There is something about Erich von Stroheim’s films which are akin to a latter-day hip-hop video. Hip-hop vids are aspirational in nature. They most often show their stars enjoying a life their audience can only dream about. The MCs are surrounded by the finest women and brand names. They’re flying in private jets and anchored off St. Tropez in their yachts. They’re given the VIP treatment at the most exclusive nightclubs. They’re living out the whole Great Gatsby thing. The music video is both proof of status–your average rapper’s rise from the projects to the penthouse—and a hyper-stylized fantasy of that ascent.
When it came to making his third feature, Von Stroheim was in a similar position to Jay-Z when it came time to record “Big Pimpin’.” He had risen from an Austro-Jewish background to reinvent himself as a Prussian aristocrat in America. He had thrown a “von” in his name and dropped the “Oswald.” This was pre-Internet, so no one was checking up on him. A born hustler, he took to the nascent film industry like a prince to the polo grounds. He went from working as an advisor to D.W. Griffith to playing a Pharisee in Intolerance to directing his own films for Universal. He had scored a pair of hits–Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey–both set in a Europe built on a Hollywood back-lot and both starring von Stroheim. Where Griffith was an actor who discovered he was happiest behind the camera, Von Stroheim used his films to fashion himself into—as the promotional material for Foolish Wives had it—“the man you will love to hate.”