Probably the most iconic image of the working director is conjured up in the person of Erich "von" Stroheim: a monocled European despot stalking the set and barking orders through a bullhorn. Indeed, von Stroheim's persona of an actor—''the man you love to hate''—was equal parts tyrannical egoist and unappreciated genius. Fittingly, in most critical retrospectives of his career, von Stroheim is typically represented as either a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions or the victim of studio philistinism.
Erich Oswald Stroheim emigrated to the United States from his native Vienna, Austria, in 1909. The son of a Jewish hat manufacturer, he left the country penniless and disgraced after the family business failed, and the Austrian army discharged him as an invalid after five months of service. Little is known about his early years in America, but by the time he arrived in Los Angeles in 1915 to work as an extra, he had created an elaborate biography for himself, claiming to be a German aristocrat with a distinguished record in the imperial army. Simultaneously cultivating experience as both an actor and assistant director, von Stroheim directed his first feature, Blind Husbands (1919), to considerable commercial and critical success.
All of his films are concerned with characters who degrade themselves in the pursuit of money, sex, and/or status. What is remarkable about von Stroheim's representations of these endeavors, however, is the density of sociocultural detail against which they are enacted. His two masterpieces, Greed (1924) and The Wedding March (1928), recreate prewar San Francisco and Vienna in obsessive detail. Not simply exercises in slavish verisimilitude, the films are informed by the naturalism of Emile Zola, so the degeneracy of the films' characters is always determined by circumstances and environment. Greed's shambling protagonist fumbles his way from the filth of Polk Street to the blistering hell of Death Valley, and the decline of the debauched aristocrats in The Wedding March is a microcosm of the general collapse of the Hapsburg empire.
The exactitude of Von Stroheim's vision and struggles against the emerging studio system make him a cause ceiebre for auteur theorists. Conversely, studio apologists reference his career as a cautionary tale for egomaniacal filmmakers. Most of von Stroheim's work is incomplete, truncated, or has been lost entirely. His excesses on Merry-Go-Round (1923) prompted Universal's head of production, Irving Thalberg, to fire him after shooting only one-fourth of the film. Thalberg also ordered Greed to be reduced from forty-seven reels to a mere ten, and The Wedding March was similarly eviscerated under the order of Pat Powers at Paramount. Similarly, his final two projects—Queen Kelly and Walking Down Broadway—are severely truncated as well. Whatever one's opinions of his ambitions, von Stroheim remains one of the most controversial and uncompromising filmmakers in Hollywood history.
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