Erich von Stroheim

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Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim.lowrey.jpg
Born Erich Oswald Stroheim
(1885-09-22)September 22, 1885
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Died May 12, 1957(1957-05-12) (aged 71)
Maurepas, France
Occupation Actor, director, screenwriter, producer
Years active 1914–1955
Spouse(s) Margaret Knox (1913–1915; divorced)
Mae Jones (1916–1919; divorced; 1 son)
Valerie Germonprez (1920–1957; his death; 1 son)
Denise Vernac (never officially married)

Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim (born Erich Oswald Stroheim; September 22, 1885 – May 12, 1957) was an Austrian-American director, actor and producer, most noted as a film star and avant garde, visionary director of the silent era. His masterpiece adaptation of Frank Norris's McTeague entitled Greed is considered one of the finest and most important films ever made. After clashes with Hollywood studio bosses over budget and workers' rights issues, von Stroheim was banned for life as a director and subsequently became a well-respected character actor, particularly in French cinema. For his early innovations as a director, von Stroheim is still celebrated as one of the first of the auteur directors.[1] He died in 1957 in France of prostate cancer at the age of 71. Beloved by Parisian neo-Surrealists known as Letterists, in 1979 Letterist Maurice Lemaitre directed a seventy-minute homage to von Stroheim entitled Erich von Stroheim.


Stroheim was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1885 as Erich Oswald Stroheim, (some sources give Hans Erich Maria Stroheim von Nordenwall,[2][3] but this seems to have been an assumed name, see below), the son of Benno Stroheim, a middle-class hat-maker, and Johanna Bondy, both of whom were observant Jews.[4]

Stroheim emigrated to America at the end of 1909.[5] On arrival at Ellis Island, he claimed to be Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, the son of Austrian nobility like the characters he played in his films, but both Billy Wilder and Stroheim's agent Paul Kohner claimed that he spoke with a decidedly lower-class Austrian accent. Jean Renoir writes in his memoirs: “Stroheim spoke hardly any German. He had to study his lines like a schoolboy learning a foreign language.”[6] Later, while living in Europe, Stroheim claimed in published remarks to have "forgotten" his native tongue. In Renoir's movie la Grande Illusion, Stroheim speaks German with a strong American accent. Similarly, in his French-speaking roles, von Stroheim speaks French with pronounced American accent.

However, the fashion photographer Helmut Newton, whose first language was German, used a clip from a Stroheim film on which to base one of his fantasy nude photographs, and he has commented that in the clip Stroheim speaks "a very special kind of Prussian officer lingo - it's very abrupt: it's very, very funny".[7]

Von Stroheim was known to his friends and family as "Von."

Film career

By 1914 he was working in Hollywood. He began working in movies in bit-parts and as a consultant on German culture and fashion. His first film, in 1915, was The Country Boy in which he was uncredited. His first credited role came in Old Heidelberg.

He began working with D. W. Griffith, taking uncredited roles in Intolerance. Additionally, Stroheim acted as one of the many assistant directors on Intolerance, a film remembered in part for its huge cast of extras. Later, with America's entry into World War I, he played sneering German villains in such films as Sylvia of the Secret Service and The Hun Within. In The Heart of Humanity, he tears the buttons from a nurse's uniform with his teeth, and when disturbed by a crying baby, throws it out of a window.

Following the end of the war, Stroheim turned to writing and then directed his own script for Blind Husbands in 1919. He also starred in the film. As a director, Stroheim was known to be dictatorial and demanding, often antagonizing his actors. He is considered one of the greatest directors of the silent era, creating films that represent cynical and romantic views of human nature. (In the 1932 film The Lost Squadron Stroheim played a parody of himself as a fanatic German film director making a World War I movie who orders extras playing dead soldiers to "Stay dead!")

His next directorial efforts were the lost film The Devil's Pass Key (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), in which he also starred. Studio publicity for Foolish Wives claimed that it was the first film to cost one million dollars.

In 1923, Stroheim began work on Merry-Go-Round. He cast the American actor Norman Kerry as Count Franz Maximilian von Hohenegg, a part written for himself, and newcomer Mary Philbin in the lead actress role. However studio executive Irving Thalberg fired Stroheim during filming and replaced him with director Rupert Julian.

Erich von Stroheim as Sergius Karamzin in Foolish Wives

Probably Stroheim's best remembered work as a director is Greed, a detailed filming of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. He originally started it as a project with Samuel Goldwyn's Goldwyn Pictures. Stroheim had long wanted to do a film version of the book. He originally intended it to be a highly detailed reproduction of the original, shot mostly at the locations described in the book in San Francisco and Death Valley. Von Stroheim shot in San Francisco with his actors in period dress and Silent Movie makeup while the city itself was represented in its modern form. Automobiles can be seen in the background of some scenes and any "extras" or passersby are in (what was for the time) modern clothing. When the production did move to Death Valley it was in the middle of summer. Greed is also considered by some film historians to be the first feature-length film shot on location. The original print ran for an astonishing 10 hours. Knowing this version was far too long, Stroheim cut out almost half the footage, reducing it to a six-hour version to be shown over two nights. It was still deemed too long, so Stroheim and director Rex Ingram edited it into a four-hour version that could be shown in two parts.

However, in the midst of filming, Goldwyn was bought by Marcus Loew and merged into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After rejecting Stroheim's attempts to cut it to less than three hours, MGM removed Greed from his control and gave it to head scriptwriter June Mathis, with orders to cut it down to a manageable length.[8] Mathis gave the print to a routine cutter, who reduced it to 2.5 hours.[9] In what is considered one of the greatest losses in cinema history, a janitor destroyed the cut footage.

The shortened release version was a box-office failure, and was angrily disowned by Stroheim. In particular, he blamed Mathis for destroying his pet project, since she was credited as a writer due to contractual obligations.[10] However, Mathis had worked with Stroheim before and had long admired him, so it is not likely she would have indiscriminately butchered his film.[11] The film was partially reconstructed in 1999 by Producer Rick Schmidlin, using the existing footage mixed with surviving still photographs, but the original cut of Greed has passed into cinema lore as a lost masterpiece.

Stroheim followed with a commercial project, The Merry Widow (his most commercially successful film) and the more personal The Wedding March and the now-lost The Honeymoon.

Stroheim's unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his extreme attention to detail, his insistence on near-total artistic freedom and the resulting costs of his films led to fights with the studios. As time went on he received fewer directing opportunities.

In 1929, Stroheim was dismissed as the director of the film Queen Kelly after disagreements with star Gloria Swanson and producer and financier Joseph P. Kennedy over the mounting costs of the film and Stroheim's introduction of indecent subject matter into the film's scenario.

After Queen Kelly and Walking Down Broadway, a project from which Stroheim was also dismissed, Stroheim returned to working principally as an actor, in both American and French films. He appeared as a guest star in the 1953 anthology drama television series Orient Express in the episode entitled The Man of Many Skins.[12]

Working in France on the eve of World War II, Stroheim was prepared to direct the film La dame blanche from his own story and screenplay. Jean Renoir wrote the dialogue, Jacques Becker was to be assistant director and Stroheim himself, Louis Jouvet and Jean-Louis Barrault were to be the featured actors. Max Cossvan was to produce the film for Demo-Film. The production was prevented by the outbreak of the war on September 1, 1939, and Stroheim returned to the United States.[13]

Stroheim also participated in plays. He is seen here as Jonathan Brewster in the Broadway version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Stroheim assumed the role from Boris Karloff and was part of the cast from circa 1941 to 1943.

Stroheim is perhaps best known as an actor for his role as Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937) and as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).

For the latter film, which co-starred Gloria Swanson, Stroheim was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Excerpts from Queen Kelly were used in the film. The Mayerling character states that he used to be one of the three great directors of the silent era, along with D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille; many film critics agree that Stroheim was indeed one of the great early directors. Stroheim's character in Sunset Boulevard thus had an autobiographical basis that reflected the humiliations suffered through his career.

Stroheim was married three times. He was married to Margaret Knox from 1913 to 1915; His second marriage was to Mae Jones from 1916 to 1919. He was never divorced from his third wife Valerie Germonprez, though he lived with actress Denise Vernac, from 1939 until his death. Vernac also starred with him in several films. Two of Stroheim's sons eventually joined the film business: Erich Jr. (1916–1968) as an assistant director [14] and Josef (1922–2002) as a sound editor.[15]

Stroheim spent the last part of his life in France, where his silent film work was much admired by artists in the French film industry. In France he acted in films, wrote several novels that were published in French, and worked on various unrealized film projects. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor (Légion d'honneur) shortly before his death.

In 1956, Stroheim began to suffer severe back pain that was diagnosed as cancer. He eventually became paralyzed and was carried to his drawing room to receive the Legion of Honor award from an official delegation. He died at his chateau in Maurepas near Paris on May 12, 1957 at age 71, accompanied by his longtime lover, Denise Vernac.


Year Title Role Notes
1912 An Unseen Enemy Man in straw hat dancing by desk in lobby Director: D. W. Griffith. Co-stars: Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish. Short Film. Extant.
1915 Old Heidelberg Lutz: Prince Karl's valet; film about university life Director: John Emerson. Co-stars: Wallace Reid and Dorothy Gish. Extant.
1916 The Flying Torpedo Accomplice--a German officer Directors: John B. O'Brien & Christy Cabanne. Futuristic: Set in 1921. Lost.
1916 His Picture in the Papers Anti-vegetarian silent comedy set in NYC, von Stroheim plays an eye-patch-wearing gang member of the "Weazels" Director: John Emerson. Co-written by Anita Loos. Starring Douglas Fairbanks. Extant.
1918 The Unbeliever Lt. Kurt von Schnieditz Director: Alan Crosland. Propaganda and war film. Set in the trenches during World War One. Extant.
1918 The Heart of Humanity Eric von Eberhard - a lecherous "Hun" Director: Alan Holubar. War and Propaganda film. Follows story of U.S. Red Cross nurse stationed in Belgium and France during World War One. Extant.
1919 Blind Husbands Lieutenant Eric Von Steuben Director, screenwriter, producer, and star: von Stroheim. Set in the Austrian alps. Extant.
1920 The Devil's Pass Key Director and screenwriter: von Stroheim. Set in Paris. Extant.
1922 Foolish Wives Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (Russian Captain of Hussars): false Russian nobleman and con artist Director, screenwriter, and star: von Stroheim. Set in Monaco. Comedy. Extant.
1923 Merry-Go-Round Director and screenwriter: von Stroheim. Set in pre-WW I Vienna. A disguised nobleman falls in love with a circus puppeteer's daughter. Extant.
1924 Greed Balloon vendor - uncredited Director and screenplay adaptation: von Stroheim. Based on Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague. Starring von Stroheim muse ZaSu Pitts. Considered one of cinema's most important films. At 8 hours, it is one of the longest feature films in cinematic history. Much of the film is lost.
1925 The Merry Widow Director, screenwriter and producer: von Stroheim. Starring Mae Murray. Small roles: Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Extant.
1928 The Wedding March Nicki / Prince Nickolas von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg Director and star: von Stroheim. Co-stars: Fay Wray and ZaSu Pitts. Set in Vienna. Extant.
1928 Tempest Director: Sam Taylor. Co-writer: von Stroheim. Starring John Barrymore as a peasant Russian army officer who falls in love with a Russian princess in Czarist Russia. Von Stroheim was supposed to star in and direct this film but was taken off the project and replaced by Sam Taylor. Drama. Extant.
1929 The Great Gabbo The Great Gabbo - a U.S. based ventriloquist Director: James Cruze. Screenplay source: Ben Hecht's short story "The Rival Dummy". Von Stroheim's "talkie" debut. Musical. Extant
1932 Queen Kelly Director, screenwriter, co-producer: von Stroheim. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Gloria Swanson hired von Stroheim to write and direct this Swanson vehicle in 1928-1929. Silent film. A German prince falls in love with an orphan who inherits an African brothel. It is the film snippet that plays during the home movie scene in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.. Never released in the U.S. Extant.
1932 The Lost Squadron Arthur von Furst: dictatorial Hollywood film director Directors: George Archainbaud and Paul Sloane. Co-stars: Mary Astor and Joel McCrea. 3 WW I flying aces find work in Hollywood as film stunt pilots post-war. Likely based to some extent on the tragic death of Mary Astor's newly wed husband and Howard Hawks's brother Kenneth Hawks. Astor and Kenneth Hawks had been married only two years and were living on Appian Way in Laurel Canyon (in a house later owned by Ida Lupino) when Kenneth, directing a film about WW I flying aces, crashed into the waves in Santa Monica California when a stunt plane and his film-crew plane colluded mid-air. Drama. Extant.
1932 As You Desire Me Cruel, alcoholic Budapest-based novelist Carl Salter and his girlfriend Zara post- World War 1 Director: George Fitzmaurice. Based on a story by Luigi Pirandello. Also starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. An Italian countess with amnesia and a cruel lover reunites with her husband. Drama. Extant.
1933 Hello, Sister! Director and screenwriter: von Stroheim. Working title: "Strolling Down Broadway." Starring ZaSu Pitts. A casual pick-up on Broadway leads to an unplanned pregnancy. The last film von Stroheim ever directed.
1934 Crimson Romance Captain Wolters: World War 1 German airforce officer Director: David Howard. A German-American leaves the U.S. and joins the German air force, driven out by anti-German hysteria. His best friend accompanies him and also joins the air force. They both fall in love with the same woman, an ambulance driver. Von Stroheim is a supporting player. Low-budget. Drama. Extant.
1936 The Crime of Dr. Crespi Dr. Andre Crespi: invents a serum that allows him to bury his victims alive Director: John H. Auer. Based on Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Premature Burial". Low budget. Horror. Extant.
1936 The Devil-Doll Screenwriter
1936 Mademoiselle Docteur
1937 La Grande Illusion Captain von Rauffenstein: commander of a POW camp/castle
1937 Marthe Richard Erich von Ludow: World War 1 naval attache and spymaster who commits suicide over romantic betrayal biopic based on French prostitute, spy, and politician Marthe Richard. Von Stroheim's character based on German officer and naval attache Hans von Krohn/Crohn
1938 Boys' School Walter: eerie English Language teacher at Parisian boarding school
1938 Gibraltar Marson: terrorist blowing up UK battleships in Gibraltar
1938 Ultimatum Yugoslavian General and Prime Minister Dusan Simovic and the events leading to World War 1
1939 Personal Column in France known as Pieges Pears: Parisian fashion designer Director: Robert Siodmak
1939 Behind the Facade Eric: card sharp cheating with his business partner's American fiancee. Both recently naturalized French citizens.
1940 I Was an Adventuress Andre Desormeaux: international jewel thief
1940 Macao l'Enfer du jeu Werner von Krall: international arms smuggler and dealer Director: Jean Delannoy France's Vichy government insisted Delannoy and producer Andre Paulve delete all of von Stroheim's scenes and replace him with actor Pierre Renoir. In 1945, von Stroheim's role was restored in the film.
1941 So Ends Our Night Brenner: Nazi officer who tries to tempt escaped concentration camp refugee into naming names
1943 Five Graves to Cairo Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
1943 The North Star Dr. von Harden: Nazi doctor who drains blood from Ukrainian village children to infuse into German soldiers
1944 The Lady and the Monster Prof. Franz Mueller: experimental scientist who creates female monster
1944 Storm Over Lisbon Deresco: spy for Japan who owns a Lisbon nightclub as a front
1945 The Great Flamarion The Great Flamarion: ex-World War 1 German army officer working as a sharp shooter in the U.S. vaudeville circuit
1945 Scotland Yard Investigator Carl Hoffmeyer: infamous German art collector determined to steal the Mona Lisa at outbreak of World War 2
1946 The Mask of Diijon Diijon: famous hypnotist working U.S. nightclub circuit
1946 Devil and the Angel Frank Davis: lonely, facially disfigured master-engraver for a bank who falls in love with a blind circus performer French title: La Foire aux Chimeres. Directed by Pierre Chenal
1949 Portrait of an Assassin Eric: former circus acrobat/trick motorcycle rider forced to retire due to severe work-related injuries Director: Bernard Roland Role was originally written for Orson Welles who was sued for not performing in this film
1950 Sunset Boulevard Max von Mayerling: ex-Hollywood silent film director now working as butler for his ex-wife and ex-silent film star Norma Desmond Nominated for Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
1952 Alraune Professor Jacob ten Brinken: experimental genetic scientist who creates the "perfect" yet soulless woman through artificial insemination Know by other titles including Mandragore
1953 Alarm in Morocco Conrad Nagel
1953 The Other Side of Paradise William O'Hara: eccentric sea captain living in a southern French village
1955 Napoléon Ludwig van Beethoven
1955 Madonna of the Sleeping Cars Doctor Siegfried Traurig German psychiatrist on the Orient Express Final film


"Lubitsch shows you first the king on the throne, then as he is in the bedroom. I show you the king in the bedroom so you'll know just what he is when you see him on his throne."[16]

"If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film fifty years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you "maître". They do not forget. In Hollywood—in Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture. If you didn't have one in production within the last three months, you're forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this."[17]

See also


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, May 15, 1957, page 75.
  2. ^ Das Bertelsmann Lexikon. C. Bertelsmann. 1966. 
  3. ^ Joseph Francis Clarke (1977). Pseudonyms. BCA. p. 168. 
  4. ^ Koszarski, Richard. Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001. p. 4.
  5. ^ Koszarski, op. cit. p. 3.
  6. ^ Renoir, Jean. Ma Vie et mes films (Flammarion, 1974) p.150. Renoir writes of the filming of La Grande Illusion : "An amusing detail was that Stroheim barely spoke German. He had to study his lines like a schoolboy learns a text in a foreign language. In the eyes of the whole world, he remains nevertheless the perfect example of the German soldier. His genius triumphs over the literal copy of reality."
  7. ^ 1:30:30 - 1:32:00 Frames From the Edge - Helmut Newton
  8. ^ Unterburger, Amy L.; Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey (1999). The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera. Visible Ink Press. p. 270. ISBN 1-57859-092-2. 
  9. ^ Koszarski, Richard (1983). The Man You loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood. Oxford University Press. pp. 144–145. ISBN 0-19-503239-X. 
  10. ^ Ward Mahar, Karen (2006). Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. JHU Press. p. 200. ISBN 0-8018-8436-5. 
  11. ^ Slater, Thomas J. Moving the Margins to the Mainstream: June Mathis's Work in American Silent Film. International Journal of the Humanities, 2007.
  12. ^ "The Billboard Magazine - TV Film Reviews". October 10, 1953. 
  13. ^ Faulkner, Christopher, Jean Renoir, a guide to references and resources, page 22. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall & Company, 1979.
  14. ^ Erich von Stroheim Jr. on IMDb
  15. ^ Josef von Stroheim on IMDb
  16. ^ Stroheim quoted in Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films, ed. and trans. Peter Morris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972) 217.
  17. ^ Eulogy for D.W. Griffith, reprinted in The Man You Loved To Hate, by Richard Koszarski, page 282.

External links

  • Erich von Stroheim on IMDb
  • All about Erich at the Wayback Machine (archived May 23, 2008)
  • The Stroheim Wing
  • The Great Gabbo (Portrait of Erich)
  • Erich von Stroheim at Find a Grave
  • Erich von Stroheim at the Internet Broadway Database
  • The Films of Erich von Stroheim, article by Dan Callahan
  • Blind Biographers: The Invention of Erich von Stroheim
  • Stroheim's Review of Citizen Kane, June 1941
  • Bibliography
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