January 20, 1922 [Foolish Wives]

Although the War is over, Erich von Stroheim, his monocle glinting, still wanders the corpse-strewn battlefield, picking pockets, pecking at whatever flesh remains.

All right, so we’re supposed to “love to hate” him. And he complies, behind the camera as well as before it--perhaps too well. He rubs our noses in it--in him--with such Freudian glee that even the ghastly ends his villains meet are so arrogant in their sadism that I can hear him laughing at me even as he is crushed and tossed into the sewer.

And more: he constructs his films with determined depravity, apt and engrossing in their smallest detail--his Monte Carlo in Foolish Wives lives and breathes in every preening Count and Countess (real or imagined), every wandering child and wheelchair-bound veteran, every lamp-lit salon and festival pond--but all of it reeking with the odor of our new, dank world, suffused with sexual anxiety and the cold irresistible feel of a fetish stroked, a taboo broken.

The opulence of Monaco is ruled by a roulette wheel, watched avidly, a whim--no, a compulsion--to which everything surrenders. And the brutality of things--the miserable servant “ruined” by von Stroheim’s Karamzin, the armless veteran unable to observe Continental etiquette and retrieve the lady’s dropped book, the counterfeiter Ventucci with his idiot child--again, watched avidly, Karamzin licking his thin lips as he considers what we must conclude is her flavor. Von Stroheim piles it up, like the dead of those battlefields his celluloid Hun had tromped a few years back.

It is, in a terrible way, simply the twentieth century, a dark precipice--one at whose edge we stand breathlessly--but von Stroheim, ruthless prankster that he is, sneaks up and shoves us over, like the servant girl in despair. Karamzin drinks his cologne, his “cousins” hover like painted harpies, the old woman, Karamzin’s accomplice, cackles in her hovel like a witch (with attendant familiars: frogs and owls and a goat--Karamzin's alter ego?), and the “foolish” wife must plummet from literal fire to save herself from her impulse, drawn like metal shavings toward a magnet.

It is this attraction that von Stroheim encourages. Karamzin hates everything, even himself--but giggles and leers the whole while. He is the literal author of his story: The American wife reads a book entitled Foolish Wives by one “Erich von Stroheim.” And the part he writes for himself is a reverse-Valentino, a fetish-male (all medals and epaulets, leather and swords) to the Sheik’s flowing, florid fetish-female. Foolish Wives, though, is all polymorhphous perversity--no lover here, just a peeping freak, mocking us with our own instinctual urges.

When he approaches Ventucci’s daughter, it is pure vampirism: He enters the window, and she recoils in her bed, the flat bars of light lying on her like the stripes of a whipping. This is the heart of a von Stroheim film: the extremes of appetite indulged--and all the comeuppances in the world cannot remove the taste of it from my mouth, bitter in its sweetness, rotten and salty. It is the ugly hidden motive of movie-going, and the sooner we all admit that our horror of von Stroheim is the worst kind of mirror-gazing, the better off we’ll be--as we keep going, making our play like Monte Carlo gamblers, laughing too loud, with an acid belch at the end.

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