Erich von Stroheim is a complex and compromised figure from early cinema history. His entire legacy is built on contradictions and missed potential. He was very much a man of his time — his worldview and place in culture built around postwar politics and shifting cultural mores. He was one of the great American silent-era filmmakers, but also one defined by his enigmatic foreign image, cultivated by starring as a barbarian in 1910s military propaganda films.
What von Stroheim is best remembered for is a cultural tragedy: None of the films from the peak of his creative output remain extant in a complete form. His three most famous films — Foolish Wives, Greed, and The Wedding March — were each chopped up by studio editors, with the majority of film shot for each film lost. (Greed, in particular, is one of lost cinema’s white whales; a legendary 8-hour version screened only once.) It’s like if Orson Welles had never managed to release Citizen Kane, and all we had of his was The Magnificent Ambersons.
The earliest of von Stroheim’s butchered epics is Foolish Wives, which debuted for Universal in 1922 as the most expensive film ever made to that point. The film’s marketing and reputation hinged on a massive set recreating Monte Carlo — Universal executives even proposed naming film Monte Carlo to play up that aspect. What the film delivers runs much deeper than a glitzy gambling spectacle, though.
Upon completion of the project, Foolish Wives ran over 17,000 feet long. I’m not an expert on silent film display technology, but at the 20fps on 35mm film, that comes to well over four hours. Some reports cite a cut running more than six hours. This was an unprecedented length for a film, considerably surpassing Intolerance’s 3.5 hours. (Fritz Lang that same year pioneered a two-part release with his outstanding gangster epic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, clocking in at about 4.5 hours. von Stroheim would later use this release tactic for The Wedding March / The Honeymoon, the latter of which was lost.)
Universal unleashed its corporate editors onto the film and ended up with two cuts: one for an American release, one for a European release. Both butchered the original of at least half of its runtime. The closest thing that we have to a definitive version today is reassembled from salvaged prints of both cuts, totaling about two and a half hours (presumably sped to 24fps). We have some scripts and contemporary reports, but we can never know exactly what this film’s legacy would be if it had been fully preserved. Would it be regarded as one of the towering masterpieces of cinema? An overstuffed endurance exercise? The answer is probably somewhere in between.
The film is a morally murky satire about the excesses of the wealthy. It stars von Stroheim as Sergius Karamzin, a man who claims to be a Russian Count. (von Stroheim, by the way, is every bit the talent as an actor as he is a director.) Karamzin is a counterfeiter and fraud who spends his time with people who aren’t what they say, but the film notably does not definitively state one way or the other whether he actually is a Russian Count, leaving some kernel of ambiguity in his arc.
Karamzin and two of his cousins who pose as princesses, Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch), run an elaborate scam in which they seduce the wealthy and siphon off their money to fuel their own lavish lifestyle. Olga and Vera are rendered mostly as side figures in the cut we have today: They presumably played much bigger roles in the original extended version.
What’s left focuses on a specific seduction by Karamzin of the vain Helen Hughes that ultimately leads to his downfall. As he shows Helen his illusory glamor that perhaps belies a nugget of dignity — though, if so, it’s long extinguished by the film’s wrenching conclusion — he operates multiple ongoing scams, including a money counterfeiting operation laundered at a Monte Carlo casino.
(The fake money printing was so elaborate and realistic that the FBI briefly shut down production so they could verify that the filmmakers were not doing any real-life counterfeiting. That’s why props of paper cash in modern movies are designed to look very fake.)
As Karamzin gets close to sealing the deal in his scheme to defraud Helen, he makes a crucial mistake. His hubris and greed are taken too far: The kind-hearted maid Maruschka, whom Karamzin casually strings along with fake proclamations of love, realizes the depth of his treachery, burning down his manor and killing herself. Karamzin is booted from town.
And yet Karamzin’s lust has not been sated, his slide to irredeemable villainy complete: He rapes the daughter of his counterfeiter, who catches him in the act and kills him.
Foolish Wives is a remarkable achievement of filmmaking even in its butchered form. von Stroheim insists the hack job ruined the movie, taking out much of the setup and eliminating important scenes.
For example, we know parts of the harrowing ending were trimmed: The rape scene, where Karamzin crosses the metaphorical gates of Hell, was completely eliminated minus a suggestive fade to black. Reactions to Karamzin’s death were thinned out, too — it’s intriguing to imagine the tone of various characters reflecting on their perspective of one troubled man’s death.
Other parts of the movie end up jumbled or incoherent: Helen gives birth near the end of the film despite no mention of her pregnancy, for example. Some of the images clearly meant to echo each other — e.g. the parallels between the counterfeiting, casino scams, and seductions — are hinted at but not thoroughly explored.
On the other hand, I wonder if the forced editing is at least a little bit of a blessing in disguise. Any film longer than three hours, let alone one supposedly pushing double that length, is a tough proposition for a viewer. Clearly, the whittling has reduced a masterpiece, but it has perhaps made it more watchable and less indulgent.
Watching Foolish Wives in the context of films from the same era is a revelation: Compared to DW Griffith, in particular, who dealt primarily with archetypal, flat characters of simple morality, von Stroheim’s characters are multidimensional and complicated, with nuanced motivations and personalities. That’s what makes it such effective satire of the aloof and clueless wealthy class. Even the bloodsucking, greedy exploiters are recognizable humans. The topics are very adult with almost none of the patronizing you often find in early melodramas. The sex is frank for the 1920’s, as is the boozing and gambling nightlife.
Just as striking as the mature pre-Hayes Code writing is the terrific filmmaking. It advances the cinematic visual language beyond anything I’ve seen prior to this. von Stroheim is able to communicate so much information visually, and with pleasing sensibility. For example, the disorienting amorality of counterfeiting is accompanied by some of the most expressionistic lighting of any film I’ve seen: stark black and white bars of lights visually replicate the sense of lawlessness.
von Stroheim makes sophisticated use of point-of-view shots. The film cuts between close-ups of individual’s faces and whatever that character’s fascination is. This is done most memorably in a few early scenes, including a sensuous pan where the lascivious Karamzin ogles a teenager. This technique places us deep in the head of the characters. It hints at the adventurous revolution to editing that was only a few years away in Europe.
It’s tough to know just how high in the pantheon to elevate Foolish Wives. In addition to its partially-extant conundrum, there’s also an odd idiosyncratic flavor that sometimes drowns out what’s around it. The biggest culprit of this is a scene where a literal angel seems to guard Helen Hughes from Karamzin’s lust. In a movie so otherwise absent religious tones, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
But overall, there is no doubt that this film is a triumph, even with its asterisk. It is perhaps the most intriguing of the films included in the 1001 Films to See Before You Die list up to this point, though not as eminently watchable as Nosferatu or Dr. Caligari. It’s just as complex as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler but even more emotionally rich.
More than anything else, it excites me to dive deeper into the silent cinema’s great works — von Stroheim’s catalog, especially. Despite the slow fading of silent cinema from the critical canon (see: the latest Sight and Sound poll), and Stroheim’s vanishing legacy specifically, I find myself more intrigued than ever by creators of the era. And von Stroheim is, by all evidence, one of the great ones.
(I watched the Kino Blu-ray and listened to Richard Koszarski’s commentary.)