Luchino Visconti has one of the most intriguing backgrounds of all directors, he is after all the aristocrat who sold off priceless family heirlooms to make Marxist, neorealist films, an anecdote that best illustrates some of the paradoxes that underline him as an artist. He was an aesthete drawn to wealth and the extravagance and material goods it provides, but with an acute understanding of class structure and self-awareness of his position within it. In his masterpiece The Leopard (1963), he looks at the dismantling and decay of the ruling aristocratic class with a mixture of personal sadness but also understanding, not regret but rather resignation that progressive social forces have fast-tracked the inevitable. That film was clearly a turning point in his career – a culmination of his work, and by far his most ambitious film.1 He would never again turn to the travails of the working classes, such as in his early films Ossessione, La Terra Trema and as late as Rocco and His Brothers in 1960.
In the years following his Palme d’Or winner, he would complete two smaller projects – a mostly unsuccessful, literal adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Stranger with a miscast Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Karina, and a small chamber piece Sandra with Claudia Cardinale. As if conserving energy and resources over those years, he would then return with The Damned, once more a film of sprawling ambition and unflinching vision – although with an X rating in the US and mixed critical reception.2 His passion project wasn’t appreciated – or even seen – by all moviegoers. Its canonical status now is no more secure; it has been trashed and praised in equal measure and nearly fifty years later, both its flaws and merits seem more pronounced than ever.
Any discussion of The Damned needs The Leopard and Visconti’s own personality as clear points of reference. After completing the cinematic last word on the Italian risorgimento, it seems intuitive that Visconti would turn to another turning point in European history, being the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany and the impending chaos which would soon envelop Germany and most of the developed world. The film opens with one of the most disingenuous all persons fictitious disclaimer in film history as we are enter the house of the von Essenbecks, a powerful steelmaking dynasty in 1930s Germany that is a thinly-veiled reference to the still-active Krupp family, a cheeky moniker even more egregious considering they were famously based in Essen. To say we are introduced to the family at the start of the film seems overly generous; we are thrown in medias res among a host of characters and we proceed to spend an inordinate amount of the film’s runtime trying to figure out exactly what the different relationships are, and more crucially, what each character wants. The murder of patriarch Joachim and drag performance by Martin (Helmut Berger) as Marlene Dietrich, the film’s most iconic image, in the opening minutes only further the disorientation we feel as we enter the film.
Probably the closest film predecessor to something like Game of Thrones, the rest of the film is dedicated to intra-family betrayal, murder and relationships both professional and sexual, and the cowardliness and selfishness as they try to wrest control of the company, ignorant to the far greater sociopolitical currents around them, dwarfing their petty melodramas. Stakeholders include the SA-associated Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff), executor of the business after Joachim’s death, SS-affiliated Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), and most importantly, Martin’s mother (Ingrid Thulin) and her lover Freidrich (matinee-idol-turned-arthouse-star Dirk Bogarde). Visconti clearly feels a kinship with these tragic figures, though not a literal one as with The Leopard – the closest would be the deposed, anti-Nazi aristocratic figure of Joachim, effective in his early scenes and aware that his time is up, leaving control to his younger, hungrier relatives, who in literally entering into business with tyranny, damn themselves. The feeling of impending doom hangs over these characters like the dark shadows Visconti shoots most of the scenes in, their personal lives inextricably linked to the fate of Germany in the coming decade, though their destruction will come first.
The film is peppered by references to key events, all of which coincide with drama in the main characters’ lives, including the Reichstag fire, and most notoriously the Night of the Long Knives, reimagined as an homoerotic orgy that is probably the most arresting and indulgent sequence in Visconti’s oeuvre, and the very moment when the film either goes off the rails completely as Visconti goes insane and takes the whole cast with him, or when it switches up a notch and goes further into the dark recesses and ridiculous symbolism that the film is ultimately interested in. For me it is both, and this scene captures the key paradox of the film as a whole – both impossible to take completely seriously, but too brazen and compelling in its outrageousness to dismiss. Almost singlehandedly spawning the entirety of the surprisingly prolific subgenre of Nazi sexploitation, the film’s perversions do seem jarring and silly at points to a contemporary audience, especially regarding Martin. Helmut Berger (Visconti’s real-life partner until his death in 1976) gives a chilling, brilliant performance as the entitled, sociopathic heir to the company, but whose wide range of sexual proclivities seems designed to provoke rather than give any real psychological insight, though he’s never less than captivating.
The film essentially provides great fodder for either side of the auteurism debate. For better or worse, The Damned is Visconti’s vision at its most excessive and indulgent, a manifestation of his genius or a cautionary tale of giving arthouse mavericks unfettered money and artistic license. The narrative of The Damned is complicated, and aside from its dramatic pleasures, mostly inconsequential. Furthermore, some of its thematic points and parallels in terms of contexualising the von Essenbecks with the wider social movements that brought forth Nazism feel vague and undeveloped, though are provocative and interesting enough to chew on. In the end it is the singular look and feel of the film that’s most unforgettable. Aside from a shot taken inside a steelworks over the opening credits, we don’t actually see any of the operations of the company, nor do we ever venture down to the common people in this vital time period of German history. Instead we spend the majority of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour duration inside the lavish mansion, cavernous and ornate, Visconti’s legendary perfectionism and eye for detail providing a gorgeous backdrop for the drama within. The original Italian title, La caduta degli dei (“The Fall of the Gods”) suggests how we are to read the film, as something similar to a Greek myth of warring gods, a hyperbolic illustration of the egos and passions of these characters, writ large and all-encompassing on Visconti’s canvas.
Secluded from the wider world, this mansion becomes an effective visual metaphor for their own exclusionary milieu, as well as indicative of their psychological states, shot in increasingly expressionistic lighting and shadow, a constantly moving and zooming camera prodding at and exposing their inner turmoil. Visconti was a lover and accomplished director of opera as well as film, and though he had used the world of opera more literally in films like Senso and Le Notti Bianchi, The Damned is the most extreme use of the passions and excesses of opera that is key to understanding Visconti’s art; of melodrama and histrionics set to a backdrop of key historical events but captured on their own private stage. The final act is a sensory overload with overbearing lush reds, slivers of brilliant blue and an enveloping darkness that becomes almost a character in itself, providing a vision of bourgeois myopia that borders on the eschatological. Long untethered from the plane of reality, the film reaches its peak in its descent into the absurd and impressionistic. There’s something very effective in how Visconti’s methods reinforce the film’s meanings in a metatextual way; as he appears to lose his grip on the control of the film’s narrative and thematic arcs and relapse into his most decadent tendencies and obsessions, so too do the characters with their own personal ambitions and desires.
In this way, I return to The Leopard. Burt Lancaster’s Prince of Salina undergoes a process of self-awareness that is one of the most moving in the history in cinema. As I mentioned earlier, as he accepts his own fate, mortality and limitations, he finds some solace and peace. He sees his own aspirations dwarfed by wider historical forces, aware that his entire existence and privilege are ultimately insignificant. The titular damned of his later film lack this, in the face of far greater sociopolitical upheaval, and see no further than the end of their nose, or ego, or genitalia in their paralysing bourgeois myopia. The characters of The Leopard are the ones that call a cab and leave the spiralling party before shit hits the fan, while the characters in The Damned are the ones that obliviously go on a bender and see it through to the disastrous end. Their respective engagement with history –perhaps the true protagonist in the former, the antagonist in the latter – is the fascinating takeaway from Visconti as an artist. The use of history-as-metaphor is particularly obvious in this film, but Visconti posits the argument that we can only truly understand history as far as we can understand the individuals affected, which is to say, not much at all.
In its garish aesthetic, queer sensibility and exploration of Germany’s greatest cultural trauma, it comes as little surprise that this was the favourite film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who called it “perhaps the greatest film, the film that I think means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theatre.”3 Consider two other films on Fassbinder’s widely published Top 10: Pasolini’s Salo: 120 Days of Sodom and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Were those two to have a baby you’d be somewhere in the ballpark of describing The Damned. The single closest film I can think to equate it to, however, is Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind. Similar in plot (a family industrial dynasty melodrama) as well as in outrageous excess, if not the best of either filmmaker’s work they at least show flashes of their brilliance, with their respective auteurs at their least restrained. The Damned is a flawed, fascinating beast; enjoyed most as a sumptuous, twisted vision of human excess and folly in the face of extreme circumstance. Spectacular, ridiculous, horrifying and utterly transfixing.
Jake Moody: I may have bent the rules of this column somewhat for this You Have To See.., in that I put my hand up here for a film I was already dying to see, rather than volunteering as the impressionable blank state we’re nominally supposed to be. I’ll give myself a pass though; I couldn’t resist taking part in the discussion on one of the last major Visconti films I hadn’t seen. Considering the palpable late-Visconti historical requiem atmosphere with which The Damned is imbued, the film is a peculiar, striking and singular experience. As Brad describes it, it’s “both impossible to take completely seriously, but too brazen and compelling in its outrageousness to dismiss.” Visually somehow both ostentatious and muted, tonally at times both baroque and abrasive, and concerned so obviously with both reality and fantasy, it’s a strange, chimeric work, and one where in my view Visconti’s real message remains far more elusive than in his other work. I agree that it strikes a dark and pointed contrast against The Leopard, as though the very values and ideas contained within the first film had been transposed into negative rather than its colour palette; and that Visconti’s modus operandi involves “key historical events…captured on their own private stage,” in this case the palatial von Essenbeck mansion, whose early depiction resembles Gosford Park but whose late mood is more Downfall.
I’m not so sure, though, that the characters’ infighting is intended to scale the film down to an intense portrait of the human chaos which accompanied the rise of the Third Reich, but that maybe it’s instead there – all the backstabbing, orgiastic goosestepping, and motherfucking – to scale it up, to a tale operatic in its absurdity. As Brad points out, the sexual escapades of the von Essenbeck heir Martin do appear intended more to provoke than possessing meaning in their specific nature. I’d argue that the Sam Peckinpah bloodbath which approximates the Night of the Long Knives, Dirk Bogarde’s Friedrich Bruckmann flying into apoplexy as his new empire crumbles, and the increasing debauchery occurring on the furniture and in the closets of the von Essenbeck palace all occupy the same space. As the world goes madder around them, the powerful and privileged join in for the ride. It’s not the most literate explanation for Nazism, but I can’t do any better. I think, too, that there is an element of cyclism that adds the feeling of impending doom. The death of old Joachim is superseded in the narrative at around the two-thirds point by Friedrich’s wily ascension feels a lot like a metaphor for the death of the aristocracy in favour of a new order of self-made jackals capitalising on the rise of the Reich. Instead, the end of the film, with the horrifying Martin destroying his mother and stepfather in his new SS guise, points to a more doom-laden idea: death throes of the old establishment have let in another, far greater one. The steelworks shot that opens the film is not, in fact, the only one – The Damned closes on a similar furnace-and-sparks sequence. First the von Essenbecks made machines to build a nation, now they make cannons to destroy them. Sitting and thinking too much about a film like The Damned will drive you mad, given time. Paradoxically, it’s this fact that guides me to agree that You Have To See it.
Andrej Trbojevic: To my discredit, this was my first Visconti, a figure that had acquired a status as the Laius of Italian neorealism among my friends/family/aspiring aesthetes, so expectations were naturally high. Nothing short of maddening brilliance and epiphanic insight into the goings-on of homo sapiens was what I had hoped. A counterpart to Pasolini’s Teorema, for example, similarly preoccupied with the insular rot of bourgeois subjectivity, but that found poetry in the loneliness of volcanoes and denuded business owners. In my opinion this film fell well short.
I feel like this is the closest I’ll get to ever seeing a snuff movie; that feeling of having your conscience sullied, of recognising that one’s “humanity” is not an abstraction of religion and philosophy but very real when you feel it debased second-hand as a spectator to filth. The dangling feet of a violated young girl is one of the many images that singes your retina after watching this movie, merely one of Martin’s many victims. Of course that’s the point of this film. Art shouldn’t make human depravity palatable and consumable, like Schindler’s List. In this sense, The Damned retains its integrity. As a monogram of the chicanery employed by evil, it is excellent, and will help the viewer navigate a world manned by psychopaths. From my layman’s reading, it’s also a highly plausible account of how capital, embodied in these industrial dynasties, made a pact with the burgeoning National Socialist movement when it eventually heard the ka-ching! of war around the corner. Comparisons to Macbeth are apt. Power makes people loopy and this film reminds us of this immutable fact as well as any other. I found the downfall arc of the plot less incoherent than did Brad.
But as cinema it’s rubbish. First of all, the score is reprehensible. One hears a jaunty flute over lush chamber orchestration when you see a close-up of Martin’s sociopathic leer. What in the actual fuck. The entire film is stained by this incongruous, pointless score, and as such, it’s symptomatic of the film. I have a gripe with films that exclusively focus on elite pricks. Most recently I had this problem with Nightcrawler. What is the justification of focusing solely on such antipathetic characters? The outcome will inexorably be audience apathy. The zoom that is frequently employed seems hopelessly passé, and many of the setpieces and mise-en-scène are terribly contrived. As Brad mentioned, this is due in part to Visconti’s love and mastery of opera. But perhaps the single greatest flaw of this film is its awry conflation of the two domains. When watching opera, the bombast is forgiven in the contract. But opera’s histrionics only make light of what is not just a disaster but the greatest ever tragedy in human history. And this is perhaps what makes the film so unforgiveably amiss: its moral decrepitude. This I think is most obvious in the missed opportunity to develop the plights of Charlotte Rampling’s character, who is damned to a senseless off-screen fictional death in Dachau. The fate of the children is left unresolved. Clearly not of sufficient import. The final shot is risible and corny and pisses on every cinematic achievement ever.
As such, the film can’t compare to other superior examinations of Nazi Germany: the Faustian moral turmoil of Mephisto, where the light is never totally snuffed; or to the palpable sense of history’s kidnapping in the brilliant bunker drama Downfall. Or to Sophie Scholl. Let alone the subtle examination of the sadistic, Protestant origins of it all in The White Ribbon.
One last thing that must be mentioned is that the film doesn’t appropriate Greek tragedy so much as Norse, German mythology, the pinnacle being Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle. Götterdämmerung is more than apocalypse, the twilight of the idols where character becomes total disaster. The scorched Valhalla symbolises the growth that comes unwittingly from annihilation, where destruction sows the seeds of renewal. Nowhere do you get this ambiguous provenance of the new in The Damned.
You don’t have to see this film at all. Read Kershaw’s Hitler biographies and listen to the Birthday Party’s Götterdämmerung for a more inspired appropriation of hell.