The morning routine of the Villa Amarosa has the vagueness of habit. The tenants come together slowly, in frames mostly weighted towards their rightward thirds, taken from high or low angles, in natural light. Their way of relating to each other is casually but not emotionally intimate; these images and performances suggest other, unseen mornings and nights before. At the end of the film we discover that the identities of Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch) are false, but the ‘true’ identity revealed then is merely recursive – they go from being “the cousins” to the women who have pretended to be “the cousins”. Their histories before they met Karamzin (Erich von Stroheim), and their real relationship to him, remain undefined. Who all three are has been defined by their behaviour, about which we have never been under any misapprehension.
At the breakfast table, Karamzin expresses his regret at having been driven to these measures, which suggests that he is a fallen aristocrat rather than a career confidence trickster. Yet circumstances have made the distinction immaterial. The real Count is as predatory as his false cousins, the only difference being that he is motivated by appetite as well as need, a weakness that amuses and exasperates his confederates.
Stroheim introduces us to this family before they go to work. To remain who they are they need money. Their caper is simply the long game of survival. Who were they before the recent war? Isn’t Karamzin’s black armband, after all, in memory of a catastrophic rupture?
The book ‘Foolish Wives’ within the film claims that the European finds a moral code vital while the American, motivated by the urgency of money-making, forgets even to react to its absence, a claim approved by Karamzin and then disproved by the rest of the film, including ‘von Stroheim’ and Stroheim’s square-up endings. Amorality has been depicted in order to lend the morality of Stroheim’s very moral fiction the urgency of lived experience.
Foolish Wives’ Monte Carlo is a luxurious tourist destination and a displaced persons camp, with squares and broad streets to get lost and be unknown in. The film’s action repeatedly flows from vast public spaces to tiny private ones. The decisive moments take place in a hovel; in the space between a household altar and a keyhole; in a maid’s bedroom.
We don’t need to see the sewer’s underground flow carry Karamzin to the river to know he has become literal as well as metaphorical flotsam. He is already adrift when, standing alone on the street while his cousins pack, he decides to rape Ventucci’s daughter (Malvina Polo). Olga had warned him about the distraction of his libido, and it proves fatal. His death is this abrupt because it was censored by Universal before the film’s release, but the wrenching quality given by the excision, robbing both Karamzin and his actor of a great death scene, is accidentally appropriate. He has died in anonymity, like the millions his black armband ostensibly commemorates.
In Monte Carlo, Andrew and Helen Hughes (Rudolph Christians and Miss Dupont) see an old world oasis from capitalism and the 20th century. They meet people more mercenary, and more desperate, than they could imagine. Stroheim had invented his own aristocratic background not in order to become a con artist, but to transform the defeated dream of his youth into a new origin that would sustain him in the precarity of the new world. He accepted that he had no future in the military only four years before taking his first film roles.1 ‘Alone with me, his voice was lachrymose, his eyes wet with an occasional tear, and his bearing downcast and hopeless’ recalled Josef Von Sternberg, who may have been mythologizing.2
The Europe in Stroheim’s films is a site of failed fantasies. The scale of them may have something to do with a frustrated imagination of military campaigns, strategy, scale and daring, but it’s also a recognition of the overwhelming odds. The wealth of the hotels and gaming rooms is depicted with the fidelity not of observation (Stroheim had never been there) but of recalled hunger and ambition. First a site to conquer, a realm to make one’s own, then a crowd to be submerged by, a milieu that overwhelms and excludes all but the fortunate and ruthless.
Stroheim’s professional name was closer to his real name than John Ford’s was to his. Had Stroheim told the stories he told and told the truth about who and where he had been, he might have been classed as an anarchist like Berkman and Goldman, who were deported the year he made his first feature. Fortunately, like Dickens (who he in no other respect resembled), Stroheim could face the pain of his past only from the safety of an invented identity.
The give and take of fantasy and lucidity in these films is still challenging. Stroheim had wanted to be a writer almost as soon as he had given up on being a soldier. Do his films propose a determinist view of human nature because he was a determinist? If so, it’s a point-of-view his own attempts and attainments would seem to refute decisively. Or is it because that’s the kind of view a great writer of the sort he wanted to be (Zola, Norris) would take? Stroheim’s references to fictional books by himself in Blind Husbands and here (the significance of which has been discussed by Jonathan Rosenbaum3) indicate the importance of the literary dream. Stroheim’s star persona was a lie he used to tell the truth, but the truth escapes even what ‘Stroheim the author’ claims to show. The book ‘Foolish Wives’ by ‘Erich von Stroheim’ is a story about the moral superiority of Americans. Yet Foolish Wives – the Stroheim film – is, despite every interference, about the inescapable materiality of class.
Foolish Wives (1922 US 117 mins)
Prod Co: Universal Dir: Erich von Stroheim Scr: Erich von Stroheim Phot: Ben Reynolds, William H. Daniels Ed: Arthur Ripley Art Dir: Richard Day, Elmer Sheely
Cast: Maude George, Mae Busch, Erich von Stroheim, Rudolph Christians, Miss Dupont, Dale Fuller
- See: Richard Koszarski, Von: The Life and Career of Erich von Stroheim (New York: Limelight Editions, 2001), p. 7; Arthur Lennig, Stroheim (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), p. 18. ↩
- Josef Von Sternberg, ‘Von Sternberg on Von Stroheim’, Film Fan Monthly n87 September 1968 (Teaneck: Film Fan Monthly, 1968), pp. 16-22. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Erich von Stroheim’, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-Makers: Volume Two: Kinguasa to Zanussi ed. Richard Roud (London: Secker and Warburg 1980), pp. 973-987. ↩