Wednesday 12 December 2018

The Archaeology of the Cinema - Max Berghouse ponders the life and career of Erich von Stroheim

Erich Von Stroheis
I first became aware of Erich von Stroheim as a pre-teen. He first captured my attention as an actor in Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder, Paramount, 1943). I saw it about 20 years after the film was released. 

What struck me then were two things. First there was the lightness of touch, indeed semi-comedy, which could only come from Billy Wilder.  In 1943 that lightness of touch was unusual. It was by no means clear then that the war was won. 
The second was the performance of von Stroheim as Field Marshal Rommel, a performance that has remained deeply rooted in my mind for all these years, as the quintessential interpretation of that German soldier. In fact, von Stroheim was nothing like Field Marshal Rommel, neither in appearance, nor behaviour. Von Stroheim could have had no knowledge of the real Rommel because he, Rommel, really leaped from comparative obscurity only at the beginning of the Second World War. Still, it remains for me THE characterisation of that soldier and my memory of the film strikes home to me every time I watch "Foxtel History" (otherwise known as the German Military Uniforms Programme!)

Von Stroheim as Rommel, Five Graves to Cairo
It is one of those performances so powerful that in the face of history, one chooses the fiction of interpretation. It is similar in this regard to the performance by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane which was based on William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was not in fact the tortured protagonist as portrayed by Welles: he was a very optimistic and happy man but filmic interpretation is the one EVERYONE relies on. I might also say just incidentally that the performance of Fortunio Bonanova as the pompous Italian general, Sebastiano, in Five Graves also remains emblematic of the perfect characterisation of the apparently weak and cowardly Italian soldier.

A final dimension to this film was the commentary I recall from adults, nearly all of whom had seen Sunset Boulevard on its first release, some 15 or so years earlier. The consistent commentary of von Stroheim playing himself as a former film director was compounded by rather older people who lamented that von Stroheim was simply unable to keep his job as a director. One ought to remember that in those distant times, many, many more people saw films regularly and many more people felt competent to discuss them. As a young person growing up, I have to say, fairly haphazardly, it quite terrified me to think of a person like von Stroheim, with all his apparent talent, being unable to work.

This article is not intended as either a review of Von' s (the name by which he was known in Hollywood and which I shall use subsequently) films, or of his biography. Rather it is how his life and work has affected my judgement of film. I also don't intend to rehash what is known of Von's life. Wikipedia is entirely accessible for that. I shall try however to illuminate gaps in that biography and how they may have affected his career.

Arriving in America as an immigrant in 1909, already with an assumed aristocratic heritage, it could be no accident that he gravitated to the centre of make-believe and re -creation: Hollywood. He appears to have arrived there in 1914 and began working as a bit player. What he did, crossing from east to west of the country from 1909 to 1914, God knows. Apparently working as a consultant on "German culture" he came to the attention of DW Griffith. This story does not, however, ring true. There were many dozens of immigrant Central European Jews, and others, with quite an intimate knowledge of German culture, so why Von was able to make a living as a consultant, seems strange to me. UNLESS his act of re-creation was so mesmerisingly powerful, with all the Teutonic arrogance he subsequently displayed as both director and actor, that the overwhelmingly immigrant and Jewish bosses of the movies, just deferred to him – just like the old country.

D. W. Griffith
A well repeated story is that Von came to Griffith indicating that the orders and decorations of some of the actors in a film were not correct. He instead showed what was correct. This film must have been Old Heidelberg (Fine Arts Film Company, 1915). Why particular colours of Germanic military orders would be important in a black-and-white film, I can't say. I think the story reveals much more about Griffith (who was the producer of this film) in that he suffered a lifelong sense of inferiority as not coming from quite the right "aristocratic" background as he liked to fairly unconvincingly convey. 

Griffith consistently tried to portray his father as a gentleman soldier and an heroic colonel in the Confederacy. In fact, his father was a lazy drunk and the family relied upon his overly hard-working mother. Perhaps Griffith saw in Von a person who more successfully recreated an imaginary life about himself.

Thereafter he seems to have had a relatively involved acting career although not one that was super busy by the standards of the day. 

His first film as director was Blind Husbands (1919). I have not seen this film but I'm not sure that it has anything to offer in the main thrust of my next argument about Von. Instead I shall commence with the production of Foolish Wives (Universal and Jewel Films, 1922). 

Foolish Wives
Von has the reputation of being demanding in terms of authenticity which reflected in obsessive attention to (historic) detail, accuracy in the recreation of sets, great demands on actors in terms of veracity and truthfulness and the like. From my perspective this seems to have been a justification for his arrogance and dictatorial nature while on set. In this film enormous sums were lavished on the re-creation of very historically accurate sets, most notably the casino at Monte Carlo. While very interesting to look at, including the orchestration of large crowd scenes, much of this work is dramatically unnecessary. It could not be said that when this film was made (1919 and being set in the same period at the moment of the Armistice) that the audience was really totally unfamiliar with the Europe of the day.

The Everyman of this film is Von who is director and star, playing Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, a former captain in the Czar's cavalry. To my knowledge all Russians have a forename, a patrinomial and a surname, like Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. The name that the Count uses is perhaps Polish. Parts of Poland were certainly parts of the Czarist Empire but in the immediate post-war period Poland had re-established itself as an independent country and I very much doubt that as a matter of reality anyone would pretend to be a displaced Russian Count from a country where all the aristocratic estates had already been expropriated and there were, in Paris, several members of the Imperial family working as taxi drivers! 

The Count (above) is to be found boulevardering along the main streets of Monte Carlo wearing his Imperial uniform of white jacket with black pants. He sports a monocle. Going about in uniform but not on duty was referred to as "walking out". Officers carried canes (as does the Count) but they did not additionally wear swords. I doubt they wore their decorations for daywear.

So maybe, in this respect at least, Von's reputation for accuracy does not stand up at all well. I chose the above example as one of many not only in this film but throughout his oeuvre. I also think it's one of the reasons for his incredibly lengthy and complex production schedules, for which he was roundly criticised, ultimately to the point that he was simply unable to make further films as a director. In short I think he struggled to get the sort of accuracy he wanted because it did not come naturally to him. I concede that this is merely a guess.

With the exception of Greed (MGM 1924) which I think ought to be looked at separately, Von's subsequent films are really all concerned with some sort of distant memory and imagination of the recently passed Austro-Hungarian Empire: The Merry Widow (MGM, 1925) and The Wedding March (Paramount, 1928).

I am also excluding Queen Kelly(United Artists, 1932) as it is a sound film and quite a long time removed from the last Von picture that he effectively controlled, the 1928 production of Wedding March. The films were reasonably successful, the most successful being The Merry Widow based on the ever popular operetta by Franz Lehar. 

The Merry Widow
One of the most popular musicals ever written, it's hard to imagine this production being other than a success. But everything went over budget, over time and the pressures on the crew, both in front of and behind the camera intensified. Why was he able to get away with behaviour that simply would not have been, and indeed was not, tolerated by any other director in the business. Most of the moguls in the business at the time were of Jewish background, most from fairly humble backgrounds where extreme diffidence to the aristocratic classes was a means of survival. Von' s complete identification with his role as aristocrat, I think made it relatively easy for him to bend others to his will, and not the other way around. Of course he ultimately wore out his welcome and then resumed a middling career as an actor.

Vienna, and to a lesser extent Budapest, were beacons of hope for peasants and non-Germanic peoples throughout the Empire, until the First World War. Chancers of all descriptions made their way to the capital, some to live in abject poverty and some to make it big time. In this period of economic liberalisation, previously disenfranchised Jews could remake themselves into genuine "German-speaking subjects of the Empire".

Similarly, in Hungary, as Jewish people entered the traditional middle class professions like law and medicine, they very frequently enlisted into the army as militia officers, this being a badge of success. Had the Empire survived, and indeed had these militia officers survived (and many, many did not), they would have ultimately reached the ranks of the aristocracy. It's a well-known phenomenon of central European writing in the post-First World War period to observe a deep nostalgia for the Empire which for all its prewar racketiness, could be viewed subsequently as quite benign. 

This sense of nostalgia is very much captured by the "Viennese" films of Von. They are essentially films by an outsider. I might make one mention of one scene in The Wedding March of the celebrations for Palm Sunday (below)
 in Vienna's Cathedral, attended by the Emperor and court officials. The Austrian Empire was a publicly proclaimed Catholic Empire and the co-mingling of church and court is brought out perfectly in this scene. It is hand-tinted (below) and is simply a stunning portrayal of history which I can't imagine Von had any knowledge of directly. It makes me ponder the way in which his recreational self happened. This scene just mentioned really looks like the work of an insider, not the outsider we know Von to be.

At the same time, and I think this can be observed in post second world-war Australia, that striving immigrants from Central Europe, often extremely successful in business, adopted the behaviour of "the class above them, the generation before". That is, they behaved like arrogant and intemperate aristocrats, or at least as they were perceived by these striving immigrants. I think this is a fundamental key to understanding how Von was able to maintain himself as a director or as a creator, in Hollywood.

As for Greed  I am unable to make a positive judgement. Of course the film is so incredibly truncated. Pretty much universally, the loss of most of the footage of this quite epic film is viewed as a tragedy. Yet one has to judge the film as it stands. Anything like Von's conception of the film as ultimately a two-parter played over separate nights, each of multiple hour length, was never going to be even remotely possible nor commercial. But it does seem to me that it is one of the best film "translations" of a novel, in this case Frank Norris' "McTeague" (1895), a naturalist/realist novel owing a great deal to Emile Zola. Presumably the very determinist views of the author in which the good and the best survive, while the rest perish and/or suffer, appealed to an adventurer like Von. 

Given Von's apparently complete identification as a Catholic nobleman from Austria, he was able to overlook the obvious anti-Semitism in Norris' writing. But the downfall of the film to me is that (like the novel) it is so emotionally cold. There is simply no one with whom one can identify and the fate of each actor is largely a matter of indifference. 

Subsequent to his "expulsion" from Hollywood, as a director, Von turned to acting and he was a fair to middling character actor, not with much range and generally playing "the man you love to hate". He effectively played himself, the dictatorial film director in The Lost Squadron (RKO, 1932), incidentally looking sartorially splendid and more famously as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard (Paramount, 1950). I think that pretty much by this time Von was a practising Catholic and subsequently while living in France, appeared to be genuinely devout. I don't think Billy Wilder, the director of Sunset Boulevard was especially Jewish in practice, but I'm quite sure he was disdainful both of Von's assumption of a new identity, and hiding his original one. It seems to me that Wilder extracted maximum punishment from the man behind the role, for his behaviour.

Mary Astor, von Stroheim, The Lost Squadron
When I became interested in Von, I was really quite besotted by the late work of DW Griffith: Battle of the Sexes (1928), Drums of Love(1928) and Lady of the Pavements(1929) – all United Artists distribution. I remain fascinated by these films, mostly not particularly highly regarded but in which Griffith had perfected a silent filmic "vocabulary" in which sound is really not necessary. 

It was difficult for me to come to terms with the opulence and exaggeration of Von. Notwithstanding, his oeuvre absolutely demands attention and deep study. He seems to be the absolutely classic case, far more than Griffith of an artist who really needed the discipline and controls of the studio system to thrive.
Erich von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd

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