Stroheim was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1885 as Erich Oswald Stroheim, (some sources give Hans Erich Maria Stroheim von Nordenwall, but this seems to have been an assumed name, see below), the son of Benno Stroheim, a middle-class hat-maker, and Johanna Bondy, both of whom were observant Jews.
Stroheim emigrated to America at the end of 1909. On arrival at Ellis Island, he claimed to be Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, the son of Austrian nobility like the characters he played in his films, but both Billy Wilder and Stroheim's agent Paul Kohner claimed that he spoke with a decidedly lower-class Austrian accent. Jean Renoir writes in his memoirs: “Stroheim spoke hardly any German. He had to study his lines like a schoolboy learning a foreign language.” Later, while living in Europe, Stroheim claimed in published remarks to have "forgotten" his native tongue. In Renoir's movie la Grande Illusion, Stroheim speaks German with a strong American accent.
However, the fashion photographer Helmut Newton, whose first language was German, used a clip from a Stroheim film on which to base one of his fantasy nude photographs, and he has commented that in the clip Stroheim speaks "a very special kind of Prussian officer lingo - it's very abrupt: it's very, very funny".
By 1914 he was working in Hollywood. He began working in movies in bit-parts and as a consultant on German culture and fashion. His first film, in 1915, was The Country Boy in which he was uncredited. His first credited role came in Old Heidelberg.
He began working with D. W. Griffith, taking uncredited roles in Intolerance. Additionally, Stroheim acted as one of the many assistant directors on Intolerance, a film remembered in part for its huge cast of extras. Later, with America's entry into World War I, he played sneering German villains in such films as Sylvia of the Secret Service and The Hun Within. In The Heart of Humanity, he tears the buttons from a nurse's uniform with his teeth, and when disturbed by a crying baby, throws it out of a window.
Following the end of the war, Stroheim turned to writing and then directed his own script for Blind Husbands in 1919. He also starred in the film. As a director, Stroheim was known to be dictatorial and demanding, often antagonizing his actors. He is considered one of the greatest directors of the silent era, creating films that represent cynical and romantic views of human nature. (In the 1932 film The Lost Squadron Stroheim played a parody of himself as a fanatic German film director making a World War I movie who orders extras playing dead soldiers to "Stay dead!")
His next directorial efforts were the lost film The Devil's Pass Key (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), in which he also starred. Studio publicity for Foolish Wives claimed that it was the first film to cost one million dollars.
In 1923, Stroheim began work on Merry-Go-Round. He cast the American actor Norman Kerry as Count Franz Maximilian von Hohenegg, a part written for himself, and newcomer Mary Philbin in the lead actress role. However studio executive Irving Thalberg fired Stroheim during filming and replaced him with director Rupert Julian.
Probably Stroheim's best remembered work as a director is Greed, a detailed filming of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. He originally started it as a project with Samuel Goldwyn's Goldwyn Pictures. Stroheim had long wanted to do a film version of the book. He originally intended it to be a highly detailed reproduction of the original, shot mostly at the locations described in the book in San Francisco and Death Valley. Von Stroheim shot in San Francisco with his actors in period dress and Silent Movie makeup while the city itself was represented in its modern form. Automobiles can be seen in the background of some scenes and any "extras" or passersby are in (what was for the time) modern clothing. When the production did move to Death Valley it was in the middle of summer. Greed is also considered by some film historians to be the first feature-length film shot on location. The original print ran for an astonishing 10 hours. Knowing this version was far too long, Stroheim cut out almost half the footage, reducing it to a six-hour version to be shown over two nights. It was still deemed too long, so Stroheim and director Rex Ingram edited it into a four-hour version that could be shown in two parts.
However, in the midst of filming, Goldwyn was bought by Marcus Loew and merged into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After rejecting Stroheim's attempts to cut it to less than three hours, MGM removed Greed from his control and gave it to head scriptwriter June Mathis, with orders to cut it down to a manageable length. Mathis gave the print to a routine cutter, who reduced it to 2.5 hours. In what is considered one of the greatest losses in cinema history, a janitor destroyed the cut footage.
The shortened release version was a box-office failure, and was angrily disowned by Stroheim. In particular, he blamed Mathis for destroying his pet project, since she was credited as a writer due to contractual obligations. However, Mathis had worked with Stroheim before and had long admired him, so it is not likely she would have indiscriminately butchered his film. The film was partially reconstructed in 1999 by Producer Rick Schmidlin, using the existing footage mixed with surviving still photographs, but the original cut of Greed has passed into cinema lore as a lost masterpiece.
Stroheim followed with a commercial project, The Merry Widow (his most commercially successful film) and the more personal The Wedding March and the now-lost The Honeymoon.
Stroheim's unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his extreme attention to detail, his insistence on near-total artistic freedom and the resulting costs of his films led to fights with the studios. As time went on he received fewer directing opportunities.
In 1929, Stroheim was dismissed as the director of the film Queen Kelly after disagreements with star Gloria Swanson and producer and financier Joseph P. Kennedy over the mounting costs of the film and Stroheim's introduction of indecent subject matter into the film's scenario.
After Queen Kelly and Walking Down Broadway, a project from which Stroheim was also dismissed, Stroheim returned to working principally as an actor, in both American and French films. He appeared as a guest star in the 1953 anthology drama television series Orient Express in the episode entitled The Man of Many Skins.
Working in France on the eve of World War II, Stroheim was prepared to direct the film La dame blanche from his own story and screenplay. Jean Renoir wrote the dialogue, Jacques Becker was to be assistant director and Stroheim himself, Louis Jouvet and Jean-Louis Barrault were to be the featured actors. Max Cossvan was to produce the film for Demo-Film. The production was prevented by the outbreak of the war on September 1, 1939, and Stroheim returned to the United States.
Stroheim is perhaps best known as an actor for his role as Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937) and as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).
For the latter film, which co-starred Gloria Swanson, Stroheim was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Excerpts from Queen Kelly were used in the film. The Mayerling character states that he used to be one of the three great directors of the silent era, along with D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille; many film critics agree that Stroheim was indeed one of the great early directors. Stroheim's character in Sunset Boulevard thus had an autobiographical basis that reflected the humiliations suffered through his career.
Stroheim was married three times. He was married to Margaret Knox from 1913 to 1915; His second marriage was to Mae Jones from 1916 to 1919. He was never divorced from his third wife Valerie Germonprez, though he lived with actress Denise Vernac, from 1939 until his death. Vernac also starred with him in several films. Two of Stroheim's sons eventually joined the film business: Erich Jr. (1916–1968) as an assistant director and Josef (1922–2002) as a sound editor.
Stroheim spent the last part of his life in France, where his silent film work was much admired by artists in the French film industry. In France he acted in films, wrote several novels that were published in French, and worked on various unrealized film projects. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor (Légion d'honneur) shortly before his death.
In 1956, Stroheim began to suffer severe back pain that was diagnosed as cancer. He eventually became paralyzed and was carried to his drawing room to receive the Legion of Honor award from an official delegation. He died at his chateau in Maurepas near Paris on May 12, 1957 at age 71, accompanied by his longtime lover, Denise Vernac.
"Lubitsch shows you first the king on the throne, then as he is in the bedroom. I show you the king in the bedroom so you'll know just what he is when you see him on his throne."
"If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film fifty years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you "maître". They do not forget. In Hollywood—in Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture. If you didn't have one in production within the last three months, you're forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this."