Erich Stroheim was a child of his places and his times, before he was a filmmaker who left his mark through his own unique brand of authorship. An Austrian, first and foremost, who grew up in late-19th century Vienna, a city which stimulated him with originality, with the experimentation with new lan-guages which are at one with the artist who creates them, and with a Habsburgian myth which was gradually decaying.
The handbook edited by Paolo Bertetto, Introduction to Film History, has a rather eloquent title in the section dedicated to Erich Stroheim. Giulia Carluccio, who edits the part focusing on American cinema in the 1920s, introduces the sub-chapter on the Viennese director with the significant caption “Cursed in Hollywood”.
Erich Stroheim, or “von Stroheim” as he called himself, was truly cursed for the critical and exaggerat-ed poetics which he put into practice once he got behind the camera, after his many roles as a Ger-man officer in films about the First World War. His very personal vision led him to clash with the pro-duction companies for whom he produced work, to the extent that, as we shall see, after the failure of a number of projects, by the mid-1920s his US career as a director could already be said to have been over. Not his acting career, though, because people who are blessed with genuine genius are al-ways able to reinvent themselves.
So it was that his discarded German officer’s clothes came in handy and still allowed him to make a decent living, especially in his activity after the rise of the Nazis and the outbreak of the Second World War. His return to Hollywood, to the dream factory which had not tolerated his overly personal methods and vision, was an exception due to his relationship with Billy Wilder, born in the same Aus-tria-Hungary as Stroheim a few years before the latter embarked for Coney Island.
A merely stylistic analysis of his poetics would lead to repetitive arguments which would add nothing to the already extensive and high-quality literature on him. On the other hand, this work aims to in-vestigate his overflowing personality in relation to the context in which he developed. That is to say, an era, that of the first two decades of the 20th century, which was full of significant economic chang-es which shaped society, in this case American society. The ultimate aim is to show how there is a connection between one and the other, how Stroheim’s personality is perfectly consistent with that time and place.
The first chapter will therefore analyse the social context of the United States at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing on the nascent Hollywood industry. The second in turn will be an in-depth look at fin-de-siècle Vienna, which is necessary to frame the cultural vivacity of the environ-ment in which Stroheim was born and raised. Finally, the third will be a concise biographical treat-ment, which will focus on highlighting those elements of the social contexts in which the Austrian moved which are reflected in his work.
CHAPTER 1: HOLLYWOOD IN THE ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY
In order to understand the impact Stroheim had on the world of filmmaking, we must first take a step back and thoroughly analyse the historical era he lived in. This was one which was characterised by so-cial changes which had a significant impact on what would become the customs of the contemporary age and the nascent cultural industries. At the end of the 19th century, the eight-hour working day was instituted, which triggered the mechanism which led to the hitherto unknown leisure time. This leisure time arose at the same time as modern society, from the division between quantitative times, which are those belonging to the factory, and qualitative times, which are those which instead belong to the individual.
So in theory there were eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours of free time, which were those left over from professional time. These eight hours of leisure time could be spent in a set of freely chosen pleasurable activities, which had a purpose other than work and were complemen-tary to social mental activities: what would later be called “entertainment”.
The growing capitalist culture soon also developed as a function of cultural products. In fact, a mass culture was established which put cultural themes and objects within the reach of the middle class, which represented the majority of the population, and for whom a specific form of entertainment was established: vaudeville.
1.1 A popular art form
Vaudeville was a repertoire of spectacular attractions. The objective of this new form of entertain-ment fitted perfectly into this era of high standardisation and mass production: it was intended to stimulate consumption with seductive elements which pushed the spectator-consumer towards the spectacle, which in turn became an opportunity for greater inclusiveness and democratisation of the enjoyment of this nascent cultural industry.
Vaudeville played a crucial role as it was here that film shows were initially hosted, along with other types of entertainment, as already mentioned. They were joined in the United States by nickelodeons which, on the contrary, were specifically intended for projection only. Their programming included a series of very short films of ten minutes at the most. This variety made it possible to attract the widest possible audience, who were further enticed by ticket prices (one nickel, then fifty cents) which were suitable for the lower social classes.
Nickelodeons established themselves as small vaudevilles. They were the first major industrial struc-ture of the film industry, which was in fact the best cultural form for a young nation like the US, which did not yet possess its own collective background. In fact, it was mostly made up of emigrants from dif-ferent countries, and silent cinema was the only form which everyone could be involved in.
Many of these four-thousand- to five-thousand-seat halls, moreover, were run by expatriates them-selves (Della Casa S. (2015), La grande stagione del cinema muto, L’espresso, Roma)).
As mentioned, they showed individual small films, with individual gags and performances without any juxtaposition between them, and one-off shots without a common thread to connect them. The em-phasis was on the spectacular aspect and substantially more emphasis was placed on attractions which involved the spectator on a sensory level.
So American cinema has never been an elitist art form intended to please the few, but on the contra-ry has always aimed to broaden its scope, focusing on elements which would bring more types of viewers in front of the screen. For a new art form, which itself needed legitimacy, it was essential to be able to attract the middle classes, who lacked the habit of consuming culture outside the home. It was a cultural form which aspired to be affordable and not out of reach, inclusive and not exclusive, with the exception of certain sections of the population, such as African Americans.
After an initial period in which the dominant attitude towards cinema was mainly one of discovery of the new medium, a series of practices began to develop over time. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, cinema was no longer a mysterious object to marvel at, but an acquired habit.
The trend of the emerging cultural industries in this period was twofold. On the one hand, it was nec-essary for the supply of films to adapt to the ever-increasing demand in order to sustain a system; and consequently a markedly industrial type of production, which it would not be illogical to call Fordist, was also established here. They began to distinguish the roles of filmmaking, which in turn were di-vided into genres. The function of these genres was and will remain crucial to this day, helping the viewer and the producer himself to navigate the different types of entertainment.
On the other hand, it was precisely from this period that an attempt was made to legitimise, formally and in terms of content, the cultural level of the cinema, which sought to show itself as being closer to the highest forms in order to be able to boast the status of an art and consequently succeed in at-tracting an even more varied and vast quantity of audiences: these audiences would definitively make the new cultural form one of the masses. This attempt at artistic legitimisation would end up making the cultural product itself a mass communicative object, whose enjoyment became increasingly col-lective and serial.
Indeed, the spectator became a recipient who had to exercise his memory in order to recognise cer-tain mechanisms which are repeated in industrial production. This allowed him to orient himself and recognise the characteristics of the characters. This was the case with the German officers Stroheim played in the films he took part in during and after the First World War.
1.2 Cult of personality
The turn of the 20th century in the United States also bore witness to the explosion of another hith-erto unknown phenomenon: the cult of personality began to develop.
Indeed, the citizen began to immerse himself in a certain idea of work and capitalism in which he sought full personal fulfilment, linked to the improvement of himself and his living conditions through success in the professional sphere. At the same time, every American was a part of the mechanism, and the “social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer”1: the American citizen therefore had to be productive, to nurture both his own well-being and that of oth-ers.
Cinematic entertainment, which in that same period was trying to legitimise itself as an artistic form and which already at that time with its great permeability had begun to spread models of life and con-sumption, did not escape this kind of logic, but was, on the contrary, an integral part of it. In fact, the concept of free time was linked to possibilities for self-development. In an economic system based on mass production, the consumer chose models. The actors were identifiable outside the film, in what was beginning to become a real star system, and the stars of the silver screen became models for the viewer to identify with.
At the end of the First World War, the definitive relocation of the film industry from the East Coast to the West Coast further implemented this type of mindset. In the films from Hollywood, the develop-ment of personality, the importance of “being somebody”, and the necessity of individual performance in a world based on appearance found their full representation. These are social phenomena from which Stroheim would draw heavily, both for the creation of his own feature films and for the conse-cration of his own figure.
1.3 Griffith’s Hollywood
Shortly after 1905, there was a considerable increase in demand for narrative cinema. The enhance-ment of staging became crucial, implemented by what became the pivotal role in the production sec-tor: the director. This extensive recourse to fictional narration allowed the spectator to identify pri-marily with the film’s protagonist, facilitating his involvement within the story itself.
The 1910s were not only a turning point in terms of access, however, but also in terms of production. In fact, the first migrations to the West Coast date back to that time, which, as already mentioned, would become definitive after the First World War. One of the producers was William Kennedy Dick-son, head of the Biograph Company: he financed the first film in Southern California, In Old California in 1910. It was directed by David Wark Griffith, who would become instrumental in Stroheim’s later career.
As Gunning recalled:
“The period from 1907 to about 1913 represents the true nar-rativization of the
cinema, culminating in the appearance of feature films which radically revised the variety
format. Film clearly took the legitimate theater as its
model, producing famous players in famous plays. The trans-formation of
filmic discourse that D.W. Griffith typifies bound cinematic sig-nifiers
to the narration of stories and the creation of a self-enclosed
diegetic universe. The look at the camera becomes taboo and the devices of cinema are
transformed by playful “tricks” – cinematic attractions (Méliès
gesturing at us to watch the lady vanish) – to elements of dra-matic
expression, entries into the psychology of character and the world of
Griffith was initially hired by Biograph as an actor and writer, but soon had come to shoot one film a week, in a quarter-hour format each. Los Angeles, which had meanwhile annexed the town of Holly-wood where the first West Coast filming had taken place, quickly became the epicentre of the new art form of cinema.
In an environment where reciprocal influences were the rule, Griffith nevertheless stood out for his ability to experiment with new languages which would have an influence on later cinema. Above all, as is well known, editing: the director systematised the techniques of juxtaposing scenes which, as we have seen, in the previous tradition were generally discontinuous: he worked instead to make them fluid and to make the story flow before the viewer’s eyes. In doing so, he appropriately punctuated the narrative, and at the same time promoted the viewer’s aforementioned identification within the narrative itself.
At the same time, Griffith’s work would play a fundamental role in the legitimisation of cinema as an expression capable of going beyond the boundaries of the text and conveying messages to the viewer: in other words, in the legitimisation of cinema as art. He already made an initial experiment in the short film The Drunkard’s Reformation (1909), but the real breakthrough came with the two feature films for which he is best known: The Birth of a Nation (1915)and Intolerance (1916), in which the director portrayed the Civil War and four alternating episodes linked by the theme of intolerance through history, respectively, and aimed to convey his own worldview to the viewer through them.
Stroheim would repeat this lesson when he left the set and sat behind the camera. However, the Viennese native’s vision would be markedly different from Griffith’s, as he would be influenced by the cultural background and environment in which he grew up before coming to the United States.
CHAPTER 2: FIN-DE-SIÈCLE VIENNA
Before delving into Stroheim’s rich personality, however, it is necessary to take a look into what kind of context he grew up in, in order to be able to fully understand the nuances of the environment which forged him and which would have a significant impact on his stylistic choices. In fact, he reached the United States at a mature age, leaving his native Vienna to seek his fortune.
2.1 The political situation in Austria-Hungary
The city, then as now, was a capital city, to be precise that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was an ancient political institution which had played a key role under the House of Habsburg for many centu-ries. Its absolutist orientation and favourable geographic location had led to a territorial expansion, absorbing and bringing together people from different cultures.
The Germanic, Hungarian, Croatian, Czechoslovakian and Polish people coexisted within its borders, and were all granted autonomy and representative legitimacy. This mixing often led to social conflicts between the various cultures. For example, from an Austrian current of liberalism which had failed in its aim of bringing the masses to be represented within the state, other, opposing currents arose.
“The new anti-liberal mass movements – Czech nationalism, Pan-Germanism, Christian Socialism, Social Democracy and Zionism –
rose from below to challenge the trusteeship of the educated
middle class, to paralyze its political system, and to undermine its
confidence in the rational structure of history”.3
The outbreak of the First World War and the defeat which Austria-Hungary would suffer would then lead to the dissolution of this political structure, which would then be replaced with a more modern nation state.
Alberto De Bernardi, speaking of the fin-de-siécle empire, recalled that
“around Emperor Franz Joseph of Habsburg (on the throne from 1848
to 1916) revolved an aristocratic milieu of around 4,000 landed families: the inner circle of the court, the high bureaucracy, the high ranks
of the army, the diplomatic leadership. All this in fin-de-siècle
bourgeois Vienna, full of lively cultural, artistic, scientific fer-ment”4
2.2 Secession Vienna
In fact, Vienna at that time was a city which was reaching the two million mark and experiencing a flourishing cultural period. Significant in the field of urban planning engineering, for example, was the decision to entrust the renovation of the railway network to the architect and professor of the Acad-emy of Fine Arts Otto Wagner, who gave it a fundamental impetus5.
His work was continued by his pupil Joseph Maria Olbrich, who inaugurated the so-called “Viennese Secession”, an association of artists whose headquarters Olbrich was responsible for designing. Ver Sacrum, the magazine of the secessionist movement, appeared in 1898, while in 1903 the Wiener Werkstätte was founded by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, a community whose aim was to design, produce and market household objects of excellent workmanship6.
Also an integral part of the Viennese Secession was the painter Gustav Klimt, best known for his deco-rative style
“in whose pictorial work converge, at a high level, many of the most typical
instances of Art Nouveau: accentuated linearism, two-dimensionality,
historicism, symbolism. But the significance of each of these char-acters and the
way they are combined is very personal: pieces of pure
abstract decorativism, whose chromatic prominence sometimes goes back to the splendour of the
mosaics of Ravenna, coexist with biting anatomical precisions
derived from German naturalism à la Klinger, albeit bent to harsh
characterisations and deformations which anticipate Expression-ism”7.
One of those who was influenced by Klimt’s style was Egon Schiele, a representative of Expressionism. His works, however, diverge from those of his mentor in that
“the characters in his paintings stand out on the canvas, being
isolated, alienated. The work is therefore still close to a real-life
study, to the classical-academic tradition, but there is a marked
divergence with Klimt’s horror vacui, where the surface is identi-fied
with the solid whole, so much so that Klimt’s work still looks like
the very emblem of the decorative. Egon Schiele opposes the decorative style
of his mentor with a bare, rough surface, confining the figure in a
Equally valuable was musical production, in which numerous composers took part, one of them being Gustav Mahler. His is a music in which
“the art of reminiscence, and thus the art of memory, becomes a real
structural parameter: it is no coincidence that the main themes of his
compositions are hardly ever developed in the classical sense of the
term, but often they are not even reproduced as such”.9
However, one cannot conclude this excursus on fin-de-siècle Vienna without mentioning the most prominent personality of the time: that of Sigmund Freud. The father of psychoanalysis was just then beginning to theorise and put his theories into practice. While it is true that they were not part of the artistic landscape, it is equally proven that his discoveries had an impact on contemporary artists.
Arthur Schnitzler, a writer who was instrumental in developing the stream of consciousness within his works, was one of them. In fact, it was discovered
“that Schnitzler had eventually referred to Freud as his “double”; and that Freud,
late in life, had called Schnitzler his
“psychic twin”, and described him as a pioneer and independ-ent
imaster of depth psychology”10.
2.3 The Jews of Vienna
Finally, it is interesting to note that many of the intellectuals mentioned had in common that they be-longed to the Jewish culture. Despite the fact that at a time of widespread antisemitic movements in Europe and in a state which would soon fall apart
“the Jews began to create, to produce with greater intensity. The whiff of
collapse, disaffection with regard to politics, the dismember-ment of the great
empire, defeats in war, the emperor being old and incapable of great
upheavals, the revolution of 1848, national claims: this and
other factors ensured that art did not remain separated from re-ality, did not
disdain civic engagement, but became part of the everyday life
of the Viennese. Thus, out of the need to express the inexpress-ible, but also due to the
special conditions in Vienna, literary proliferation and
knowledge saw a strong rise in a period which one might other-wise
define as one of decline. And among scholars and scientists, Jews were
This cultural liveliness nurtured by several Viennese Jews is of no small significance, as Erich Stro-heim’s family was also of Jewish culture.
CHAPTER 3: STROHEIM’S CAREER
Erich Oswald Stroheim was therefore born and grew up in that fin-de-siècle Vienna, the child of an ob-servant Jewish family. Despite living in a city which, as we have seen, was a crucial junction of Europe-an culture at the time, he still embarked for the United States in 1909 and, despite the fact that his father was a hatter by trade, on his arrival at Ellis Island he declared himself to be Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, thus boasting roots in the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
This is the first example of what will be a constant in Stroheim’s career: self-promotion, the ability to publicise his image, exacerbating the concept of the “cult of personality”.
Seizing on developments in the industry, Stroheim had started working in Hollywood as a stuntman as well as a consultant for Germanic culture and fashion. It was there that his association with D. W. Grif-fith began, to the extent that the Viennese native claimed to have taken part in The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915), although some deny this. What is certain, however, is his presence on the set of Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916), where, in addition to acting in a minor role, he was also a produc-tion assistant, although he claimed to be an assistant director.
The outbreak of the First World War represented an unparalleled professional opportunity for him: in fact von Stroheim obtained several parts as an evil German soldier. The scene in the film The Heart of Humanity (Allen Holubar) in which the character he plays wants to rape a woman, but is disturbed by the crying of a baby, and throws it out of the window of the house, is well known in this respect.
A scene of rare rawness, but significant of how even cinematography had become a weapon to be used for demonising the enemy and, indirectly, supporting one’s own troops. In his roles, the public saw an adversary of Teutonic origin, i.e. German or Austrian, under the orders of a monarchy ruled by an absolute and authoritarian power with a military mentality.
3.2 Career as a director
All these characters would serve to give him the fame he needed to produce the first of his films as a director, Blind Husbands (1919). Here he sowed the seeds of what would be his poetics.
“In his films, he fused art and reality, myth and naturalistic detail, love
and lust, idealism and cynicism, discipline and unbelievable ex-cess. In
the process, he became the legend that he had created: Erich von Stroheim.”11
Despite his lack of formal experience in the strict sense and the film’s progressive development, it was a success both critically and at the box office. This success gave further impetus to the cult of his per-sonality which he was pursuing. In 1922, he wrote and directed Foolish Wives, where he also played the part of Wladislaw Karamazin.
The protagonist lives in a villa (called Villa Amorosa) in Monte Carlo with his cousins: the three are con men pretending to be noblemen. The main character in particular is pretending to be a disgraced Red Army captain, and his aristocratic demeanour and military look allow him to charm the wife of a US ambassador and seduce her mentally disabled daughter, with the sole aim of deceiving the diplomat and gaining a profit.
The cynicism of the character and the naïveté of the American family almost seem to divide society into those who have economic means but lack the intelligence to use them to the best advantage, and those who do not but possess the cunning to obtain them. Apart from the fact that Karamazin eventually dies, the picture is irreverent because it shows the way in which the strongest and most adaptable survive at the expense of others: sometimes, as in this case, the game is discovered and pays a high price, but it is safe to assume that the three had arrived at Villa Amorosa after having swindled other people.
With Foolish Wives, the more perverse aspects of the character become exponentially more acute. As Elisabetta Girelli states
“Foolish Wives joined and surpassed Blind Husbands in having a demonically
alluring male protagonist, to whom no female is immune. In this
blurring of horror and erotic power lies the film’s main transgres-sion:
not in the mockery of Americans, not in the affirmation of disliked
national stereotypes, but in the celebration of Stroheim’s abject, unspeakable,
unthinkable Gothic males.”12
Stroheim’s delusions of grandeur were also growing. The film cost several million dollars, mainly due to the entirely studio-based reconstruction of the environments. So, as the director became more and more of an icon, so much so that he himself said that he used to walk through the crowd and people would recognise him, his relationship with the industry he was a part of was deteriorating. Universal cut the original version of Foolish Wives and, halfway through the making of Merry-Go-Round (1923) fired Stroheim, whose next step was to enter the service of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
For this corporation he staged Greed (1924), an adaptation of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. The protagonist, after whom the novel was named, is a dentist who falls in love with one of his patients, the fiancée of his friend Marcus. He agrees to leave his lover to McTeague and the two get married, but she slowly starts to become obsessed with the money she won in the lottery before the wedding. Jealous, Marcus denounces the protagonist to the authorities for practising without a licence; the pro-tagonist loses everything and ends up killing both his wife and his friend, whose body is left hand-cuffed in Death Valley, a famous Californian desert.
The editing of Greed took a long time, and the first version came out at eight hours long, but the pro-ducers were not satisfied. Stroheim agreed to cut it to four hours to be shown in two parts, but MGM’s opinion was again negative, and the final version was two and a half hours. In any case, it is a work which synthesises his entire poetics.
“In a realism pushed to the point of caricature and grotesque de-formation,
from the evidence to the symbol, the bestial and pulsating natu-ralness of human
greed comes to be emblematic of all vices and perversions, in a
confusion and mutual overlap. Money (painted gold in the
film, in Stroheim’s intentions), a continuous leitmotif of the film, comes to
be substituted for sex, for desire, for love itself (…),
in a fetishism which is also that of cinema, of portrayal.”13
The reactions were on the whole positive. Billy Wilder, born in 1906 in a small town (now Polish) in the same Austro-Hungarian Empire as Stroheim, said that the film was ten years ahead of its time. In line with the character he had built up over time, the author’s reply was: “No, twenty”. A few years later, the Cinémathèque Française screened the film and director Henri Langlois told the director that, although shortened, it was still a masterpiece.
Greed marked the first in a series of clashes with MGM, although the Austrian’s career continued for a few more years. In fact, he staged a version of The Merry Widow (1925) which was full of perversion and sadism, and then shot The Wedding March – Honeymoon (1928).
His relationship with the studios, however, was becoming increasingly frayed, as Stroheim was not willing to change his artistic vision for the benefit of a cinema which was increasingly becoming a cul-tural industry instead of an art. His idea was translated into a specific attention to detail and a willing-ness to consider his craft as a totally artistic vocation, leaving aside the need to stay within the budget provided by the producers.
As Ermanno Comuzio recalled:
“It must be said that, from the point of view of producers and distributors, some
reason for fear and caution was legitimate: the “fabulous Von”, as he was
called in Hollywood, with his perennially grandiose ideas, did not pay attention to his
expenses, demanded reconstructions of scrupulous realism (be it a
city street, a European palace, a desert or a mountain),
demanded extras, costumes, uniforms, furnishings, in line with his magnificent
vision, personally taking care of everything (he looked after costumes and scenes
even when he did not appear to be in charge of these areas, he went back and
reshot the same scene until he was fully satisfied), and
he had no concerns whatsoever with regard to costs and
length. He took charge of all the aspects of filmmaking,
from conception to writing to acting. Perhaps only Charlie
Chaplin and Orson Welles were his equal in this”.14
It was therefore increasingly rare that Stroheim was able to find work as a director. The last really sig-nificant occasion was shortly after the advent of sound cinema. Indeed, in 1929 he directed Queen Kelly, which echoed the magniloquent, perverse and lascivious style of his films, where a girl from an imaginary kingdom in Central Europe is part of a love triangle, but due to circumstances is forced to find refuge in Africa, where she finds work as a waitress in a brothel. The production came to a halt due to the tense atmosphere created by Stroheim, who was sacked.
3.3 The return to acting
Frustrated, he returned to Europe, to France to be precise. He returned to acting, once again playing the role of a Teutonic officer which had made him famous in Jean Renoir’s film The Great Illusion (1937), set during the Great War. Unfortunately, the approach of World War II, especial-ly the German invasion of metropolitan France forced him, due to his Jewish origins, to return to the United States. It was here that he played Erwin Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) for Billy Wilder.
It was he who, a few years after the end of the war, wanted Stroheim at his side for what seems to be the Viennese native’s spiritual testament: in Sunset Boulevard (1950) he played Max von Mayerling, a butler with a past as a director working for a silent film star who is unable to reinvent himself in sound. It is significant to point out that the diva was played by Gloria Swanson, with whom Stroheim had worked in Queen Kelly, a film which features in Sunset Boulevard itself.
After Wilder’s masterpiece, Stroheim returned to France, where the type of role which made him fa-mous allowed him to take part in several films. He died of cancer in 1957, leaving a legacy of meta-phors and psychological aspects which make him one of the founding fathers of today’s cinema.
In this regard, Fanny Lignon points out that Stroheim is the author of a work which contains extremely modern artistic problems, for instance the exposure of truth in an art which is construction, and this relates to the modern notion of self-image which an individual constructs15. A self-image which the Viennese director nurtured throughout his career through the ideas and sym-bols in his films. An example of this is the characteristic officer’s attire, about which Grazia Paganelli says:
“A certain fetishism, or rather fanatical admiration, must then be acknowledged
even at the expense of certain garments; think of the military uni-form which
Stroheim always wears in the films he performs in. In it we can
certainly identify a sign of recognition, the tool of
identification of a character with a specific “type”, with all the behavioural
codes and the models of nobility and power to be inspired by. So much so that
almost all the characters wearing the uniform are characterised by a
complex but always the same gesturality, which suggests a kind of
rituality which this garment brings with it”16
Stroheim was therefore a child of his places and times, before becoming a filmmaker who left his mark through his own authorial brand. An Austrian, first and foremost, who grew up in late-19th century Vi-enna, a city which stimulated him with originality, experimentation with new languages which are at one with the artist who creates them, and with a Habsburgian myth which was gradually decaying.
In Stroheim, however, we find at the same time the cult of personality and the desire for personal af-firmation which was typical of American society at the time of his arrival on Coney Island. It would be impossible to define where the Austrian Stroheim ends and the American Stroheim begins, if only be-cause they are one and the same. Indeed, what made him special is precisely that he managed to transfer the taste of the culture from which he came, that of the dying Central European empire, into that into which he transplanted himself, that of the rising star power.
In him, the American cult of personality and will to succeed mingled with Habsburg militarism and Viennese expressionist thought. We may even catch hints of the theories of his illustrious fellow-citizen Sigmund Freud in his films, especially when he lays bare social hypocrisies and psychological perversions.
The relationship between fin-de-siécle Vienna and Hollywood is certainly long and fruitful, as the cases of the actress Mady Christians or the Oscar-winning composer Max Steiner, who was a pupil of Gustav Mahler in the Austrian capital, show. Stroheim’s overflowing figure, however, goes further, and merges the foundations of these two very different cultures in his filmmaking.
It’s no coincidence that the Viennese director became a source of inspiration for the Nouvelle Vague. In his conception and working methods we can already see the seeds of what would become the “politique des auteurs”.
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– Lenning A. (2000), Stroheim, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, ed. Kindle
– Paganelli G. (2001), Erich von Stroheim: lo sguardo e l’iperbole, Bulzoni Editore, Roma
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– Schorscke C. E. (1961), Fin de siècle Vienna;
– Susman W. (2003), Personality and the making of twentieth-century culture, Washington;
– Usai F., Egon Schiele e la rappresentazione patologica
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UTET, Torino., page 98
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