“Like every other skilled fabulist on earth there would forever be a part of Stroheim that truly believed his own fantasies.”
1. True Fake Nobleman
Somewhere between his departure from Bremen on November 16, 1909, and his arrival in America ten days later, Erich Oswald Stroheim decided to change more than just his name. Delivered from the Old World to this one — as if he were exchanging one moment in history for another — he stepped off the steamship Prince Friedrich Wilhelm and, when it was his turn, announced himself to the wearied authorities at New York’s Ellis Island as one Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim.
If anyone sensed this was just an act, they probably said nothing. Why bother? He wouldn’t have been the first immigrant to the United States in that era to recast his identity en route, nor the first to transform himself into someone of greater fortune and higher birth than the others, more openly tired and poor, who shared the voyage. The newly-made Count von Stroheim was at that moment a twenty-four-year-old Viennese failure of middle-class origin whose boyhood had been spent in physical (if by no means social) proximity to the ruling classes of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The temptation, then, to cloak himself in a measure of its remembered majesty — now that he was far away from anyone who could see through the pretense — may have been impossible to withstand. In essence, it was his first creation of any significance; the only thing of value in his possession as he disembarked from the ferry to lower Manhattan on that late Autumn day and, as so many others had before him, vanished into the New World.
The lie that Erich Stroheim carried across the ocean took root and slowly blossomed into a magnum opus of false identity, one that would lend abiding essence to his life and his art. Over the next fifty years these iterations of past nobility would surge or recede in accord with the imperatives of his will, but like every other skilled fabulist on earth there would forever be a part of Stroheim that truly believed his own fantasies. Somewhere within he really was everything he would variously claim to be: a titled scion of the House of Hapsburg, graduate of the Kavallerie Kadettenschule and the Imperial Military Akademie, recipient of the Franz Josef Cross, late of the Emperor’s 4th Dragoons and 14th Huzaar regiment. His posturing throughout those years was so durable that many decades later — long after he’d delivered unto Cinema the last of his strange and troubled, often extraordinary films; one of the singular bodies of work in the medium’s history — there would still be those who insisted that the brutality of his odyssey through America’s film industry could have been forestalled, and a greater institutional success achieved, had he only risen from humbler circumstances. The idea that he had, in the end, fallen from an unscalable height made for the neatest of denouements in a realm that partly subsisted on crudely wrought narrative. If the doggedness of his invention made the lie convincing, the prospect of an added, tragic dimension when it was all over placed belief beyond resistance.
It should be noted that there was nothing even remotely dishonorable about his background. His father, Benno Stroheim, as proprietor of Stroheim and Co., had long been a member of Austria’s commercial class: a maker and merchant of hats, both straw and felt, and with time a seller of fashions imported from the whole of Western Europe. His was a prosperous concern for a time; prosperous enough for him and his wife, the former Johanna Bondy, to live a life of relative comfort in Vienna’s Seventh District — just a short distance from Hofburg Palace — where their first son Erich was born on September 22, 1885 (a second son, Bruno, would follow four years later).
Like everyone else, Erich’s childhood had its share of difficult patches. He was, by every account but his own, an unremarkable student; perpetually distracted, chronically uninterested. In 1901, seeing no more decent option, he was packed off to a business college in Graz explicitly to prepare for the day he would assume a position of authority in his father’s hat shop, which was just entering the first stages of its inevitable decline. Taking up the mercantile standard was considered a laudable course in that society, but it was not the future Stroheim had imagined for himself as a young man. What he wanted — and he wanted it with such intensity that the desire wove itself into the fabric of his art long after all hope for its realization had been demolished — was to live the life of an officer in the Imperial Royal Army of Austria.
In September 1906, seizing chance, he enlisted with a training regiment stationed in Vienna where he was shortly instructed in the heroic arts of loading wagons and saddling horses, all before being exiled to the ghetto of a transport unit where, among other indignities, he was expected to carry the financial burden of his uniform and supplies. Being Jewish by birth — what was contemptuously referred to in the ranks as a Mosesdragoner — there had never been any question of Stroheim rising into the officer class. Austria, like every weathered principality in Western Europe, boasted a social system where corrosive anti-Semitism was a virtual condition of the air. There was always an enormous (and enormously clear) gulf between what someone of Stroheim’s heritage could expect from its institutions and what they were prepared to grant; enough for anyone to wonder how he could have deluded himself so thoroughly.
But it’s not difficult to understand at all. Old Vienna at the start of the 20th century was already an untamed gimcrack fantasy made flesh, attaining the full weight of its martial splendor under the Hapsburgs several lifetimes before Stroheim made it the center of his dream life. When the imperial standard at last began to fire his being, the city was in the midst of a gradual shift from hub of a vast empire to the cosmopolitan culture of Schnitzler, Freud, and every other purveyor of intellectual bread and circuses in the new marketplace of ideas. The Austro-Hungarian empire was indeed advancing toward its last days, but to a recidivist dreamer like the young Stroheim, that only made the encrusted imperial residue so much more visible and exotic by contrast. By what we can derive from his art, it could here be said that Stroheim’s youthful obsession with a military career of high rank did not extend very far beyond its aesthetics. He might claim, as he did in later years, to have fought bravely and to honor in the war over Bosnia Herzegovina’s annexation in 1908, but battlefield heroism — indeed, battlefield exploits of any character — gained no purchase on him as a storyteller. The mundane, grimy, blood-drenched substance of military life never animated his vision; he was, however, spellbound by the extravagance of its forms and rituals.
On Corpus Christi Day, to take one example, he could walk just a short distance from home to stand amid the throngs of cheering subjects outside Hofburg Palace, there gathered to witness Emperor Franz Josef begin the annual procession to St. Stephen’s Cathedral in his gold Coronation Coach, accompanied by a phalanx of uniformed Palace guards, officers all, on horseback; a full ceremony of pomp and color and decoration on a scale afforded by generations of fealty to the ripened empire it symbolized. To a child’s eyes this ritualized pageantry was the purest spectacle to be had in the temporal world; like something from another planet when contrasted with the middle-class, mercenary sameness of everyday life. The social implications of it meant nothing (Stroheim was a fantasy merchant, never a royalist); to him it was as all majesty — and those who got to take part were the most fortunate beings on earth. It is little wonder, then, that watching the raffish, devil-may-care officers and princes played in Stroheim’s films by Norman Kerry or John Gilbert or (especially) Stroheim himself, feels like an intrusion into some odd, private indulgence. They were, in all elements, unfettered projections of everything he wanted to be in life from the time he was a child. And why not? Who, after all, wouldn’t absorb every detail of that dream’s wild opulence, the beauty as well as the decay of those cherished symbols? Who wouldn’t want to be part of it or, failing that, re-create it, if only such a thing were possible?
He lasted six months. On April 20, 1907, Stroheim was formally classified as unfit for service and, without ceremony, handed his discharge. That was it. He was twenty-one, a young man with dead hopes, the heir to a dying mercantile enterprise located in the seat of a dying empire. After another, more pitiful attempt to realize the ambition of his youth one year later, he simply disappeared. And no one, to this moment, knows what happened to Erich Stroheim until the day he got on a steamship to America and, with all the ease of drawing breath, turned himself into Erich von Stroheim, the true fake nobleman of all his boyhood dreams.
Carl Laemmle, the president and co-founder of Universal Film Manufacturing Corp., was the kind of obsessive gambler who preferred to retail his personality disorder as a dashing and enviable character trait. Just because he was known to blow hundreds at the track or at games of Pinochle, of all things, that didn’t put him in the same woebegone class as some present-day degenerate lurching into the MGM Grand at two in the morning to drop a year’s worth of mortgage payments at the Blackjack tables. No, it made him a risk-taker, a man without fear and a daredevil of the boardroom who boldly stared down the demons of chance in ways other men, made of filmsier stuff, would shrivel from at the mere contemplation. At least that was the story spread by courtiers, flacks, and relatives he installed on the payroll; and they had a miserable job on their hands once the old man started believing it. As the new industry careened into the 1920s, Laemmle’s heedless methods — even in the management of Universal, his institutional offspring — had become such a fact of life and legend that real man-hours were spent on both coasts keeping him on a leash, largely to prevent his falling prey to some nonsensical scheme that could put everybody out of a job. It was filthy work, but it had to be done. Uncle Carl — as he was known to subordinates with varying degrees of contempt — seemed to really thrive on this delusive self-image. He could, under the right circumstance, be an exceptionally easy mark.
So when Erich von Stroheim paid a call on Laemmle at his home early in 1919 (the story goes) and came away with an agreement to direct and play the lead in The Pinnacle, it was perhaps frustrating to some in the New York office, but a fairly routine occurrence nonetheless — yet another instance where Caesar’s minions failed to save him from his own screwball beneficence. For a decision that would one day be celebrated for its nerve and foresight, there seems little evidence that anyone at the time paid much attention. The risk, even from the perspective of the most vigilant Laemmle custodian, wasn’t particularly heart-stopping (in fact, compared to earlier strategies that had seen some of the biggest names on the Universal lot flee to the marginally more rational management of other studios, giving Stroheim’s script the go-ahead was downright prosaic). Laemmle himself liked the story — a romantic melodrama in a Continental setting — thought it had box-office appeal and, while Stroheim wasn’t exactly a star (not in the conventional sense anyway), he had lately become well known to the movie-going public. Surely that would be worth something.
Stroheim had been working in America’s new film industry for less than five years when he forged his deal with Carl Laemmle, having only recently achieved the very strange species of stardom that facilitated it. He drifted down to Los Angeles from San Francisco in February or March 1915 — perspectives being hazy and unreliable under the best conditions, no one seems to know with certainty the how or the when of it — and found himself doing menial labor for D. W. Griffith’s company at the Majestic Studio, just then on the verge of its dysfunctional triumph, The Birth of a Nation. Within a year, Count von Stroheim was steadily employed on both coasts as a Technical Advisor — that distinguished military career he couldn’t shut up about made him a natural for the job — a bit part player, and an overall assistant to director John Emerson on such films as Old Heidelberg, His Picture in the Papers, The Social Secretary, and Macbeth (with inter-titles by William Shakespeare and Anita Loos). Other assistant director jobs quickly followed for Allan Dwan and, perhaps most critically, a brief tour of duty on the Judean section of Griffith’s still-breathtaking 1916 leviathan, Intolerance. Never the easiest person to work with, Stroheim was nonetheless chock full of ideas, not shy when it came to proposing them, and always a capable hand.
With the onset of America’s direct involvement in the Great War, Stroheim’s career as an actor suddenly took flight, but in a terrifically problematic sense: he had been playing German soldiers as early as 1917, when he appeared in Wesley Ruggles’ For France. But it was a small role (a mere minute or two of screen time) as a predatory Lieutenant in Griffith’s rote WWI epic Hearts of the World (1918) that rapidly brought him featured parts in some of the mindlessly xenophobic propaganda exercises Hollywood delivered during that conflict. The roles never varied — one demented, rapacious German officer after another — but Stroheim essayed them all with such outlandish, scene-consuming gusto, that it scarcely mattered how deep into the wasteland of stock villainy their authors had initially sought to descend. Stroheim would always take the proceedings a few leagues deeper, as though claiming these bloodthirsty madmen for himself, creating them anew through the sheer volatility of his portrayal. This was, it should be remembered, a time of immense anti-German hysteria in American culture, and the public, for their part, loved to holler and hiss and shake a collective fist at every crude, eye-rolling moment of it.
He was, for lack of a better term, the paradigmatic Hun of American Cinema, a baroque stereotype of Teutonic atrocity worth its weight in propagandistic gold, and endowed with one of the most bizarre sobriquets in the squalid enterprise of motion picture publicity: “The Man You Love to Hate.” There were perhaps more seemly paths to screen glory, but Stroheim — even if he had the foresight to see its cruel trajectory — had little choice now. Sure, he could walk away from this new stardom, if he wanted to, go back to playing bit parts. Instead he embraced it.
It was a fateful moment. Whether executing children and little old ladies in Alan Crosland’s The Unbeliever (1918) or (more famously) hurling an infant through a window during a rape scene in Allen Holubar’s monumentally stupid The Heart of Humanity (1919), Stroheim — not unlike Mantan Moreland and Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry in the sound era — entered America’s popular imagination through embodying its more gamy prejudices, thereby enslaving a crucial measure of his public identity before he had opportunity to establish a less unfortunate one. Despite numerous attempts in later years to leave The Hun behind and create a more subtle, artful screen persona — a struggle maintained throughout the balance of his career — these first emanations of an unbridled grotesquerie would affect, in one way or another, every step he took as an artist thereafter.
But advantageous as it was playing uniformed rapists and child murderers, the arrival of the armistice in November of 1918 spelled doom. Stroheim could see that the market for Huns was about to vanish as quickly as it bloomed (the general market for stereotypes, of course, persists to this day), and if he were to sustain what he’d already achieved, another direction was called for.
3. Blind Husbands (Universal, 1919)
Erich von Stroheim wrote The Pinnacle — the script that would soon emerge on screen under the title Blind Husbands — shortly after appearing in Universal’s The Heart of Humanity; the last and most outlandish of his wartime Hun exercises. He had been writing melodramas sporadically for years, even before he arrived in Hollywood, and they were, from all accounts, desultory works (of greater interest to Stroheim scholars than anyone else; perhaps even Stroheim himself). Not one had seen much life beyond the manuscript stage. But coupled with his recently acquired knowledge of Hollywood’s commercial imperatives, he was able to employ this fitful skill to craft the new script accordingly. For in its skeletal form,Blind Husbands is an astonishingly shrewd piece; a stock narrative invested with every melodramatic device familiar to audiences of the time: romantic intrigue, a leering Prussian villain, a woman valiantly defending her honor from the foulest temptation, a suspenseful mountaintop climax, omens everywhere. It is not known with certainty when the desire to direct motion pictures first possessed Stroheim, but the cunning he demonstrated in the material he composed for this first endeavor — as well as his selection of Universal as the studio to bring it to — suggests a plan so carefully laid that it may well have been years in the gestation.
A self-absorbed American surgeon, Robert Armstrong (Sam deGrasse) and his vaguely dissatisfied wife Margaret (Francelia Billington) are on holiday, journeying to a mountain resort in the Dolomites. On the way to their destination she catches the eye of Lieutenant von Steuben (Stroheim), a rakish junior officer in the Austrian army who promptly wages a campaign of seduction, encircling Mrs. Armstrong with his attentions while the doctor goes on his well-planned mountain climbing spree. Like every other Victorian holdover of its day, Blind Husbands hangs its dramatic corpus on the weary prospect of Fallen Womanhood: Will Margaret, this fine and respectable woman, succumb to the Lieutenant’s oleaginous allure, or will she be rescued by her seemly, if somewhat distracted husband before the ultimate horror befalls her?
In spite of its aged melodramatic crust, Stroheim’s directorial debut proved incredibly successful when released on October 21, 1919. Carl Laemmle had seen enough promise in the film, as it developed, to have the studio designate it a Universal Jewel-Deluxe (a class bestowed on films for which box office glory was fully expected). Everyone was pleased with the results. Others might pause at such a moment, but Stroheim was hard at work on a second film, eventually titled The Devil’s Pass Key. Another romantic triangle in a continental setting (this time Paris), it was rendered with dispatch and, again, to great profit when released on August 8, 1920.
Here at last was a moment worth reflecting on. Through a carefully crafted and extravagant promotional campaign, the Viennese émigré who called himself Erich von Stroheim found himself the subject of a veritable coronation. In terms of sheer publicity it was a Corpus Christi Day that lasted for months, only this time Erich got to ride in the Emperor’s coach. No longer “The Man You Love to Hate” (at least for the time being), he was now a different and altogether new commodity: In newspaper advertisements, posters, in all manner of such material, the name Stroheim and the word “Genius” frequently rested in close proximity to one another, while his visage — sometimes solemn, other times bearing a wily grin — loomed above wild and effusive text, breathlessly proclaiming the arrival of Genius to Cinema as though it were a herald of the messiah. It was a deliberately structured, concentrated effort by this emergent industry to focus the public’s attention on Stroheim not merely as an actor or even as a director, but as an artist; with all the new-found marketing implications one could infer from the denomination. This was not the self-generated, megalomaniacal publicity of heroes and charlatans in pre-industrial Hollywood, but a wholly new species of institutional celebration, imposed entirely from without. And no film director before him, not Charlie Chaplin nor Cecil B. DeMille, not even Griffith himself, had been accorded the like of it.
Which is supremely ironic, given that Griffith’s cinema was cardinal to Stroheim’s at the outset. It was almost a fact of motion picture biology that if Griffith could demonstrate just how protean (and consequently how rich) the reediest gimmicks in 19th-century stage melodrama could be to the realm of expression in this nascent popular art, then Stroheim could, as he did, find a similar pliancy in Griffith’s approach — the attention to environment and detail, the fixed observation of telling gestures, unguarded moments, the extraordinary intimacy — and use it as an instrument to re-draw the standard in his own image. Perhaps the other assistant director gigs he took on during his earliest days in Hollywood afforded him a more crucial instruction in the fundamentals of directing motion pictures — the nuts and bolts and the sheer craft of it if nothing else — but it was a shadow cast by Griffith that fell significantly on his first film (and, to a lesser extent, every film he made thereafter), none other. Little wonder, then, that Stroheim would retrospectively exaggerate his involvement in Griffith’s company back in the day. For if that brief, seemingly inconsequential association indeed wrought in Stroheim an unvanquishable sense of the possibilities in this medium, an epiphany that gave life abundant to what had thus far been stillborn creative impulses, then no exaggeration could ever be possible. By the dawn of the 1920s, the cumulative impact of Griffith’s mastery had been accepted variously by every film director in the business; only a relative few, however, were so inflamed by it as to see a path beyond it.
And that is exactly what Stroheim appears to have seen from the first. For as much reverence as he had for Griffith’s art — a reverence that was real and abiding — Stroheim’s initial foray into directing evinced a clear determination to turn this source of inspiration on its head, albeit delicately. One could see it in the film’s dramatic core. His Lieutenant von Steuben — ostensibly the villain of the piece due to his heritage and the fact that Stroheim was playing the role himself — bore only the ghost of a resemblance to the demented Huns he’d had his earliest success with. In those films he was a stereotype, and his characters’ behavior could best be described as floridly monstrous. In Blind Husbands, however, he oozed charm promiscuously. Sam De Grasse’s Dr. Armstrong, by way of contrast, is rendered a charmless cipher who appears to have a deeper bond with his salt-of-the-earth mountain guide (Gibson Gowland) than with the wife he barely takes notice of for two-thirds of the picture. For moviegoers of the time, it must have been the strangest, least romantic triangle they’d thus far encountered. Yet Stroheim suffused this odd tale with a passion wholly new to Cinema, in that its roots were nowhere to be found in the hearts and flowers slop of traditional screen melodrama, but in something deeply felt yet undefinable. This crucial interaction would continue throughout the next decade, as Stroheim deftly paid lip service to Hollywood’s storytelling conventions — particularly its moral codes — while doing everything he could think of to undermine them in the same instant.
It was as though he were announcing to one and all — through methodologies that appeared stranger, more insistent and self-immolating with each succeeding work — that here, at last, was an artist in Cinema with an absolute determination to bring to its maturity what had heretofore been a backward and childlike medium. His films would repeatedly, and artfully, balance more or less traditional narrative models (the Romantic Triangle, the Fairy Tale theme of a nobleman losing his heart to a commoner), against settings and formal strategies that bore a tacit contempt for everything that had come before, even that which had inspired him to direct from the first. Blind Husbands, extraordinary in many ways though it is, may not on its own have represented a radical shift in the direction of American Cinema, but it held that bright promise; something everyone seemed to sense at once. In the next decade, it would all descend into madness, and the industry that had just celebrated Erich von Stroheim would turn and break his creations, one after another, on the wheel of executive fiat — a power it would come to realize mainly through its dealings with him. Only in that decade would that promise, and that pinnacle, be revealed in a more harsh and unforgiving light than anyone could have thought possible.