Erich Von Stroheim: who he was and what are his films not to be missed

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Erich Von Stroheim is, along with Charlie Chaplin, one of the most famous directors of the 1920s and 1930s. Erich Von Stroheim ‘s life is surrounded by mystery and legend. The director was extremely reserved and always tried to leak as little information about himself as possible by publishing fake news and fake authorized biographies. He liked to tell lies, invent other personalities, such as being an Austrian nobleman ruined by gambling. He was actually the son of a Jewish hatter and was born in Austria.


Erich Von Stroheim is together with Charlie Chaplin the director who leaves us a critical and merciless gaze on the society of the time, starting with sentimental and satirical films. Born in Vienna, Erich Von Stroheim arrives in Hollywood in 1909 and becomes David Griffith ‘s assistant from whom he learns a lot: the precision in the characterization of the characters, the taste for details and close-ups and the rhythm of editing. 

He works on the set of Intolerance and Hearts of the world, as assistant director. As an actor he begins to play different roles of aristocratic aristocrat and perfidious. One of the slogans to convince the public to go see his films will be “The man you will love to hate”.

Erich Von Stroheim becomes director


Thanks to his talent for inventing characters even in real life, Erich Von Stroheim manages to convince the big studios that he is an intellectual aristocrat and is entrusted by Universal to direct his first film Blind Husbands, from 1918. The film tells of a love triangle, where he himself plays an official coward who courts the wife of an American. The scandalous story, full of corruption and eroticism, the talent of the interpreters, including the disagreeable Von Stroheim, decreed the great success of the film. 

He also works extensively as an actor specializing in the character of the rigid and dissolute military. In him there is the influence of Central European culture, decadence and naturalism. From the point of view of the images, his style is very close to pictorial expressionism

After the success of Blind Husbands Erich Von Stroheim had a smooth career ahead of him but his difficult and edgy character made it impossible for him to interact with producers. On the set, his attitude was dictatorial and created difficulties with the production and with the actors. Apparently his recurring hateful character in the movies and his real one in professional life coincided. 

The post-war crisis of values ​​influences Erich Von Stroheim’s vision of the world, to the point of making him grasp the most unhealthy, perverse and hypocritical side of the human being within social structures. In the films Blind Husbands and Crazy Females, he takes his naturalism to excess, for the representation of vices and corruption. 

Erich Von Stroheim Producers’ number one enemy


Foolish wives is Erich Von Stroheim ‘s next film. A million dollar colossal, which tells a triangle of a Russian officer he plays himself, and two noblewomen his accomplices, set in Monte Carlo and with an original duration of over 3 hours. Many erotic scenes were cut from the production. Universal following the processing of the film is increasingly convinced that the excessive duration will lead the project to failure. He fires Stroheim after shooting and has another director finish editing the film. 

From then on, the clash between megalomaniac director Erich Von Stroheim and Hollywood studios will become legendary. Virtually all the films will be taken out of his hand to be completed according to the dictates of production by someone else. The next film, Merry-Go-Round, from 1922, was shot for a third by another director, due to Stroheim’s large budget overrun. 

Erich Von Stroheim’s characters are perhaps among the most corrupt and immoral in the history of cinema. Slowly he becomes the accursed director of Hollywood, whose films will always be opposed and brutally modified at the editing. 

Indeed, all of his projects from Greed of 1924 to Queen Kelly of 1928 have all been heavily transfigured by the production being edited and depart a lot from the works conceived by Erich Von Stroheim. Puritan America of the time could not tolerate his crude and violent films, which staged perversions and scandalous sexual drives. 



Having reached the point of reading with Universal Erich Von Stroheim goes to MGM which entrusts him with a great project. Greed of 1924 is a film inspired by Frank Norris’ naturalistic novel, Mcteague. An important film from the production point of view that required 8 months of work and 42 reels, then reduced to 24 and further cut without Stroheim’s permission. In fact, the director did not recognize the authorship of this version. The final version lasts about 2 hours while the original one lasted 6 hours. 

In Greed Stroheim recounts the American province in a very successful contrast between pure and natural America and the corrupt and capitalist one. Greed corrupts and destroys all characters in the film, and is arguably one of the most pessimistic, negative, and merciless films in the history of cinema. Realism is pushed to the extreme to the grotesque and symbolic. Greed becomes the main vice of human nature which drags all other vices with it. Money replaces the desire for sex, for love, becomes the god of the lives of the characters in the film. 

Erich Von Stroheim actor


Despite the diffidence of the Studios, however, every film by Erich Von Stroheim is a success: Rapacity also has a large influx of audiences. But this will not serve to appease the producers’ fury against the director’s work, both on set and during editing. He will continue to have problems in later films as well. The next project Queen Kelly, which was to be financed by an independent production and by the diva Gloria Swanson with whom she will work on Sunset Boulevard, will never see the light. The Austrian director will continue to work successfully as an actor. 

Seduction, fetishism, greed, his films offer a roundup of all the most unhealthy vices, taken to the extreme. Another reason for the contrast was the large budgets that his sets entirely rebuilt in the studio required. Stroheim likes to show in a naturalistic way to the limit of tolerance, his close-ups and details are powerful, situations repeat themselves and become symbolic. 

His career as a great actor joins that of a cursed director: the character of the officer he plays in many films with different shades, reaches one of the best results in The Great Illusion Jean Renoir’sof 1937. In Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder of the 1950 instead plays a melancholy character, a former mortgage director turned butler. 

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