Cineastes know that there are only a half dozen botched works that can be indisputably referred to as cinematic Holy Grails. One is the original print of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, believed to be lost somewhere in Brazil. Another was Cassavetes’s Shadows, which recently resurfaced inside a man’s Florida attic and soon thereafter premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival. All others arguably belong to Erich Von Stroheim. Born in Vienna in 1885 into a Jewish household, Von Stroheim is mostly remembered for playing evil Germans in films like Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Serious film lovers, though, know him as the unluckiest auteur in the history of cinema.
Intended to run anywhere between six and 10 hours, most of Von Stroheim’s films, from Greed to the pre-talkie Swanson vehicle Queen Kelly (the inspiration for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which stars Von Stroheim as the fading star’s butler), were severely bastardized by studio heads upon their release. 1922’s Foolish Wives begins with the perfect iris shot. This is no ordinary “fade into” effect, but an entrancing reinforcement of the sinister, insular and constrictive nature of the milieu Von Stroheim is about to introduce us to. Because the man spent much of his life hiding his Jewish background, it probably comes as no surprise that there’s so much lingering beneath the surface of his films.
In post-war Europe, a bogus Russian count, Sergius Karamzin (Von Stroheim), and his two “cousins”-cum-mistresses (Maude George and Mae Busch) confer with their pathetic counterfeiter before descending upon the wife of an American envoy sent to Monte Carlo to meet with the Prince of Monaco. Karamzin’s business is destroying lives, and over the course of the film’s existing 141 minutes, he takes advantage of no less than three women: the American Helen Hughes (Miss DuPont), his maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller), and the counterfeiter’s half-witted daughter, Marietta (Malvine Polo). At the time of its release, Foolish Wives was the most expensive film ever produced, and though Von Stroheim was widely considered a lavish spendthrift, his films remain triumphs of period detail.
The film features the most daring intertitles in the history of silent cinema, and Von Stroheim uses their stream-of-conscious nature to enhance the film’s startling aesthetic shifts and to point to the politics at work throughout the narrative. Karamzin is a monster, not so much because his “eyeopener” is oxblood and his “cereal” is caviar, but because he understands how to oppress others with sinister surroundings. Who knows what Universal suits left on the cutting room floor, but you get a sense that Karamzin knew poverty once. “Dense Marshes—Slimy—Sombrous—Betraying—Then—Night.” The count uses darkness to scare and seduce Helen, who defends her weakness to her husband in the only way she can: “I’m Free—White—and Twenty-One.”
One can imagine the scenes deleted from the film involving the details surrounding Karamzin’s murder. After Karamzin sneaks into Ventucci’s house (ostensibly to rape the man’s daughter) and a duped Maruschka kills herself, Ventucci is seen pulling Karamzin from a closet (a black cat darts across the frame) before dumping his body into a sewer. Foolish Wives is a seductive film, but it’s also supremely sad because Von Stroheim sees something morally and emotionally debilitating in the way his characters forcibly cling to facades, from Dupont’s disillusioned would-be feminist to the “cousins” who don’t own up to their true identities until cops pull off their wigs. “Take off that monocle,” says Helen’s husband to Karamzin before punching him in the face. There is a place and breaking point for everyone here, and Foolish Wives is disillusionment Von Stroheim style.