‘Who is this Ingrid Bergman?’

Gilberto Perez

  • Stroheim by Arthur Lennig
    Kentucky, 514 pp, £25.00, December 1999, ISBN 0 8131 2138 8
  • The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini by Tag Gallagher
    Da Capo, 802 pp, £16.95, October 1998, ISBN 0 306 80873 0

‘He is the best novelist of the films,’ Erwin Piscator said of Erich von Stroheim, whose Wedding March (1928) he likened to a novel by Balzac. That was the last film Stroheim completed as a director. He may be better known as an actor (‘the man you love to hate’, La Grande Illusion, Sunset Boulevard), but in the history of film he made more of a mark as a director. It was his accumulation of detail that earned Stroheim a place in old film histories as the exemplar of realism. It also added to the cost and length of his pictures. Again and again he ran into trouble with his producers. His films were taken away from him and cut against his wishes – Greed (1924) being the most famous case. After a while nobody would employ him behind the camera; his career as a director lasted barely a decade. This was the second reason for Stroheim’s place in old film histories: he represented the artist at odds with the commercialism of Hollywood. The tendency in more recent film histories has been to regard the artist with suspicion and to side with the ‘genius of the system’; Stroheim’s reputation has suffered as a result.

Arthur Lennig’s new critical biography is not likely to restore it. This is an old-timey book that calls to mind the film societies of another era, the noise of a 16mm projector at the back of the room, the smell of mimeographed programme notes. It tells an interesting story, but Richard Koszarski told it better, with more critical and historical acumen, in his 1983 study, The Man You Loved to Hate. There are still some unresolved points in the story, however. Stroheim himself was an unreliable narrator. Only after his death in 1957 did it come to light that the story he had always told of aristocratic birth and an army career in imperial Vienna was a fabrication. In fact he was the son of a Jewish hatter – no ‘von’ in his name – and the Austrian Army turned him down. If he lied about his Austrian past, then perhaps he was lying about his apprenticeship with D.W. Griffith. He claimed to have played bit parts in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, and to have learned film-making by watching and assisting Griffith. Lennig disputes this. Largely on the basis of an interview with Joseph Henabery, who played Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, he denies that Stroheim was an actor in either film and generally wants to minimise his association with Griffith – though later he reports that in the early 1940s, when Stroheim was acting in a stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace, Griffith visited him in his dressing-room and gave him a kiss. ‘That kiss of the master was the highest honour that could be bestowed on me,’ Stroheim declared. Koszarski was more inclined than Lennig to believe what Stroheim said about Griffith. One story Stroheim often told about acting in The Birth of a Nation was that he’d played the part of a man who falls off a roof and had to take the fall three times before Griffith was satisfied. Koszarski found evidence of this in a reel of out-takes from the film that does indeed show someone falling three times from the roof, ‘the work of an inept, though eager, stuntman’. Even if he was not the man in question, Stroheim must have been there during the filming of that scene.

His association with Griffith, which he may have exaggerated to advance his career, has done Stroheim a disservice. He is supposed to have learned film technique from the founding innovator, and to have added ‘realism’ – as if it were merely an ingredient. Griffith’s development of editing broke down the scenes of theatre into the shots of cinema. Each shot is a detail, a section of an implied larger space; a film is put together as a succession of details – not unlike the narrative of particulars that according to Ian Watt constitutes the ‘formal realism’ of the novel. Had Griffith already achieved a novelistic ‘formal realism’? Not exactly. As a storytelling medium, cinema lies somewhere between theatre and the novel, and Griffith remained pretty close to theatre. Even while focusing on details, his camera remained for the most part outside the action, watching it from the standpoint of a theatre-goer, armed with opera glasses for taking a closer look from time to time. Griffith’s close-ups are justly famous, but their intensity is that of theatrical display rather than novelistic intimacy.

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