Jul 14, 2023

On DVD/Blu-Ray: Erich von Stroheim's Impeccable Foolish Wives (1922) is Impeccably Restored


If there’s anything that screams out for a 4K restoration, it’s an Erich von Stroheim film, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and The Museum of Modern Art have done so in a stunning collaboration, now available on DVD/Blu-ray from Flicker Alley. Full of elaborate scenes and meticulously-constructed details, Foolish Wives (1922) is typical of the director’s craft and a wonder to see with such clarity. 

Touted as the first one-million-dollar film, a figure far from the original budget, Foolish Wives shows all of that on the screen. Director, writer, and star von Stroheim is a slippery con man who calls himself Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin and scams wealthy wives in glamorous settings. Here it’s Monte Carlo, actually a luxurious set constructed in Northern California, but you wouldn’t know it. 

The fake count is partners in crime with his supposed cousins who go by Princess" Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch) and "Her Highness" Olga Petchnikoff (Maude George). They are tended to by their maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller), whom Sergius takes advantage of in every way. 

This convincingly glamorous trio does its best to strip high society for parts, targeting victims with the focus of a billionaire buying up failing corporations. They have no heart or ambition beyond acquiring wealth and it is ultimately a losing proposition for them, but they have a merry time going to hell. 

Von Stroheim films their journey with a sense of eroticism and sensation, in addition to luxuriating in the lush surroundings. It’s such a decadent setting that it’s a bit shocking when he slows down to show reverence to a World War I vet who is an amputee. As one of the Count’s victims waits to be whisked to him in the night, she sees the armless man, and tenderly places a cape that has fallen to the ground on his shoulders again. 

It is moments like these that give von Stroheim’s work the feeling of being truly rooted in life, despite their outrageous settings and characters. Whatever sensations he pursues, he doesn’t look at them with tunnel vision, any drama has another story happening alongside of it. It’s a testament to the richness and complexity of his work. There simply has never been a filmmaker quite like this and we are fortunate to be able to see his work presented so beautifully over one hundred years after he put it on film. 

The Flicker Alley print is jawdropping in its clarity. I couldn't believe how clean and clear it looked. The set includes a lot of helpful and illuminating bonus material, including the archival Filming Foolish Wives (1922), the documentary The Waves and Merry-Go-Round: On Location with Erich von Stroheim, and the wonderfully detailed Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood’s First Million-Dollar Picture. All are essential viewing, because the production of the film is as interesting as the work itself. I also appreciated the essays in the accompanying booklet, including Searching for Foolish Wives: The Decades-Long Effort to Reconstruct Erich con Stroheim’s Masterpiece by James Layton. 

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing the set for review.

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