturalistic study of avarice and degradation seen in a mismatched couple—McTeague, the impulsive, primitive (but bird-loving) lower-class dentist, and Trina, the pathologically avaricious spinster member of a German-Swiss immigrant family and winner of a $5,000 lottery. After their marriage, Trina hoards her money as their circumstances decline to the point where the husband becomes drunk and brutal, and the wife mad. After he murders her and becomes a fugitive, McTeague ends up in the isolated wastes of Death Valley, handcuffed to Marcus, his former friend whom he has killed. Using the streets of San Francisco and the house where the actual murder that had inspired Norris had taken place, von Stroheim anticipated Rossellini in his use of such locations. But his insistence on achieving an incongruous and stylized realism, which starts with McTeague's courtship of Trina sitting on a sewerpipe and culminates in the macabre sequence in Death Valley, goes beyond that straight neorealism of the future. Joel W. Finler, in his book Stroheim , analyzes the wholesale cutting in the 10-reel version, exposing the grave losses that render the action and motivation of the film unclear. But the superb performances of Zasu Pitts and Gibson Gowland compensate, and the grotesque Sieppe family provide a macabre background, enhanced by von Stroheim's constant reminder of San Francisco's "mean streets." The film was held to be his masterpiece by many, but also condemned as a "vile epic of the sewer."

Von Stroheim was to work as director on only five more films: the Ruritanian Merry Widow (adapted from the operetta), The Wedding March (in two parts, and again severely cut), the erotic Queen Kelly (directed for Gloria Swanson, but never completed by von Stroheim, though released by Swanson with her own additions), and the sound films Walking Down Broadway (released as Hello, Sister ; it was never released in von Stroheim's original version) and The Emperor's Candlesticks , on which it appears he collaborated only in direction. The silent films portray the same degenerate Imperial Viennese society von Stroheim favored. Half-romantic and half-grotesque fantasy, the films once again presented von Stroheim's meticulous attention to detail in decor and characterization. The Wedding March (in spite of studio intervention) is the high point in von Stroheim's career as a director after Greed. Subsequently he remained content to star or appear in films made by others, making some 50 appearances between 1929 and 1955. His most notable acting performances during this period were in Renoir's La Grande Illusion and Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo and Sunset Boulevard , in which his past as a director is almost ghoulishly recalled.

—Roger Manvell

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