Where to begin with Erich von Stroheim

A beginner’s path through the work of one of cinema’s most notorious director-geniuses, whose staggeringly ambitious projects were infamously curbed by Hollywood.

Foolish Wives (1922)San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Why this might not seem so easy

Erich von Stroheim didn’t live to see John Ford’s classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but it’s easy to imagine that if he had, he’d have offered up a wry smile at the local newspaperman’s immortal exit line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The diminutive Austrian had made his own journey west, as a military deserter with dreams of reinvention. It would take until the 1960s for biographers to even begin to unpick the fantastical knots of creative untruths with which von Stroheim constructed his Hollywood persona. From his arrival at Ellis Island in 1909 – where he first slapped the fanciful ‘von’ in front of his surname – this 24-year-old son of a Viennese milliner had decided on his legend, and remained steadfast in his resolve to see it become fact.

The poster for von Stroheim’s 1919 directorial debut Blind Husbands

His was a career of extraordinary highs and lows. An actor, writer and director, von Stroheim’s creative ambitions would prove too rich for even the most profligate of studio heads. His very first picture swelled to ten times its intended cost. Other mega-productions saw him variously fired or removed from the editing process, his gargantuan visions left either severely truncated or lost to history entirely. What remains of von Stroheim’s directorial output today largely exists in fragments, reconstituted into approximations of the filmmaker’s intentions. Some, like his debut Blind Husbands (1919), resemble a narrative whole – despite its missing 19 minutes – while others, like the uncompleted Queen Kelly (1932), steadily dissolve into a fog of unrealised possibility.

None hold a place in the cinematic imagination quite like his magnum opus. “We went into the projecting room at 10:30 in the morning,” wrote one of the very few people to see von Stroheim’s complete cut of Greed (1924), “we staggered out at 8:00 that night.” Reports from various early screenings put the length anywhere from 40 to 47 reels, the longest clocking in at over nine hours. Von Stroheim halved its length before his removal from the picture, but MGM went further still, finally premiering a cut which ran a mere 140 minutes. In 1952, critics for Sight and Sound named it the seventh greatest film of all time (it would climb to fourth place a decade later), but it would prove little comfort to its director. “No matter if I could talk to you three weeks steadily,” he said, “could I possibly describe even to small degree the heartache I suffered through the mutilation of my sincere work.”

The best place to start – Foolish Wives

Erich von Stroheim’s films were an extension of his own personal myth-making. Presenting himself as the son of an Austrian count and German baroness with extensive military training, this Teutonic hustler never broke character. Within a few years he’d traded destitution for bit-parts in major productions, insinuating himself into D.W. Griffith’s inner circle as a ‘technical advisor’. By the latter half of the 1910s he was playing villainous ‘Huns’ for the likes of Allan Dwan and Douglas Fairbanks, culminating with the sleazy 1918 melodrama The Heart of Humanity, in which, for the rapacious climax, he lobs a baby out of a fourth floor window.

Foolish Wives (1922)MoMA

As the war ended, appetites – of both actor and public – for these kinds of roles abated, and von Stroheim sought to refine his image. His third feature as director exemplifies the Mitteleuropean decadence with which he’d already become synonymous. Entwining sex and spectacle, Foolish Wives (1922) stars von Stroheim as a predatory Russian count on the make on the French Riviera.

Monte Carlo came to California in the vast sets that were constructed. A series of plate-glass windows for a single shot cost $12,000 alone. The production ballooned to unprecedented levels, von Stroheim taking so long to complete filming that one of his leading actors died before his role could be completed. The director hired detectives to search for a lookalike.

Von Stroheim previewed a 30-reel cut he deemed “perfect,” but Universal had different plans. The first 3.5 hour version they screened was swiftly reduced to a more manageable length, but the cuts kept coming, even after the film had opened. A revival in the late-20s saw the film re-edited again from scratch, leading to multiple versions in the marketplace and much confusion for preservationists in the years to come. No definitive version of Foolish Wives exists, with even the most recent cut running an hour shorter than that which von Stroheim disavowed at the first Universal preview. And yet, it’s a masterpiece: a film of dashing rogues and moral bankruptcy that charts a clash of postwar ideals, and allegedly inspired Jean Renoir to become a filmmaker.

What to watch next

Von Stroheim’s artistic misfortunes bear striking parallel to those of Orson Welles, but the comparison goes further. As a writer-director, von Stroheim came out of nowhere, delivering a debut that is often described as the greatest first film in American cinema pre-Citizen Kane (1941). He’d literally knocked on the front door of Universal head Carl Laemmle’s home and made his pitch for Blind Husbands, a heavily symbolic box office smash that trades in religious and sexual imagery amid the peaks of the Dolomites.

Greed (1924)

The nine-hour cut of Greed remains one of cinema’s holy grails, but there is a version which attempts to get a little closer to its director’s original vision. In 1999, Rick Schmidlin – the same producer who had reconstructed Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) – assembled a four-hour cut for Turner Classic Movies, mixing extant footage with the hundreds of still photographs taken during production. It was a colossal undertaking, and represents the best available viewing experience of von Stroheim’s Zola-esque epic of moral decay.

One of the great tragedies of von Stroheim’s career was his firing from Queen Kelly. The usual concerns regarding overspending were cited in what was intended as another super-production. Producer-star Gloria Swanson kicked her director to the curb, so apoplectic at the lascivious direction the story was taking she hired someone else to finish the film. Even in the mangled version released in Europe in 1932, von Stroheim’s expressionist imagery is striking, despite the film ending in narrative confusion before we see Kelly usurp the mad Queen Regina.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

The first glimpse American audiences would have of Queen Kelly came much later, and in a different film entirely. Swanson and her director were reunited for Billy Wilder’s gothic Hollywood satire Sunset Blvd. (1950), both cast as grotesque shadows of their former glory. As von Stroheim, playing an erstwhile director reduced to the role of butler, switches on a projector for fallen star Norma Desmond to relive her youth, it’s Queen Kelly which flickers across the screen.

Following the failure of that last major project, von Stroheim saw out the rest of his career as an actor, invariably burnishing the uniformed type he’d spent a lifetime perfecting. Wilder first tapped his Germanic proximity by casting him as Field Marshal Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo (1943), while Jean Renoir showed his gratitude with a plum role in La Grande Illusion (1937).

Where not to start

Von Stroheim’s second feature, The Devil’s Passkey (1920), is lost to history, while the finished version of Merry-Go-Round (1923) that exists only contains about 10 minutes of von Stroheim’s footage, following his firing and replacement a mere six weeks into production. The Honeymoon (1930) – a sequel to his 1928 film The Wedding March – is also lost, the last known copy destroyed in a fire in 1959. Fortunately, we still have the 1928 film. Made independently, it would prove another fraught production, shut down when costs skyrocketed, and edited behind its director’s back by Hollywood’s other fake von, Josef von Sternberg. With its astonishing parade of close-ups, delicate symbolism and ravishing fairytale milieu, The Wedding March is as breathtaking a broken testament as any to the impossible vision of this star-crossed master.

A new restoration of Foolish Wives screens at the 66th BFI London Film Festival.

Further reading

BFI Membership

Become a BFI Member from £39 to enjoy priority festival booking as well as other great benefits all year round.

Join today