Mad Max: As a director, Erich von Stroheim enjoyed playing the role of the tantrum-throwing genius.

February 27, 2000, By Jeanine Basinger, New York Times.

STROHEIM By Arthur Lennig. Illustrated. 514 pp. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. $30.

For many people, there is no Erich von Stroheim. There is only Max von Mayerling, Norma Desmond's faithful dogsbody in ''Sunset Boulevard.'' Max drives the car, pushes the drinks cart and plays the organ -- with his white gloves on -- but he used to be a great silent film director, proof of which is put up on the screen in the form of one of Norma's movies, ''Queen Kelly.''

Max, of course, was unforgettably played by von Stroheim, himself a once great director of the real ''Queen Kelly,'' starring the actress who plays Norma, Gloria Swanson. This Pirandellian setup uses von Stroheim to authenticate the role of Max, and the joke cuts so close it's almost a mockery. But von Stroheim rises above it, keeping an ironic distance. He makes Max both weird and tragic, and gives him an insane dignity that suggests he has a perfect touch of madcap humor underneath. Von Stroheim always knew how to master satire, and he certainly knew how to portray a legend. He had been doing it all his life.

Erich von Stroheim is one of silent film's most colorful characters. Short and stout yet commanding in presence, he was one of a kind in three categories: writer, director, actor. (His sound counterpart would be Orson Welles, another flamboyant stylist whose off-screen legend almost swamped his reputation.) Von Stroheim's movies were marred by studio interference, censorship fights and Hollywood's worst fear: out-of-control extravagance. In the land of waste, von Stroheim was the King of Wretched Excess. Or so his legend says.

Von Stroheim had first found acting fame during World War I, which offered him the opportunity to play ''horrible Huns'' in movies like ''The Heart of Humanity,'' in which he throws a baby out a window. (The inconsiderate infant was bawling, interrupting his rape of a Red Cross nurse.) Embracing uncompromising evil, he learned how to dramatize himself both on screen and off, blending real and unreal effectively and erasing the line between reality and performance. As an actor he became a director, shaping the character Jean Renoir assigned him in ''Grand Illusion'' by dressing himself in an ornate uniform, a black armband and a neck brace and decorating his quarters with riding crops, a Champagne bucket and a potted geranium (''the only flower in the fortress''). As a director he became an actor, playing the role of mad genius with a European accent, allegedly throwing tantrums and demanding an unachievable level of perfection. By the time he stepped up to play Mad Max, the role had almost become his epitaph.

Despite the self-dramatization, however, the movies von Stroheim directed are the real thing. He was a master at presenting a world filled with corruption, sensuality, decay -- all the good movie stuff. His favorite characters are neglected wives, lascivious counts and husbands who do not have a clue -- a recipe equally for comedy or tragedy. Von Stroheim chose neither but managed to give us both; he told his stories with a contempt for convention that is still startling today. He was a director who could understand the ludicrous, the tragic and the terrifying as a single event. He had seen it happen with his own wife when she went into a chic Hollywood beauty parlor for an in-vogue ''dry shampoo,'' only to have the solution burst into flames on her head, turning her into a human torch. In an attempt to smother the fire, an attendant grabbed a fur coat belonging to a star who was present. ''Not my coat!'' she screamed, snatching it back. (His wife survived, but was hospitalized for weeks.) Never burdened by modesty, von Stroheim boasted that his films were 20 years ahead of their time. It is perhaps more accurate to say they are detached from time, and thus timeless.

A man like this needs a great biographer. Arthur Lennig, a respected film historian, is more of a chronicler, with a passionate determination to set all the records straight. (His obsession with detail is not unlike von Stroheim's.) He defines the common themes of von Stroheim's movies and describes his working methods, his precise scripts and his decisive planning -- von Stroheim said his movies were ''worked out with a Swiss watchmaker's precision.'' (Lennig, whose respect does not impair his critical senses, comments, ''Unfortunately, Stroheim may have intended to make a wristwatch, but he invariably ended up with a grandfather clock.'')

Calling his subject ''a fibber incarnate,'' Lennig delineates in detail how von Stroheim ''gave birth to himself.'' Knowing that the aristocratic ''von'' was a gift the man gave himself, Lennig titles his book ''Stroheim'' and always sternly refers to him that way. He stops at nothing to correct any casually accepted anecdote posing as truth. Since von Stroheim always claimed military schooling (as well as bloody campaigns, service in Mexico and various wild rides across enemy lines), Lennig marched into the Grazer Handelsakademie, a business high school in Graz, and told the disbelieving staff they once had a famous student. After he provided them with accurate dates, they dug out von Stroheim's school records and forked them over with ''a look of chagrin.'' (Lennig sniffs parenthetically that ''Stroheim was hardly a prize scholar.'')

This story illustrates the strength and weakness of ''Stroheim.'' Lennig goes in person to check the facts, succeeding in putting his hands on the primary documents, but there is a self-congratulatory tone to his discovery, and he makes himself the hero. He sometimes seems to be fighting old battles, chiding the French film critic André Bazin and attributing current opinions to Lewis Jacobs's 1939 book, ''The Rise of the American Film.''

On the other hand, von Stroheim's is a career that needs an Arthur Lennig, because certainly no career ever needed more careful checking and tracing. Besides fudging his own personal story, von Stroheim saw his movies cut, lost, taken out of his hands or altered by others. ''The Devil's Pass Key'' (1920) is gone forever. ''Queen Kelly'' (1929), never released in its own decade, is available only in a partly restored format. ''Merry-Go-Round'' (1923) was taken over by Rupert Julian and officially credited to him, and Part 2 of ''The Wedding March'' (1928), ''The Honeymoon,'' never released in America, burned up in a mysterious fire shortly after von Stroheim's death, at the age of 71, in 1957. (Henri Langlois, the head of the Cinémathèque Française, where the fire occurred, claimed the blaze was the work of von Stroheim's restless spirit.)

''Greed'' (1924), his masterpiece, was conceived as a page-by-page adaptation of Frank Norris's novel ''McTeague'' that would run nine and a half hours, but the studio butchered it into a version that is a little over two hours. (''Greed'' has recently been reconstructed, using a 1923 continuity script to present the four-hour version von Stroheim agreed to cut himself.) To keep track of everything that happened to von Stroheim's films requires a dogged determination, and Lennig is up to that task. What Lennig's book wants is von Stroheim's pizazz. Because he is so concerned with facts and accuracy, Lennig's narrative is not as sharp as it might have been, and he never fully articulates the flair, the style or the oddball sensibility that is the essence of von Stroheim.

In ''Queen Kelly,'' a handsome prince and his troops laugh at Gloria Swanson, an innocent convent girl, when her bloomers fall down around her ankles. When she boldly picks these undies up and flings them in the prince's face, only to have him respond in delight, sniffing them delicately and tucking them inside his jacket for future reference, the result is an amazing mixture of shock, humor, sensuality, love, embarrassment, fear and kinky pleasure.

Lennig's lifelong devotion to von Stroheim was probably motivated by such viewing emotions, but his greatest tribute to his subject may be that, like von Stroheim, he made a grandfather clock. Lennig's creation is heavy with detail, but definitely a labor of love.

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, is the author of ''Silent Stars.''

Buy the book!

Stroheim, by Lennig, Arthur

Read about Stroheim's masterpiece, Greed.

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