Director: Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The Damned, Luchino Visconti’s loose history of Germany’s dynastic Krupps family during the consolidation of Hitler’s power in the mid 1930s is a difficult film to pigeonhole. Not a war film, it talks about munitions manufacture and Hitler’s plans for conquest. One of the few films to earn an X rating, its subject matter is more disturbing for censors than its nudity, and it almost certainly would not receive an NC-17 rating today. Italianate in its operatic richness and byzantine melodrama, it has a distinctly German feel, reveling in the drab, amoral squalor that infests the minds and actions of most of its characters. Most certainly a family drama, it indicts the entire, rotting hulk of privilege and shows how easily swayed and dominated it could be at the hands of common (in the class sense) thugs with uncommon ambition. Were we inclined to feel pity for the passing of a more genteel era, that impulse is squashed like a cockroach by Visconti’s extended scenes of depravity and decadence that almost seem to be the raison d’être for the film.
The Damned begins, fittingly, with hellfire images of the steelworks on which the Von Essenbeck family (the Krupps steelworks were in Essen) has built its fortunes over the centuries fabricating, among other things, weapons. The family is set to celebrate patriarch Joaquin Von Essenbeck’s (Albrecht Schönhals) birthday with dinner and homemade entertainment provided Joaquin’s grandchildren: Thilde and Erika (Karin Mittendorf and Valentina Ricci), the young daughters of Joaquin’s daughter, Elisabeth Thallman (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Herbert, vice president of the steelworks; Martin Von Essenbeck (Helmut Berger), son of Joaquin’s beloved, dead son and his widow Sophie (Ingrid Thulin); and Gunther Von Essenbeck (Renaud Verley), son of Joaquin’s son Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff), a brownshirt SA officer who already sports a swastika on his lapel. Speeding toward the dinner are Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), an executive at the steelworks, and Herr Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), a cousin to the privileged family and an officer in the SS. Bruckmann and Aschenbach discuss how Frederick, who has been carrying on an affair with Sophie, can rise to power in the new Reich by stepping over the Von Essenbecks to assume control of the steelworks.
The first shock of the evening comes when Joaquin, having enjoyed the recitations of his granddaughters and cello solo of Gunther, is confronted with Martin dressed like Sally Bowles and singing and strutting lasciviously for all he’s worth. The performance is cut short by the evening’s second shock—the announcement that the Reichstag has been set on fire. Joaquin delivers another blow, to Herbert, when he sizes up the political circumstances this attack on the Reichstag signals and announces that to curry favor with the Nazis, he is replacing Herbert as vice president with Konstantin. Herbert, a vehement anti-Nazi, storms off and prepares to leave the country, feeling his place is no longer secure. Indeed it isn’t. The SS storm the Von Essenbeck mansion that very night, and Herbert must flee for the nearby border. In the meantime, Frederick has taken Herbert’s gun and shot Joaquin, pinning the murder on Herbert.
From this point on, Elisabeth is a virtual prisoner at the Von Essenbeck estate as Sophie plots like Lady MacBeth to see Frederick best Konstantin for total control of the steelworks. Like the MacBeths, Frederick and Sophie’s hubris will be their ruin, but indeed, the Von Essenbecks are as doomed as the Third Reich they tried oafishly to play. The full dinner table at which Joaquin was toasted will eventually seat only one diner, as the rest are killed, arrested, or driven mad.
The film is constructed as a series of extended set pieces. Visconti’s most elegantly filmed sequence—the birthday performance and dinner—is a signature one for him realized most fully in the ball sequence in The Leopard (1963). Unlike the Prince and his aristocratic family, however, the Von in Essenbeck is more window dressing than breeding; Joaquin and his forebears were industrialists who thought more about the steelworks than their honor. As such, their splendid festivities look rather shabby and bourgeois. In another contrasting sequence between the two films and families, whereas the Prince visits his mistress in town resplendently dressed and liveried, the perverted Martin, dressed like a dandy, visits a prostitute who has given him the key to her flat and finding a young Jewish girl next door, proceeds over successive days to seduce her. Watching the little girl throw her arms around his neck and plant kisses all over his face is a pretty disgusting display made worse by his ecstatic response.
In a power play that parallels Frederick’s move for the steelworks, the SS, with Hitler’s blessing, prepares to liquidate its competition—the SA. Visconti shoots a very long scene of the SA gathering in Bad Wiessee that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. As SA officers pour into the town and the town’s alcohol pours into them, the link between the beer hall and German fascism comes blazing into focus. The men get drunker and drunker, start pawing the barmaids, attempt to rape one, dress up in slips, garters, and bras, and eventually end up having sex with each other in the brothel-like upstairs of the inn. Although the sequence is carefully edited to depict the events of the day and night, their cumulative effect and a fairly stripped-down, verité look make the scene seem like one (extremely) long take, one reminiscent of Visconti’s extravagantly decadent, though much less base scene in the Venus grotto in his 1971 film Ludwig (which, incidentally, also starred Helmut Berger in another sexually decadent, though much more sympathetic role as The Swan King).
The liquidation represents the climax of the film, but Visconti lets it dribble on for about another half hour in order to ensure the complete destruction of the family. Unfortunately, the script kind of devolves as well, nearly destroying the film. Auschenbach becomes less a fanatical human and more a mustache-twisting cartoon, tempting Gunther to hate and tucking him under his black cape. Martin, having driven his mother mad by raping her, arranges a long-awaited marriage between her and Frederick. Sophie moves like a zombie into the grand ballroom where Martin first donned his drag outfit for the entertainment of Joaquin, her face ghostly white, as though she were a medieval victim of small pox covering her scars. Our last view of her is grotesque, which rather unfairly suggests that she deserves to be held up for special humiliation. None of the Von Essenbecks, including the beautifully elegant, but willfully blind Elisabeth, deserve our admiration, at least not in this film.
The actors strain valiantly to realize this high melodrama with some semblance of truth, but none escapes unscathed, not even the great Dirk Bogarde, who is called on to depict shrill egomania. Schönhals acquits himself best of the entire cast, fully embodying a pragmatic man of appetites. Berger is to Visconti what Kinski is to Herzog, so it’s hard to judge his performance apart from his persona. The print I saw projected was atrocious—scratchy and pink, with the entire SA liquidation scene in unsubtitled German. Fortunately, Warner Home Video has released a decent DVD of the film.
This film has been panned by many people, but I found something hypnotic in the languorous set pieces whose utter decadence addressed the moral rot of the elites and power brokers of 1930s Germany in a way other approaches could not.