No other filmmaker has suffered the indignity of being called an “incomplete filmmaker” as often as Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957).
It is difficult to come to an accurate critical appraisal of Stroheim’s work based on the frustratingly partial, incomplete and forcibly abandoned nature of the works that make up his filmography — The Devil’s Pass Key, Queen Kelly, The Wedding March and the legendary, lost almost 8-hour cut of Greed made at a time when the widespread appreciation of the art of cinema was not yet commonplace, much less the will to preservation. Most damagingly but brilliantly, Billy Wilder cast Stroheim as a thinly fictionalised embodiment of the Hollywood casualty in Sunset Boulevard. Stroheim has been cast in the shadow of this spectre ever since. Yet Stroheim was also one of the most accomplished, inventive and modern of all European émigré directors, past or present.
As the émigré son of working-class Austrian Jews (who nevertheless styled himself a high Count), Stroheim’s status as the pre-eminent Hollywood outsider imbues his work with a tragic inexorability and gentle romanticism, qualities heightened further by the knowledge that Stroheim worked as a total filmmaker: penning several of his most potent works (Blind Husbands, Foolish Wives) in addition to occupying a multitude of roles both behind and in front of the camera.
This handpicked season of 35mm prints includes Stroheim’s most celebrated works of the late silent era (The Merry Widow, The Wedding March), the monumental Greed, the film that defined his career and reputation, and his moving performance in Jean Renoir’s profoundly humanist anti-war classic, La grande illusion.
Further screenings in this three-part season take place on 4 May and 14 December.
7:00PM – GREED
Erich von Stroheim (1924) 140 mins PG
An ex-miner and dentist kills his greedy wife and then sets out across Death Valley to stalk his rival. Butchered by MGM before its release, after Stroheim submitted an almost 8-hour cut, the director’s unrelenting study of moral decay and dehumanising avarice remains a towering masterpiece of American cinematic realism. Based on Frank Norris’ epic novel McTeague, it is both one of the great films of the silent era and a landmark in the practice of adaptation, featuring vividly expressive performances by Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts and Jean Hersholt.
35mm print courtesy of the British Film Institute.
‘Greed’ by Frederick Blichert.
9:30PM – QUEEN KELLY
Erich von Stroheim (1929) 101 mins PG
A gentle convent girl (Gloria Swanson) is seduced and deceived by a roguish prince and banished to her aunt’s brothel in East Africa, where she takes her place as the queen of the title. Reconstructed version of Stroheim’s most opulent and sexually decadent work is a delirious triumph of esoteric style. Barely released in its time, and with footage from the sordid African sequences only rediscovered in the 1960s, excerpts from this “abandoned” classic form the luminous “home movie” watched by Swanson and Stroheim in Sunset Blvd.
35mm print courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia.
Erich von Stroheim’s Damned Queen: ‘Queen Kelly’ by Michael Koller.
Paradise Regained: Queen Kelly and the Lure of the ‘Lost’ Film by Darragh O’Donoghue