by Steve Habrat
There is much to behold and be repulsed at in Italian director Luchino Visconti’s erotic and melodramatic The Damned. Mirroring the rise and fall of Nazi Germany in a wealthy industrialist family, The Damned is an immensely profound film, slower than molasses and extremely homoerotic, certainly not a film for a mainstream viewer and only for a cinephile. At 155 minutes, Visconti puts quite a bit on our plate from the very beginning and does not hesitate to wear you out by attempting to keep up with everything that plays out in The Damned. It certainly had me at the brink of taking a time out half way through it to gather myself for the second act. A highly acclaimed film, The Damned is a hearty examination of what caused the Nazi party to cave in on itself, the perfidy, selfishness, corruption, and perversion that caused what was seen by many at the time as an unstoppable machine to rust and malfunction. As I watched The Damned, I became concerned with how all of these events were going to pay off and how they were going to affect me. On one hand, I was disturbed by the despicable nature of these monsters but on the other, I was saddened by their greed and deceit, their willingness to cut each other’s throats without blinking an eye.
The Damned introduces us to the members of the von Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family who is now facing the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany. The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Played by Albrecht Schoenhals) calls a meeting on the night of the Reichstag fire to discuss the future of the family and their company. After a spat about doing business with the Nazi party, the Baron ends up murdered. The vice president of the family firm, Herbert Thalmann (Played by Umberto Orsini), who detests the Nazi party, is framed for the murder of the baron and he ends up fleeing the Gestapo. The uncouth SA officer Konstantin (Played by René Koldehoff) takes control of the family firm in the wake of the baron’s death. When Konstantin takes control, a battle begins within the family about who will get control over Konstantin. The showdown sucks in Konstantin’s disinterested son Gunther (Played by Renaud Verley), the scheming widow of the Baron’s only son Sophie (Played by Ingrid Thulin), Sophie’s new lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Played by Dirk Bogarde), and her sinister and pedophilic son Martin (Played by Helmut Berger). Playing the family members against each other is SS officer Aschenbach (Played by Helmut Griem), who is only interested in convincing the family to partner with the Nazi party so they can use them for weapons manufacturing.
The Damned is an epic film that is proficiently made and ends up being a soaring force. The cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi is absolutely spectacular as they are largely working within a moody mansion where the family members lurk in the shadows and plot against one another. They approach the material with a soft focus, making the film seems like a bloody and ominous soap opera rather than a full-blown drama. The film should be shown in film school for it’s lighting, as it has to be some of the most dazzlingly lighting I have ever laid eyes on outside of an Ingmar Bergman film. At times, it resembles a film noir and then at times, it is lit in bright reds, indicating to the viewer that we are in a hellish nightmare. I also found the way that Visconti would suddenly push his camera in at his characters to be an interesting choice, one where he pushes the viewer right into the personal space of these vile individuals. At times, I wanted to be as far away from them as I possible could.
The Damned also features a legendary performance from Helmut Berger as the bisexual Martin, a frightening drug addicted pedophile that sexually assaults his mother and performs a dance routine in drag. A good majority of The Damned’s run time is shared with Martin and his decadent ways, the film becoming a faint study of a disturbed man in addition to the parallel that it already is. Yet even in all of his devilish ways, Martin is quite a sympathetic character due to the neglect he faces from his selfish mother. He is all but forgotten by the family and when he tries to express himself, he is met with eye rolling disgust from the conservative Baron, who is not very amused by his drag routine. Would things be different for Martin if he had someone genuinely accept and pay attention to him? Would he choose the path the he ultimately does? It’s possible and maybe some of his unforgivable actions would have been avoided. I have always been fascinated by films that force us to get inside the mind of the villain and The Damned ends up being one of those films, but Berger is so persuasive as Martin, allowing himself to get lost in the role, I really wanted out of his mind and to not have to look at his wicked eyes.
I will agree that The Damned is essential viewing for those who wish to study cinema or have a strong interest in the history of Nazi Germany. The film devises ways to work in real events, adding to the epic nature of the film. One scene places us right inside the “Night of the Long Knives,” which was when the SS massacred members of the SA, who were growing dissatisfied with Hitler . The way the scene plays out, heavy on the homoeroticism at first and then the slow build up to a flurry of bullets and death is a testament to how to properly mount tension within a motion picture. Next to Martin’s drag performance, it is one of the film’s highlight moments. The Damned, however, does begin to feel its length and those with a short attention span need to be warned before jumping into this. There are lots of extended conversations between tons of characters, making the task of keeping up with every scheme a real chore. I usually don’t have much of a problem sitting through long films but there were moments that were agonizing to endure. After the film ended, I realized that certain moments are agonizing because of their subject matter and depraved disposition, especially when Martin rapes his mother. The film was met with quite a bit of controversy when it was released and it is certainly not difficult to see why. The film is still harrowing to this day, especially the sequences of implied pedophilia. The Damned is never monotonous but rather the subject matter itself weighs heavy on the viewer, as it should. No one ever said that mingling with the devil and his minions was a walk in the park, and that is just what The Damned forces us to do.
The Damned is now available on DVD.