BILLY Wilder was making his second film as a director, a wartime drama called ''Five Graves to Cairo,'' when he got the chance to meet Erich von Stroheim, who would be playing Field Marshal Rommel in the film. Wilder was thrilled to meet the man who was considered one of the greatest of the silent film directors.
''You were 10 years ahead of your time,'' said Wilder by way of greeting.
''Twenty,'' von Stroheim corrected.
In his book ''The Man You Loved to Hate,'' film historian Richard Koszarski gives us the evidence to buttress von Stroheim's high opinion of himself. Today von Stroheim is remembered, if at all, as Norma Desmond's butler in ''Sunset Boulevard'' (also directed by Wilder). This is like remembering Orson Welles for his television commercials. Von Stroheim was a competent actor, and his performances in the Wilder films and Jean Renoir's ''Grand Illusion''' are certainly among his most memorable. However, there was a time in the 1920s when Erich von Stroheim was considered not only an important film director, but one of the first true film artists. Tragically, it was this very artistic vision that led to his downfall.
Erich von Stroheim entered the American film industry in its infancy, working first as an extra and eventually as an actor for the man who would be one of his biggest influences, D. W. Griffith. Like Griffith, he came to believe that moviemaking was about one person putting his imprint on everything that appeared on the screen. The director was like the author of a book. One didn't change or shorten a story because the cost of typing paper went up, nor, according to this outlook, should the director compromise his artistic vision.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood studios were developing a very different theory of filmmaking. In the eyes of people like Irving Thalberg (who before his death at 37 was to become one of MGM's greatest production chiefs), it was the producer who should run the show, keeping one eye on the budget. The director was merely another employee of the studio.
Koszarski shows us the clash of these two styles, as his book surveys the nine films that von Stroheim directed. It gives one pause to realize that not one of these films exists today in the form that he intended. One film, ''The Devil's Passkey,'' one of his earliest successes, is considered permanently lost. Unless someone turns up a copy in an attic, no one will ever get to see this film again.
Each film is given its own chapter, wherein Koszarski reconstructs the film as von Stroheim conceived it and shows why we will never see it that way. For some of his earlier films, the answer is quite simple. In the 1930s the studio rented out shortened 16-millimeter versions of their old silent films, and the film that got cut was destroyed. Koszarski tracks down each film and shows how, in some instances, prints that were thought to be complete by the Museum of Modern Art (that is, as the original audiences saw the film) were in fact these cut-down abridgments.
The most famous of all of von Stroheim's films, ''Greed,'' which is based on Frank Norris's novel ''McTeague,'' originally ran for 91/2 hours, impossibly long even by today's standards. Von Stroheim hoped that the film could be exhibited in two showings, but the studio insisted it be cut. To film historians , the original ''Greed'' has become the Holy Grail. All we have now is a film that runs about two hours and tantalizing quotations from those few who were lucky enough to have seen the original.
''I saw a wonderful picture the other day - that no one will ever see,'' wrote Harry Carr, who would later collaborate on von Stroheim's ''The Wedding March.'' ''It was the unslaughtered version of Eric (sic) von Stroheim's 'Greed.' . . . We went into the projecting room at 10:30 in the morning; we staggered out at 8:00 that night. . . . Episodes come along that you think have no bearing on the story, then 12 or 14 reels later it hits you with a crash. For stark, terrible realism and marvelous artistry, it is the greatest picture I have ever seen.''
Carr was a von Stroheim partisan, but even he realized the problems that were posed by the film, declaring, ''I can't imagine what they are going to do with it.'' What the studio did is one of the biggest tragedies of film history. After cutting and recutting the film until they got a version they could live with, they destroyed the leftover film.
Although tantalizing rumors of secret copies of the complete ''Greed'' surface from time to time, we are left with what Koszarski characterizes as an ''amazing, though imperfect, film.''
It is frustrating enough to read a biographical and critical analysis of a film director with the knowledge that the films are temporarily unavailable. In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, film students knew they had to be patient and that ''Rear Window'' and ''Vertigo'' would eventually be re-released, as they have been. With Erich von Stroheim we have to make do with badly edited abridgments.
The ongoing debate over film is whether it is primarily an art or a business. Certainly few art forms have the tremendous start-up costs that a typical film has. A director who hopes to survive has to learn how to create his vision within the confines of his budget or, as in the case of von Stroheim, he will soon find himself without any financing.
We can accept this as one of the sad but true facts of film art. All we can really ask is that when someone of von Stroheim's caliber does commit his vision to film, some attempt be made to preserve his creation. One of the most celebrated failures of recent years, the uncut version of Michael Cimino's ''Heaven's Gate,'' is suddenly finding its audience through cable TV and the videocassette market.
We can only speculate how a von Stroheim would fare in modern Hollywood. We can be grateful that Richard Koszarski has given us, albeit through the printed word, a chance to see von Stroheim's films as he intended.