Erich von Stroheim
We landed at Natal. Despite the fine weather, the crossing from Dakar had become tiring and it was with a childlike joy that we made the approach to Brazilian land. However, the instruction not to move pinned us back onto our seats; confined in this way we underwent an elaborate insect control with ruthless, potent sprays. At first we could see the funny side; after all a yellow fever carrier could have fluttered into our luggage during the stopover in Africa, or hidden in our clothes… Then we covered our faces with our handkerchiefs because it was difficult to breathe with the relentless spraying that the kindly faces of the disinfection officials could no longer persuade us to tolerate. Finally, after ten minutes, everyone started coughing, suffocating slowly, trying to avoid a bronchial attack…
I thought of Stroheim, who was already ill, and whose lungs and heart had been put sorely to the test. A little later, just to make matters worse, a two-hour storm as we were flying from Natal to Rio meant that we saw the most awe-inspiring battle, clouds torn apart with bolts of lightning, looking as if they would annihilate the aeroplane with every tremendous explosion within a 100km radius.
Between drops into the void we had the impression that the lightning was merrily coming through the windows, which hardly reassured even those who felt able to explain the theory behind Faraday’s cage. With torrential rain preventing us from landing at Rio, we had to press on without a stopover to São Paolo where, on our arrival, exhaustion added to the effort of an enthusiastic welcome and the inevitable long wait before we reached the much anticipated accommodation, where the stars could finally find some rest.
Nevertheless, a few days later, thanks to the ceaseless devotion of Denise Vernac, Stroheim was able to get up and unveil the most striking photographic exhibition of his work at the art gallery, a complete collection brought together which, thanks to the efforts of the French and Brazilian film institutes, allowed the power of the great Austrian director to be recreated. The inventory of documentary material and the artistry of the exhibition mounted by the Brazilians created a series of clashes which made the variety, the reality, the rawness, the poetry of an unparalleled continuity of thought and action appear in a new light, even in the eyes of the best informed specialists. This bond between actor and director, of such uncommon intensity, firmly consolidated the years of cinematic and social expression. Given this impressive standpoint, we did not know what to admire most, the unstoppable domination of the subject, the sets or the characters. And at two o’clock in the morning, crowded into the festival palace, thousands of Brazilian spectators from all walks of life offered an unforgettable tribute to the man. Thanks to the founder of the French film institute, Henri Langlois, and his colleagues who had worked night and day to reconstruct Stroheim’s films completely, we could view the “Symphonie nuptiale”, in particular, synchronized with the musical score played at the time by the Paramount orchestra in Paris.
But if the cascade of praise brought a lump to my throat with more than thirty years of memories, it couldn’t be that which made the rest of the room breathless: rather it was the discovery of a life’s work – work which swept away all of the mediocrity, the clichés, failed attempts and dishonourable behaviour which have always governed the film industry. The overwhelming enthusiasm of which Stroheim became the focus made him consider the lasting, unforgettable place which he held among us. On his feet, tears in his eyes, the mask lowered for once, Stroheim reached an understanding, became aware of a certainty… For he might have doubted. Driven out of Hollywood, which would later lose Chaplin and which ground down many others in the struggle between morality and money, he could have believed that the body of his work had been forgotten, while it stood out as the most extensive and most complete of lessons for all film-makers, in every respect.
What he was to go on to do later, in France in particular, was only an extension of his life, not of his art; he could not find here the climate of vital strength to convey his personality. He had even exhausted Hollywood, which had then refused him the chance to pursue his awe-inspiring dreams. It is pointless to tell us that he was too expensive, that he made marathon films, or that he was bad-tempered: we couldn’t care less about any of that. He was prevented – and he wasn’t the only one – from excelling himself; his work was cut short; he was trampled underfoot. It is not possible to spring back from that.
When such a man comes along, we should make everything available to him. And we should not evade the issue – to the extent of criticising his attitude to the city. A prisoner of his striking, brutal, cynical roles, Stroheim hid behind this hallmark which certainly concealed a heightened sensibility; when he was ill he retreated into the role of a sick man, impassive, lofty, detached in the presence of a third party. And one day he detached himself from life, with tears in his eyes…
Jean Painlevé, First published as 'Eric von Stroheim' in Lettres Françaises, n°671, 16 May 1957, p1,7.