1885: A Nice Jewish Boy Who Would Act the Evil Hun Is Born

Erich von Stroheim wasn't a German, or a nobleman, or a sadist, or much of a soldier, but he was one hell of a liar.

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Erich von Stroheim: actor, director, screenwriter, producer. Image of actor in black and white smiling at camera.
Erich von Stroheim: actor, director, screenwriter, producer. Credit: Wikicommons
David Green
David B. Green

September 22, 1885, is the birthdate of Erich von Stroheim – the sadistic, monocle-wearing Hun military officer who ate babies for breakfast.

Or so he allowed himself to be presented on the screen during World War I. In fact, Von Stroheim was a Jewish boy from Vienna who had appropriated the particle “von” to his name to appear to be of noble ancestry; who never advanced beyond the rank of “private,” not in the Austrian army nor in the American; and who rarely told the same story about himself twice.  

Dueling scar, not exactly

Erich Stroheim was the son of Benno Stroheim and the former Johanna Bondy. Benno, Silesian-born, was a hat merchant; Johann came from Prague. Although he presented himself as both a Protestant and a Roman Catholic at various times in his life, the registry of the Jewish community of Vienna records that Erich was circumcised on September 29, the eighth day after his birth.

Beginning in 1901, Erich attended the Grazer Handelsakademie, a business high school, although he was truant from classes most of the time. In 1906, he underwent a physical for the Austrian army, which found him unfit for service.

Not one to take no for an answer, he persisted in his attempts to enlist, until, at the end of that year, he was accepted as a "one-year voluntary soldier-in-training with the title Corporal," according to von Stroheim’s biographer Arthur Lennig.  

He didn’t last a year, however, being discharged as physically unfit after five months. The scar he bore on his forehead was not from a duel, as von Stroheim claimed, but from being kicked by a horse, Lennig says.

Von Stroheim worked at his father’s hat store until 1909, when it went under the first time. Benno reopened it, but went bankrupt again in 1913, and died later that year. By then, however, his son had sailed to the United States. When he arrived at Ellis Island, in New York, he presented himself as Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall.

Still from Erich von Stroheim in Foolish Wives (1922). Credit: Wikicommons

The grand illusion

After a two-month stint in the cavalry division of the New York National Guard, von Stroheim only appeared in military uniform when he was acting.

His career in Hollywood began after he had moved to the West Coast, while working as a traveling salesman for a New York fashion house, and remained. After a brief marriage, and several short-lived jobs in the San Francisco area, he moved south in 1914, and was hired as a consultant on German culture and fashion by movie studios, which led to some bit parts in silent films.

After the start of World War I, he appeared as a German soldier in “The Heart of Humanity,” which gave him the opportunity to throw a crying baby out of a window, as well as use his teeth to rip the buttons from a nurse’s uniform.

By 1915, von Stroheim was assisting D.W. Griffith in what became his classic silent films “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance.” Within several years, he was directing films himself, but he was such a perfectionist (demanding that the underwear worn by German characters, for example, be imported from Germany), and so profligate with budgets that in 1923, Irving Thalberg, chief of production at MGM removed the film “Merry-Go-Round” from his hands midway through the filming.

The next year, it happened again, with “Greed,” which he turned in at a screening length of nine hours, and the studio cut to 140 minutes.

After he was deposed from the direction of a third film, “The Merry Widow,” in 1928, when the budget exceeded $1 million, von Stroheim, who also was not terribly pleasant to work with, no longer was asked to helm movies. He thereafter had a second career as an actor. 

Ironically, perhaps, his most memorable role may have been as the aristocratic but humane German aviator Rittmeister von Rauffenstein, in Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion” (1937), a World War I drama in which he was the opposite of a beast. Von Stroheim also portrayed Gloria Swanson’s servant Max von Mayerling in the 1950 classic “Sunset Boulevard.”

Erich von Stroheim died on May 12, 1957, in Maurepas, France, where he lived and worked in his final years.

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