Home    Film   My Art    Art     Other: (Travel, Rants, Obits)    Links    About    Contact

Erich von Stroheim's review of Citizen Kane, reproduced below in its entirety and without any corrections, appeared in an arts periodical titled "DECISION," with the subtitle "a review of free culture," founded and edited by Klaus Mann at least in part in reaction to the Nazi occupation of much of Europe. This review appeared in Volume 1, Number 6, June 1941, pp. 91-93; the journal only lasted for twelve issues. I obtained it as digital images of the pages from a rare-periodicals dealer who thought it might interest me. Von Stroheim expert Richard Koszarski wrote me that "it's quite revealing. He did another article for that journal...on movie censorship. Both essays were mainly about himself." As far as I can tell, it is very hard to find, and so I make it available here. Fred Camper
Citizen Kane, by Erich von Stroheim

This is perhaps the first criticism of a film ever written by a film-maker who coincidentally also in his time like Orson Welles played the "Holy Trinity." In our case "Trinity" means that the functions of the Writer, Director, and Star are combined in one person. The man executing these three functions in any case has a gigantic job on his hands which can only be fully appreciated by someone who actually has attempted the same. In fact, Orson Welles went me one better as he was also the Producer. And the Producer Welles permitted without grumbling the Director Welles to execute what the Writer Welles had planned to do. And Director Welles allowed the Actor Welles to do as he pleased.

As the man who plays the "Super. Trinity" earns the applause practically alone provided the finished product is a worthy one so must he solely take the blame should one or more of his endeavors not have functioned properly.

In the case of "Citizen Kane," Welles had to take the blame for the malfunctioning of the "story" and Herman G. Mankiewicz may take a goodly share of it for himself. If Mankiewicz wrote the original screen-play as the program announces, then Welles is to blame for not demanding changes and supplementary scenes as well as the omission of existing repetitious ones. If his objections were overruled, he deserves the blame nevertheless for not insisting on those changes. In the souvenir program we are told that Welles "shot" for one week or so "wild," meaning without script. One cannot direct from the "cuff" any longer and perhaps that has something to do with the evident shortcomings of the continuity.

To criticize that film justly is a tough job. Usually, most of the critics simply state their opinion that a film is good, bad or indifferent, but they have not specific knowledge of what makes a film good or bad. It may be the story or only the continuity that is wrong. It may be the direction or the acting. Many times the director gets the blame for a bad story or continuity, although he had nothing to do with them, but had done the best anyone could have done with the material at hand. Actors are blamed for a bad performance when in fact they only did what they were ordered to do by their director. Although Welles did all these things himself, in criticizing his work one must specify in which be has failed.

I shall start (contrary to Welles's technic) at the beginning with the basic element of a film the story. As a story proper "Citizen Kane" has much to criticize. It is neither big nor vital enough to justify the tremendous outlay of work, time and money which can easily be recognized even by a layman. It is just another story of an over-ambitious man; in this particular case a newspaper publisher, who incidentally aspires to become governor. A man who has built a vast newspaper empire only to see it crumble. A man who collects anything and everything from the four corners of the globe without being in the slightest interested in anything be collects. A man who deserts his wife and child only to be deserted in the end by the woman for whom be deserted. In a way he has ideals at the start, but he has not the necessary character to live up to them. Citizen Kane really cares for three things only; Kane, KANE and K A N E!

There is nothing particularly new in all that. It has happened thousands of times in real life, and it has been filmed many times. And the same mistake made in previous films has been repeated. The laboratory analysis under the microscope of Citizen Kane's heart and soul has been forgotten.

No man is so utterly selfish and hardboiled that one cannot find some redeeming feature in his motivations, his actions and reactions. Except for the singularly beautiful incident of "Rosebud," the name of his boyhood sleigh which he utters as he dies, there is not one touch in the film that would tend to make Kane human and understandable. To make a man's insatiable ambition, his cruel selfishness and his ruthlessness really understandable and interesting, one should have visual reasons for his having developed into such a monster.

To be truthful, during the first twenty minutes of viewing the film, I, who have been thirty years in this business of making films, did not know what it was all about. I may be dumb, but I have asked at least fifty people who in more or less articulate form described the same experience. I may be hyper-conservative or just plain old fashioned, but I believe in all sincerity that the form of telling the story of Citizen Kane is not the desired or successful form in which to tell a screen story. All of us have been accustomed to hear or to see a story start at the beginning. Welles's way of telling the story may have its place in a novel or on the stage, but I am convinced that in the cinema it is entirely out of place.

Of course I understand that Kane having been a newspaper publisher, Welles treated his death from a newspaper angle in short staccato flashes. I do not object to that, but I do object to his beginning with Kane's death. Far be it from me to rewrite the story but I do believe that the story might have been so arranged that Kane's death could have been shown in the old traditional way at the end. Its sacrifice of simplicity to eccentricity robs the film of its general entertainment value. Aside from this criticism of the shortcomings of the story and the radical departures in telling same, I have nothing but the highest praise for the film. The production as a whole can only be classified as superb. The direction and may I say here that only the initiated will ever understand bow much work and responsibility "direction" embraces-is masterful; except for allowing Erskin Sandford to look like a character out of Dickens.

Aside from Welles himself, the laurels for acting go to Everest Sloane as "Bernstein" who is magnificent in his human simplicity, Joseph Cotton as "Jedediah Leland" is excellent, except for the military white "mustache" the make-up man was permitted to paste on his upper-lip in the sanatorium scene. He looks more like a sergeant of artillery in the old soldiers' home than the idealist he was supposed to portray. Ruth Warrick as the wife gives as "wifely" a performance as may be desired in order to justify somewhat her husband leaving her. Dorothy Comingore as the "singer" sweetheart is very good and in several scenes quite touching in her vulgarity. The rest of the cast, all of which are Mercury players, none of whom I have ever seen on the screen before, give splendid performances. The sets of Van Nest Polglase never distract. The castle sets are magnificent, and so realistic that at times I wondered whether they had really been constructed for the film, or Hearst's castle at Saint Simon had actually been used. The lighting and the photography deserve the highest praise. They prove my contention of long ago that even in sound films we can achieve artistic and beautiful photography assisting and accentuating the drama, which since the advent of sound has been so shamefully neglected. Naturally there are some ignorami (including some film critics) who have called this photography shadowy and spooky. The trouble is that they have been so over-fed with lousy photography since the silent films went out that they have come to believe photography has to be lousy. My high hat off and a very deep bow to Gregg Toland and Vernon L. Walker, A.S.C. The sound in this film is as sound should be.

The "stink" raised by Louella Parsons all over the country about "Citizen Kane" supposedly being the more or less authentic life-history of Citizen William Randolf Hearst and his supposed objection to having the film shown, the supposed attempt of certain Hollywood producers to chip in large sums of money to repay R.K.O. if they would refrain from releasing the film, the supposed objections raised and restrictions imposed by the Hays office . . . to me is a decidedly "fishy" one. Much more do I, and many others with whom I have talked, believe that this was a very clever advertising scheme that came out of the fertile brain of Citizen Welles who, in my opinion, would make as great a director of publicity as he has proven himself to be a director in the film. Whatever the truth may be about it, "Citizen Kane" is a great picture and will go down in screen history. More power to Welles!

Erich von Stroheim

Home    Film   My Art    Art     Other: (Travel, Rants, Obits)    Links    About    Contact