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Although Billy Wilder cast two actors who had studied the Stanislavsky system to play the leads in the 1943 World War II drama Five Graves to Cairo, it was an actor who had learned on the job while creating his own personal mythology who gave them all a lesson in acting. Erich von Stroheim may have looked nothing like his real life character, Field Marshall Rommel, but he turned in a richly detailed performance that, at least briefly, put him back on top of the Hollywood heap as "The Man You Love to Hate."
Wilder had done so well with his first directing assignment, The Major and the Minor (1942), that he and writing partner Charles Brackett were given the chance to produce their own films for Paramount Studios. Searching through properties the studio already owned, he spotted powerful possibilities in Hotel Imperial, a play by Hungarian playwright Lajos Biro, who had written some of the most successful films of Wilder's idol, Ernst Lubitsch. The 1917 play was set in a border town between Poland and the Ukraine during World War I, and told of an Austrian officer trapped behind Russian lines who takes the place of a dead waiter only to discover the man is a spy. Paramount had originally filmed the play as a silent in 1927, with Swedish legend Mauritz Stiller at the helm and Pola Negri as the chambermaid who helps hide the Austrian officer. The studio had attempted to remake it twice in the '30s, first with Marlene Dietrich, who walked off the production after a few days, then with Margaret Sullavan, who was sidelined by a broken arm. They finally released a remake in 1939 with Isa Miranda and Ray Milland. Both of those versions bore the play's original title and kept its World War I setting.
Seeing that the play would work with a more contemporary setting, Wilder moved the action to Egypt, which gave him the idea of casting von Stroheim as Rommel. The young director had been a fan of the Austrian director since the '20s, when Wilder was a struggling journalist and screenwriter in Berlin and von Stroheim an acclaimed director whose career was already being jeopardized by the visionary nature of his work. At the time, Wilder had written him an adoring fan letter begging for an autographed picture, which he would frame as soon as it arrived.
Von Stroheim was happy to accept the role, with its echoes of the villainous Germans he had played on screen during World War I. His directing career had long since faded and he had not received a directing credit since being fired from Hello, Sister! . Instead he had found work as a character actor, with his greatest success coming as the morose German POW commander in Jean Renoir's classic La Grande Illusion (1937), the performance that had convinced Wilder he was perfect for Five Graves to Cairo. At the time Paramount offered him the role, he was touring as Jonathan Brewster, the murderous brother in Arsenic and Old Lace. He gave notice with great relief and began sending Wilder script suggestions.
Wilder was all too happy to entertain ideas from his idol. On the day von Stroheim arrived on location, the director raced to the wardrobe department to greet him. Wilder said, "This is a very big moment in my life...that I should now be directing the great Stroheim. Your problem, I guess, was that you were ten years ahead of your time." To which von Stroheim said, "Twenty."
Von Stroheim had gotten permission from Paramount to design his own costume and makeup for the film. Whereas the real Rommel always dressed casually in loose-fitting uniforms, von Stroheim insisted on wearing "a uniform as it is supposed to be worn." Reasoning that the Field Marshal never removed his cap outside, he insisted that makeup give him a sunburn only from the eyes down. And after studying pictures of Rommel, he insisted that he carry authentic German field glasses and a Leica camera loaded with 35 mm film. When Wilder questioned his wanting film in the camera when it would never be seen, he shot back, "An audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false."
Wilder responded to von Stroheim's presence by showcasing his performance throughout the film. For the actor's first appearance, Wilder had him shot from the back of the neck until the scene was established, later arguing that "Standing with his stiff fat neck in the foreground he could express more than almost any actor with his face." He also allowed the actor to use a scene-stealing prop, a whisk with which to brush off flies, turn aside objects and, at one point, threaten leading lady Anne Baxter.
Although von Stroheim clearly dominates Five Graves to Cairo and got the best reviews, the other stars got their share of applause. Franchot Tone, who had studied with the Stanislavsky-influenced Group Theatre, was focusing primarily on stage work at the time, having completed a frustrating contract at MGM. Wilder would later say that he could not stand the actor, possibly because of the drinking problem Tone had begun to develop at that point. Baxter had also trained in the Stanislavsky system, working with his former student Maria Ouspenskaya in New York. Although Ingrid Bergman had been first choice for the role, Wilder was delighted with Baxter's performance, which helped the newcomer's visibility in Hollywood. But it was von Stroheim who got the most out of Five Graves to Cairo. His performance renewed interest in his work, at least as a character actor, and led to another villainous Nazi role in producer Sam Goldwyn's The North Star (1943). When Wilder needed someone to play Max, the one-time directing genius in Sunset Boulevard (1950), von Stroheim was the only possible actor for the role.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Brackett, Wilder
Based on the play Hotel Imperial by Lajos Biros
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegte
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Franchot Tone (John J. Bramble), Anne Baxter (Mouche), Akim Tamiroff (Farid), Erich von Stroheim (Field Marshal Rommel), Peter Van Eyck (Lt. Schwegler), Fortunio Bonanova (Gen. Sebastiano), Konstantin Shayne (Maj. Von Buelow), Miles Mander (British Colonel), Ian Keith (British Captain), Philip Ahlm (2nd Soldier).
by Frank Miller
Stroheim by Arthur Lennig
Billy Wilder in Hollywood by Maurice Zolotow