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August 2000, Week 3


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Peter Rollins <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 15 Aug 2000 15:33:59 EDT
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This review is copyrighted (c) 2000 by H-Net and the
       Popular Culture and the American Culture Associations.
       It may be reproduced electronically for educational or
       scholarly use.  The Associations reserve print rights
       and permissions. (Contact: P.C.Rollins at the following
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Arthur Lennig, _Stroheim_. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky,
2000, $30.00 cloth. ISBN 0-8131-2138-8

        Lennig, cinema professor, cineaste and determined researcher, has
sought to write the most accurate book possible about the life and career of
the controversial (and legendary) director, Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957).
The book title is itself an indication of this, as the von was added by
Stroheim when he entered America in 1909; to that he added, throughout his
life, a variety of stories about his family background, military experience,
etc.  Moreover, numerous tales swirl about him, concocted by studio
publicity hacks, columnists, and serious film historians who did not dig as
long and deep as Lennig.  The book is basically chronological/biographical,
with long glosses on periods of Stroheim's life, and on his major films as
director and actor.  Lennig considers his subject a complex man, who sought
artistic perfection in his films, whose apparent cynicism hid a
humanitarianism, and whose refusal to compromise wrecked his directing career.
        Long before I saw Stroheim on screen, I read about him in an article
(about 1950) in the British magazine _Lilliput_, which included the familiar
story of Stroheim appearing in _Birth of a Nation_ in blackface.  S. J.
Perelman, in one of his anti-nostalgic essays on the films of his youth,
mentions Stroheim as a Pharisee in _Intolerance_.  Both the Lilliput_
article and a recent _New Yorker_ piece (July 3, 2000, p. 27) by Ethan Coen
(somewhat like Perelman in its attitude toward the "director's cut") claim
that Stroheim insisted that costume for actors in his films include the
correct period/place underwear. Lennig says no to these: his research shows
that Stroheim had not met Griffith until after _Birth of a Nation_; the
Pharisee credit is probably to make up for not crediting Stroheim as an
actor in another Griffith film (he apparently worked on set design for
        However, Leaning's purpose is to explain what Stroheim did and how,
and, as much as possible, why, not simply to point to errors.  To find out
he relied little on interviews with people who had known or worked with
Stroheim in those days, since memory after 40 or 50 years can be unreliable,
especially for people who lived in a world of illusion to begin with.
Lennig examined trade journals, studio house organs, reviews, scrapbooks,
memos, letters, financial records, and other such documents as he could
find.  Contrary to some other writers' belief, Stroheim's birth record was
not destroyed in WWII; Lennig found it, and also an old registry listing
where the family lived in Austria. This may be less than fascinating detail,
but it's part of Lennig's efforts to find out where Stroheim came from and how
these origins and his life in America interacted in his work.  The man had no
theatrical background in his family or education; despite his frequent
appearance in the role of an army officer (including Field Marshal Rommel)
he had only weeks of unsatisfactory service in Austria and New York, although
he continued to maintain he had been an officer; his family was far from
elite, yet he often presented  upper-class Europeans in his films (usually
in derogatory contrast to those of lower social class). And he became The Man
Love to Hate for his portrayals of decadent European evil (_Hearts of
Humanity_, _Blind Husbands_, _The Wedding March_). Lennig devotes a chapter
each to ten films, including, of course, _Greed_, Stroheim's hoped-for
masterpiece with its 8-hour director's cut.  Lennig is appreciative of
Stroheim's strengths as a directoržhis use of invisible editing to help
reveal character, for exampležbut is equally clear that much of Stroheim's
career problems were the result of his own refusal to consider budget and
time restrictions; studio executives had a point in claiming that audience
would not flock to 4-6-8 hour movies, and theater owners didn't want to book
        The book's last section of chapters examines Stroheim's career at its
out of work and money, through his brief stint as a $150 a week writer at
MGM, to his sudden revival as an actor. Stroheim found his best opportunities
France, where he played the WWI German officer in Renoir's _La Grand
Illusion_.  As an Austrian Jew who had played several unsympathetic German
roles, he was probably as lucky as Lennig says to get out of France before
the Germans took over, and then got one more such role (though the character
is complex) as Rommel in _Five Graves to Cairo_. His last American film role
was as the former director turned butler to silent film star Norma Desmond
in _Sunset Boulevard_.
        Parts of the book I found slow going, and there's really no
explanation of Stroheim's apparent fascination with the numbers 3 and 13, but
Lennig is trying to present as much of his many years of research as he can,
and is dealing in some cases with films which have vanished, or have not
been found in the version Stroheim made; he also tries to explain the man as
well as his methods, without engaging in wild attempts to read the minds of
people based on little fact and much speculation. Overall, he's succeeded in
about 460 PP of text, plus a Filmography, detailed chapter notes, a select
bibliography, an index, and numerous photographs.  Other people may go from
here to find other documents, or even parts of or entire films, but absent
that, I doubt we'll see a better-done examination of Stroheim.

Eastern Illinois University                        Frank Oglesbee
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