The Religious Affiliation of Director
Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim was born to Jewish parents, but he converted to Catholicism early in life. Although von Stroheim's personal lifestyle did not always conform to Catholic strictures, he identified himself as a Catholic and was a regular churchgoer throughout his adult life and film career. Von Stroheim infused nearly all of his film work with a strong presence of Catholic themes and imagery.
From: Richard Koszarski, "Erich von Stroheim" in World Film Directors, Volume One: 1890-1945, ed. by John Wakeman, H. W. Wilson Company: New York (1987), pages 1069-1071:
Erich Oswald Stroheim was born in Vienna on September 22, 1885. His parents, Benno Stroheim and Johanna Bondy, were practicing Jews who registered the birth of their son Erich (and later his younger brother, Bruno) in the archives of Vienna's Jewish community.
All of this would be unremarkable but for the myth regarding his origins constructed by Erich von Stroheim when he arrived trumphantly on the Hollywood scene in 1919 as the director of one of that season's most acclaimed films, Blind Husbands.
A Universal studio press release for that period announced him as "the son of a German Baroness and Austrian Count,"... [Stroheim also hid the fact that he was Jewish.]
...His first marriage, to Margaret Knox of Oakland, California, was the result of a whirlwind romance, and ultimately dissolved under the pressures of von Stroheim's inability to make a name for himself in the Bay area... They lived together at her cabin in Mill Valley for over half a year before the wedding (an unusual and unexplained breach of convention for that period)...
[page 1071] Like everyone else on the Mutual lot, von Stroheim was drafted into service on Intolerance (1916), functioning as an assistant director and taking a bit part in the Biblical sequence... He married Mae Jones, a New York seamstress... Their son, Erich von Stroheim, Jr., was born on August 25, 1916, but this marriage also failed to prosper and the couple soon separated.
From: Arthur Lennig, Stroheim, The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, Kentucky (2000), pages 4-5:
Erich Oswald Stroheim was born on September 22, 1885, the son of Benno Stroheim, who was born in Gleiwitz, in Prussian Silesia, and Johanna Bondy, born in Prague, where the two were marriedon August 3, 1884. Both parents were Jewish. After the marriage, the couple moved to Vienna, where Benno had lived since the early 1880s...
It was in a reasonably successful milieu that Erich was reared. The family adhered at least superficially to its Jewish heritage, for Erich was circumcised on September 29, 1885, according to the Israelitische Kultusgemiende in Vienna.
Lennig, page 6:
Stroheim's youth in Vienna acquianted him with various realities... he saw the high and somewhat decadent lifestyle of the aristocrats and the seethign undebody of the city--its business deals, hypocritical psotures, mistresses, and prostitutes--a teeming environment in which Hungarians and Poles and Croats, Jews and gentiles contended for survival and even mastery.
Lennig, pages 9-10:
Stroheim endured much pain as a youth. Undersized, not terribly attractive, and hampered by a Jewish ancestry in a Catholic society, he longed to be something else: an aristocrat, a hero, a Don Juan, a heavy drinker, and an apparent practicing Catholic.
What his religious beliefs were, we of course cannot know. The young Stroheim probably had little religious faith, considering his taste in plays, his interestin Freud, and his essentially rebellious nature. Having been born Jewish, claiming in his teenage years to be Protestant, and later assuming the mantle of a Roman Catholic, he undoubtedly was a skeptic, like many bright young men in Vienna. However, from at least 1915 on in America, Stroheim often attended Mass in California. Needless to say, practice did not make perfect, for his Catholicism hardly interfered with his lifestyle. However, when he married his third wife, Valerie, on October 16, 1920,the wedding took place in a Catholic church.
The frequent Catholic references in Stroheim's films could have been included for their visual appeal and for their aid in characterization rather than from any deep-seated beliefs.In short, they could have been employed as a kind of theological costuming. But some of the letters that this seemingly skeptical, worldly, and cynical man sent his wife Valerie and his son Josef in the early 1940s--a time when he was living with his mistress--are studded with phrases such as "May God grant . . ." and "My prayers" and "I am praying everyday for your welfare." However, his religious views were so intertwined with superstition, with a belief in fate and the wisdom of fortune-tellers, that they would hardly pass muster at a seminary. In short, his religious beliefs were a host of contradictions, as simple and complex as the man himself.
Lennig, page 11:
When Stroheim moved to Graz in September 1901,he was already trying to mask his background. The school's records list him as Jewish--he could not avoid the written documents--but when he reported to the police to establish his residence, he stated that he was Protestant...
A significant aspect of Stroheim's life was that he was always in some way the outsider. In Catholic Vienna, he was a Jew; in melting pot America, he was the aistocratic European; and in France, in his later life,he was a curious mixture of Austrian and American. Thus, he was always the Auslander.
Lennig, page 14:
One year later, in 1908, Stroheim again tried to enter army life, but on June 25, he was once again classified as "unsuitable for military service, unable to bear arms." Whatever dreams he had for a military career were now completely shattered. When the Bosnian crisis occurred in October 1908, Stroheim remained a civilian in Vienna at the family store and certainly was far from the machine-gun fire, the flashing swords, and the nearby passionate gypsies. Having given up hope for a military career and after perhaps going through a session of soul-searching, on November 17, 1908, he officially left the Jewish faith.
Stroheim's brother, Bruno, was no more successful with the army. IN 1910, 1911, and 1912, the military archives mention that he was a graduate of a Gymnasium and that he was employed as a bookkeeper. The army noted that he was also too weak and narrow-chested for military duty. On December 8, 1913, Bruno also left the Jewish religion. Although Jews were quite successful in Austria, there is a possibility that the weakness ascribed to both Stroheim boys might have stemmed from the military's religious prejudice. However, a five-foot-six-inch fellow like Erich would be at a disadvantage with a six-foot enemy. Incidentally, not long after, on February 5, 1914, Adolf Hitler was rejected by the Austrian military as being also "too weak" and thus "unable to bear ams."
Lennig, pages 15-16:
Johanna [Erich von Stroheim's mother] ...died at seventy-eight of age of arteriosclerosis... She was buried in the Jewish section of the Vienna cemetary.
Lennig, pages 16-17:
The year 1909 must have been full of frustration and dissatisfaction for the twenty-three-year old. He [Erich von Stroheim] wanted to do something--but he could not get a foothold... Stroheim must have taken stock of himself. Coming from the middle class, educationally deprived (a Handelschule was no recommendation for a position entailing "brains"), and born Jewish,he desperately wanted to belong to a culture that did not want him... across the sea lay America, so Stroheim made his decision. He bade farewell to his family, traveled to Bremen, took ship on November 15, 1909, and arrived in New York on November 26.
In America, he could be reborn. He could be an aristocrat, a high-ranking army officer, and a Catholic. The entry book at Ellis Island was his baptismal certificate. He crowned himself "von," and he would live up to it with a vengeance.
But when the penniles twenty-four-year-old ex-Jewish tradesman stepped off the boat on that November day, he realized that a newborn Christian aristocrat could also be hungry.
Lennig, page 22:
On February 19, 1913, Stroheim and Margaret Knox were married... The Oakland Tribune of February 21, 1913, described the wedding: "Dr. Myra Knox is making the announcement of the marriage of her daughter, Miss Margaet Knox and Erich O. von Stroheim of San Francisco, which was a quiet home ceremony at the family home on Wednesday afternoon. Rev. William Day Simmons officiated at the service in the presence of a few relatives..." [They were divorced on 28 May 1914.]
Erich von Stroheim used Catholic themes, images, and characters extensively in his films. The Heart of Humanity is one example, from: Lennig, page 53:
[Erich von Stroheim's film] The Heart of Humanity opens in an idyllic village far in the Canadian forest. A more devouit place could not be imagined. When the bell for the angelus rings in the church tower, pigeons fly out and the Catholic pray. The emphasis here is on one family, a mother with five sons in their teens and twenties. The older boys are smitten with the heroine, Nanette,the niece of Father Michael, but she likes only one of them...
Shortly after, a title informs us: "To the little shrine at the full of each moon--Nanette comes to pray." Garbed all in white, she is saying her rosary when the lieutenant approaches and glances at the shrine, then back at her. "What a beautiful picture you make--you almost convert me to your weakness," he says. To her reply, "Weakness? My religion is my strength," he responds, "Strength needs no religion--it is a religion unto itself." He adds, "Might is right, there is no place in this world for weakness." He somewhat familiarly wraps her shawl aroundher upper body and thus rinforces her similarity to a statue of the Virgin Mary in an adjoining outdoor shrine... [The] attack is thwarted by the arrival of her boyfriend... Not long after, the hero and the heroine are married by Father Michael. [Much more about the many explicit Catholic themes and images used in this film.]
Lennig, page 56:
The film [The Heart of Humanity] reflects many of Stroheim's personal concerns. The ringing bells, the Catholic milieu, the Virgin Mary and the spider, the rosses (red and otherwise), the uniforms, the mourning bands, the abject cruelty--they were all his. Obviously, director Allen Holubar listened carefully to Stroheim's suggestions, and it is these contributions that give the film texture as well as impact.
Lennig, page 60:
Feminine interviewers (many of them seasoned professionals) often ignored [von Stroheim's] evil screen image of lecher, rapist, and sadist and found Stroheim a wonderful, sensitive, and sincere man. Nor were they wrong. Even hard-bitten male journalists--those who did not pontificate about morals--were drawn to Stroheim. Richard Watts Jr., one of the few perceptive movie critics of the 1920s, later in life became personally acquainted with Stroheim. His comments after Stroheim's death capture the man astutely:
It is certainly not my intention to suggest that the outrageousness was a mask and the sensitivity the true von Stroheim. That would be a ridiculous oversimplification of an extremely comlex man. The outrageousness was very real but so was the sensitivity. A conflicting dual pattern ran through his life. The scoffer, the cynical and sophisticated mocker of conventional morals and morality, was also a mystic and a deeply religious man, whose Catholicism was no less sincere because it was mixed with a kind of pervesely sadistic diabolism. Certainly there was no hypocrisy in the intermingling of faith and cynicism. He was far too brutally frank for any such weakness.
Lennig, pages 90-91:
Another of Stroheim's major interests, as revealed in his films, was religion. Throughout his work runs a strong vein of Roman Catholic references, with which he counterpoints man's lowly actions to a pure and ideal universe.
In the imperfect world that Stroheim depicts, a world of disappintments, betrayals, and quirks of fate, religious holidays add a sardonic contrast. In Blind Husbands, the main characters arrive in the village on the Feast of the Transfiguration. In the script of Merry-Go-Round, the emperor performs the ritual of the washing of the feet of hte poor on Holy Thusday. In Greed, Trina first shows her miserliness as she purchases lilies on Easter Sunday; and in The Wedding March, the romance begins during a Corpus Christi procession.
Christmas, in particular, fascinated Stroheim. Whenever he could, he had the most depressing events occur during this season. [More about this, with examples.]
Besides these Christian holidays, Stroheim was fascinated by religious imagery. There is a quesiton about whether this imagery has true spiritual meaning for him, or whether he uses it mainly for visual interest. Whatever the reason, it certainly is pervasive. An evil deed is merely an evil deed in most films, but Stroheim contrasts such an act with something that is good, therefore adding a piquancy to the action. IN short, Stroheim was fascinated by the contrast of the sacred and the profane. [Much more.]
Lennig, pages 92-93:
In almost all of Stroheim's films, there are shots of ringing church bells (Blind Husbands, Greed, The Merry Widow, The Wedding March). In one of Greed's cut scenes, the church bell of St. Patrick's peals out on Christmas morning, right after the murder of Trina.
Stroheim was also fascinated with nuns, or with making his heroines resemble them... [many examples are given] There are also numerous men of the cloth... [many examples are given]
...Stroheim, in all his films, presents a curious mixture of religion and superstition. He seemed to adhere to Catholicism, but perhaps it was only the trappings: the ritual, the music, the incense. He did have some belief, for in letters to his wife Valerie and his son Josef during the 1940s, Stroheim made frequent references to God and said that he would pray for them. Whenhe sent a Christmas present of a gold brooch and a "lapel-hanger" to Valerie in 1942, each of which contained a pin, he revealed a belief in the old superstition that if you give something sharp to someone, you must receive coins in exchange. "Please," he wrote, "send me at once 2 cents in pennies for the 2 pins."
In his films, however, Stroheim's use of religion is perhaps more an example of superstition than genuine faith. Certainly, there is no doubt that he was superstitious. Throughout his lie, he was a strong believer in fate and, perhaps as a consequence, also believed in fortune-tellers. He regularly went to "psychists" and made major carer movies according to their advice. In his letters, he often cited their predictions and their accuracy. He strongly beleived that there is some kind of destiny that shapes our lives, a belief that runs throughout his scripts. He felt that somehow man was predistined, squirm and twist as we humans may.
Stroheim's palm print appeared in an odd book called Cheiro's Complete Palmistry, along with those of many notable people, among them Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish,and Sergei Eisenstein.
Lennig, page 94:
Stroheim also includes many other aspects of superstition [in his films. Many examples given.]
Lennig, page 98:
His [Erich von Stroheim's] unique appearance on screen was not just a trick necessary for his profession. When, in 1909, the young immigrant baptized himself von Stroheim [i.e., he added "von" to his name at Ellis Island, and henceforth identified himself as a Catholic], he began a lifelong career, both off screen and on, of playacting. An essential part of this new role demanded a facade that he maintained throughout his life. This image hid a man who was well aware that he was not tall and handsome, not a Christian, and, at least in his accent, not an aristocrat with cultured speech. But he could overcome these drawbacks by his "acting clothes" and his somewhat assumed manners.
A scene from Erich von Stroheim's film The Pinnacle, from: Lennig, page 111:
That night, the village celebrates the Festival of the Transfiguration. This church holiday, taking places on August 6, commemorates Christ's ascent of Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John, where he was transfigured before them (Matt. 17:2). Christ ascends the mountain to become closer to God, and that spiritual joining is revealed through his transfiguration. Steuben, in a somewhat sacrilegious analog, climbs a mountain for a very different reason, not to commune with God but to cohabit with woman. His purpose is to conquer the mountain, not to make a spiritual journey and to becomeone with the universe. Steuben, too, will be transfigured--not by the radiance of God, but by cowardice.
Lennig, page 119:
Stroheim was quite aware of his lecherous side and, indeed, took pride in it, but there was also another side, one that was sensitive, poetic, and sincere. He could not reconcile these aspects--most humans cannot--and so, in his art he tried, at times, to separate them. He knew that in some ways he was [his character] von Steuben, that he was a rotter. But he also felt guilty about this "bad" side, and so would kill off his persona in Blind Husbands and, later, Foolish Wives. Perhaps,his wooing of Margaret Knox in the mountains and the ugly collapse of their marriage haunted his imagination and caused him to write this scenario. His guilt--Catholic? Jewish?--necessitated that he be strongly punished.
Lennig's biography of Erich von Stroheim features extensive details about the Catholic, religious elements in his films, far more than has been excerpted or alluded to here.
From: Ruth Wing, "Erich von Stroheim" excerpt from Blue Book of the Screen (1923); compiled for web by David B. Pearson and Graceann Maciolek (2004-2005); on "Silent Ladies and Gents" website (http://silentgents.com/DVonStroheim.html; viewed 4 July 2005):
For two years and a half he lived a hazardous and hand-to-mouth existence, walking back and forth from Los Angeles to Hollywood when he was playing in pictures and usually going without lunch.
He was on the point of giving up, when he was engaged as assistant director for John Emerson. He had his first really big opportunity, however, in playing German and Austrian officers after this country had gone into the war. In Griffith's "Hearts of the World" and Holubar's "Heart of Humanity," he played important roles. During the war Von Stroheim also served the United States Government in a very important manner by giving them detailed secret service information.
Since that time he has gone rapidly ahead, making the most of all his handicaps. And while he has played innumerable times the part of a cad and roue, has even been starred in these parts, he is of a very religious nature. In fact, he attributes his success to his faith in the divine power.
Webpage created 20 June 2005. Last modified 12 August 2005.
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