‘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.
After watching Griffith, students in my film classes find it striking how much more modern Stroheim looks. Why? The answer is the reverse angle. A shot lets us see a piece of space; the reverse angle shows us the space in which we were standing a moment earlier, and situates us in the space we were just looking at. Such reversal does away with the theatrical demarcation between the space of performance, which belongs to the actors, and the space from which we watch the performance. The reverse angle usually pivots on a character’s glance. It identifies the character’s eyes with our own by cutting to what is in front of them, so that we see what they are seeing, not necessarily from their exact point of view – the point of view shot is a special case of the reverse angle – but from their side of things. It invites us inside and puts us in the position of the characters. Griffith tended to avoid the reverse angle. No director has used it more vividly and assiduously than Stroheim. At the outset of his first film, Blind Husbands (1919), the main characters are introduced not in the conventional tableaux of the time but in angled and reverse-angled close views that bring us inside the horse-drawn carriage in which they are riding and show us their perspectives on one another.
Lennig is defensive about Stroheim’s technique. It lacks the brilliance of Griffith’s or Eisenstein’s, he fears: ‘There is nothing flashy or exciting.’ But he tries to make that into a virtue: ‘everything is subservient to the artistic whole.’ Restraint, understatement and the balance of the whole are not, however, what I would go to Stroheim for; his films are more like the ‘loose and baggy monsters’ of Henry James’s characterisation of the novel. Lennig rightly objects to Lewis Jacobs’s influential characterisation of Stroheim’s films as ‘not based on the editing principle but on the piling up of details within the scenes’, and points out that The Wedding March is cut appreciably faster than Intolerance. Yet he has little of interest to say about this beyond generalities about ‘invisible’ editing and the camera always being ‘in the right place’ so the many shot changes go unnoticed.
Unlike Griffith’s, and especially unlike Eisenstein’s, Stroheim’s editing is smooth. No cut is smoother than one cued by a character’s glance. A smooth cut is, of course, less noticeable than an abrupt cut, and that is one reason for the critical neglect of Stroheim’s editing. But there are other reasons. Smooth editing and the reverse angle are thought to be conventional – the way Hollywood does things. Stroheim worked in Hollywood and certainly contributed to the formation of its style – as did Griffith and even Eisenstein – but he cannot be assigned to what some have called the ‘classical’ and others the ‘institutional’ style of cinematic representation. To slight his use of the reverse angle because it became a Hollywood staple is like slighting the use of perspective in the Quattrocento because it became a staple of academic painting. It is difficult, on the evidence, to find fault with Stroheim’s technique. Look at the two great flirtation scenes in The Wedding March and the unfinished Queen Kelly (1929): the exchange of glances between a man and a woman has never been more expressively articulated in an exchange of angles and reverse angles. In both cases the man is on a horse and the woman is on the ground; they must communicate in the silent language of gesture and glance, and the language of Stroheim’s silent cinema rises beautifully to the occasion. Often, too, he has his actors glancing straight into the camera. This is usually ruled out, for a glance towards the audience is thought to break the illusion. In Stroheim it increases the illusion – the fact that we meet their eyes as their eyes meet enhances our identification with the characters.
Griffith’s close-ups stand out; Stroheim’s blend in. Getting close to a character was for Griffith something special, but Stroheim took it as his prerogative, the way it is a novelist’s prerogative to probe a character’s thoughts and feelings. And like a novelist, Stroheim had no difficulty with going in and out of each character’s point of view as he saw fit, and then commenting on the story from the author’s standpoint. His editing allowed him to achieve the roundedness and the density one finds in a realist novel.
If Stroheim was the leading realist of the silent era, the most influential film realism since the Second World War flourished in Italy. With Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) Roberto Rossellini ushered in the movement that came to be known as neo-realism. Unlike Stroheim’s, his is not a realism of meaning but of reticence, of the refusal to compel reality into sense. Tag Gallagher’s biography of Rossellini is announced as the ‘first in any language’, although I believe there is one in Italian. One may want to quarrel with some of its judgments, but there is no quarrelling with its research and dedication. Rossellini was born rich. His grandfather – actually his father’s uncle, who treated his nephew as a son and was grandfather to Roberto and his siblings – made a fortune as a builder after Rome became the capital of a unified Italy. The young Roberto led the life of a playboy. He dropped out of high school and ‘spent money on cars, flowers, women and clothes’, Gallagher tells us. ‘He took twenty or thirty people to supper every night. A lot of money he gave away casually.’ Before he was out of his twenties, his father died and it emerged that there was nothing left of the family fortune, but Rossellini continued for the rest of his life to spend the money he no longer had. He borrowed it or otherwise appropriated it as his birthright. He was a charmer, a brat, a man with a taste for the sweet things in life. Having to work for a living, he drifted into cinema because that was where his pursuit of women led him. It was never quite clear whether he raised money to make movies or made movies to raise money.
With its portrayal of heroic Italian opposition to the Nazis – Catholic as well as Communist – Open City did much in the immediate postwar period to better the image of Italy in the world’s eyes. But Rossellini’s little-known earlier movies were associated with Fascism. The one I have seen, L’Uomo dalla croce (1943), is set on the Russian front. Its protagonist is a Fascist priest whose endeavour to bring the faith to the Communist heathen is portrayed as saintly. The actor who played this priest appears again at the end of Open City, once more playing a priest, but this time giving the last rites to an anti-Fascist priest about to be executed by the Nazis. For Open City Rossellini sought the collaboration of the Communist Sergio Amidei as a way of dissociating himself from the Fascist past. As Gallagher tells the story, the best things in the film are Rossellini’s rather than Amidei’s: the sense of documentary realism and unrehearsed actuality, rather than the melodramatics of Italian heroism and Nazi villainy. The same is true of Paisan. Rossellini shot the best episode in this film, the one about partisans in the Po River delta, very quickly, without bothering to fill in the gaps in the narrative and characterisation; the worst, the Roman episode, was carefully scripted by Amidei so that everything falls into place, and it took much longer to shoot. Which brings us back to the question of Rossellini’s realism, and to its basis in photography. It is in the details themselves, in the way he captures them, that his strength lies; his weakness is in their articulation. He is not a novelist, but a photographer.
‘The force of Paisan is in certain images of danger, suffering and death that remain in one’s consciousness with the particularity of real experience,’ Robert Warshow wrote at the time the movie was released. ‘These images have an autonomy that makes them stronger and more important than any ideas one can attach to them.’ The best thing in Stromboli (1949), the first of Rossellini’s films with Ingrid Bergman, is the documentary sequence of tuna fishing: the reaction shots of Bergman in which Rossellini attempts an articulation – the attachment of an idea to the experience – are clumsy, but the fishing scenes are rendered with power and poignancy. Neo-realism was taken at the time as a repudiation of rhetoric and a return to reality. But like any other form of expression, it had its own rhetoric, and it was the gift of Vittorio de Sica, for example, the director of Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, to combine it with reality. Rossellini lacked that gift.
Fellini, whose work on Paisan inspired him to make films himself, recollected that Rossellini shot the Po River episode so quickly because he was in a hurry to get back to Rome – ‘God knows why, perhaps some bills were due or he had a date with some woman.’ Much has been said about the daring elliptical construction of this episode, which Gallagher calls ‘Rossellini’s most extreme experiment in off-the-cuff film-making’. The haste, Fellini explained, created ‘the state of friction where the spark takes fire and burns’. But Gallagher wonders whether it was ‘laziness or genius’ that motivated Rossellini’s frequent use of long takes, discarding the move to shots pioneered by Griffith, elaborated by Stroheim and Eisenstein and adopted by Hollywood. The long take can be a form of articulation, as it is in Mizoguchi or Renoir or Antonioni, but in Rossellini it is nothing so organised. Rossellini, as Gallagher portrays him, didn’t believe in preparing a script, rehearsing the actors, setting up the shots according to a plan. He believed in the spur of the moment. ‘Things are there . . . why manipulate them?’ He would create a fiction, but treat it as a fact that was out of his hands, something encountered in the world. There was method in his carelessness.
After seeing Open City and Paisan, Ingrid Bergman was so impressed that she wrote a fan letter to Rossellini, offering her services: ‘If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only “ti amo,” I am ready to come and make a film with you.’ ‘Who is this Ingrid Bergman?’ he asked on receiving the letter – he didn’t go to the movies much – and, when he found out, set about seducing her before he had even met her. That he fell in love I don’t doubt, but the love doesn’t come across in their movies together; De Sica’s camera shows more love for the maid in Umberto D than Rossellini’s ever does for Bergman. The films he made with her – Stromboli, Europa ‘51 (1952), Voyage to Italy (1953) and a couple of others – pleased nobody but the French. André Bazin wrote a brilliant ‘Defence of Rossellini’, and in 1958, when the group at Cahiers du cinéma – which included Truffaut and Godard, Rohmer and Rivette – chose the best films ever made, Voyage to Italy came third, after Murnau’s Sunrise and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.
Voyage to Italy is extraordinary in the way it focuses on characters who are ordinary to the point of banality, a bourgeois couple from Britain uneventfully travelling in Italy and having unremarkable marital problems. It is also extraordinary that the banality of these characters is presented without irony. For long stretches the film adopts the point of view of the Bergman character as she wanders around Naples and takes in the tourist sites: this is Naples ‘filtered through the consciousness of the heroine’, as Bazin wrote, ‘and if the landscape is poor and limited, it is because the consciousness of this mediocre bourgeois heroine is itself of a rare spiritual poverty.’ Rossellini assumes no superiority, but instead manages a curious neutrality, neither identifying himself with his heroine nor viewing her with ironic detachment. But even the withholding of irony where we would expect it requires that one thing be presented and another implied: it requires a novelist rather than a photographer. The neutrality of Voyage to Italy is largely uninflected and the effect is for the most part rather flat. But the ending is wonderful. After an hour and a half of nothing much happening, suddenly the wife and husband, who have been talking of divorce, find themselves separated by a crowd in a religious procession where what looks like a miracle has occurred; they reach for each other and are reconciled. The film is over before we know it. Insisting that we have witnessed a miracle, both in the procession and in the reconciliation, Gallagher argues against the sceptics (Rossellini among them), who doubt that the couple will stay together for long. Who can say? This is a photographer’s ending, seizing on a moment and letting it stand.
Stroheim was indefatigable; Rossellini was lazy. To bring us inside the space of his characters, Stroheim employed the reverse angle to the full; Rossellini devised a special kind of zoom lens, the ultimate in opera glasses, so that he could remain on the outside. Stroheim was a hatter’s son who pretended to be a nobleman, a Jew who embraced Catholicism both in his life and in the imagery of his films; Rossellini was a rich boy who pretended to be a rich man, a Catholic who kept up the faith even as he strayed. After a decade of film-making, Stroheim could find no further employment as a director; after less than two decades, Rossellini could find work only on historical films for television. Stroheim spent his last years in France, and when he was dying of cancer was awarded the Legion of Honour. Rossellini died where he was born, in Rome, of a heart attack he suffered while on his way to a lunch of his favourite dish – according to Gallagher, ‘cod fried then baked with white and tomato sauces, black olives and oregano’ – prepared by his ever loyal first wife. Hundreds of women signed the visitors’ book at his wake. His last film was a life of Christ, but his next one was to have been a life of Marx.