When the director of the Toronto Film Festival came on stage to announce the screening of Erich von Stroheim’s “The Merry Widow” with a live orchestra, he said it was his favorite screening of the festival. Mine too. Looking again at this 1925 masterpiece, in the light of all the new product inundating the Toronto screens in the course of the festival, one can’t help wishing there were more films like this been shown on these screens. Black and white, silent, old, but who cares?
This lollypop of a story, originally wrapped in Franz Lehar’s syrupy music that swept the Viennese off their feet a century ago, is almost impossibly twisted around into one of those cynical, mercilessly ironical satires von Stroheim was so keen on. Lehar’s music, revisited by Arnold Schoenberg would have sounded probably the same, a jarring, sardonic masquerade of the sweet fashionable sounds that mellifluously melted in the ear. Not exactly the kind of sounds the capital of the waltz expected to accompany the rags to riches tale of dancing girl who is first humiliated, when the nobleman she has fallen for is prevented by his family to marry her, and later has her revenge, when, as the widow of the richest man in the country, she is courted by all the noblemen who had jilted or dishonored her before.
Stroheim can spare no sympathy for any of the characters in his film, neither for the charmingly arrogant Prince Danilo who grabs every presentable woman in sight and forces himself on her, expecting to be thanked for having noticed her at all, nor for the silly goose Sally O’Hara who bats her eyelashes, thinks she knows men but is doomed to be their patsy, whether she is poor, in the first half of the picture, or the rich merry widow in the second. And these are the heroes of the story. As for the gruesome Crown Prince Mirko with his hyena smirk, or his mother, the Queen, who grins contentedly inside her many chins after she convinces her nephew to give up true love, they obviously represent everything von Stroheim despised – as any of his films will attest. One wonders why he insisted on the “von” monicker in his name, or was that just one more indication of self-hatred on his behalf?
And then, there is the direction. Every frame crammed with details, like a Breughel painting, every detail alive and meaningful and underlined by inserted cuts to stress their importance. On the one hand, the grand stand scenes of marches and coronations, the country feast in the first half and the Maxim’s set-up in the second part, on the other hand, the intimate scenes, like Sally being courted under the table by the two royal cousins or the two blindfolded musicians accompanying Danilo’s assiduous boudoir advances. There is so much spite in every scene, so much desire to imply that even the noblest actions are wrapped in nefarious intentions, it almost bursts through the screen.
In Toronto, the orchestra played Lehar’s original music. Languid, vapid, melodious, everything the film isn’t. Which is just as it should be. After all, weren’t all the great silent film makers, at the time when sound was introduced, argue that if it is to be used at all, which in principle they didn’t recommend, it should always add another dimension to the picture, provide a contrast that will force the audience to reflect? No idea how much reflection was done at the Toronto screening, but the right ingredients for it were surely there.
© FIPRESCI 2003