THE DAMNED (1969)

the damned (1969)
Luchino Visconti’s classic tells the story of a wealthy German family’s entanglement with the Nazi regime in the early 1930s
3.5 out of 5 stars

The Italian title given to Luchino Visconti’s lurid, sordid drama of Nazi Germany’s first year says everything about the director’s aspirations: La Caduta Degli Dei, “the fall of the gods”. It confirms with its clear allusion to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung that the people in Visconti’s film aren’t to be taken literally as individual Germans in 1933. Instead, they’re symbols of the country as it slid into totalitarian horror, and symbols of the human potential for evil, whether as active participants or passive enablers. The “fall” here is partly the loss of the old-money Essenbeck family’s industrial empire to the upstart Nazis, but also a moral fall.

Still, just as Warner Bros. insisted the movie be made in English, Visconti had to settle for The Damned (a title which had confusingly been recently used by Joseph Losey in 1963) and also for a comparatively dull Maurice Jarre score where he’d wanted Wagner. Compromises like these, and the 90-minutes of cuts the director reputedly had to make to bring the movie down to a just-about-acceptable 156-minutes, mean that The Damned as we see it today must fall short of Visconti’s original vision. (Six years earlier his The Leopard, likewise filtering a pivotal moment in modern European history through a family drama, had been a full half-hour longer than the released Damned.)

But at least some of the further cuts made for various markets were restored when the movie first appeared on DVD. And for this technically superb 2K restoration, Cineteca di Bologna and the Institut Lumière of Lyon went back to the original negative, cleaning both sound and visuals so that Visconti’s lush, richly coloured, hyper-stylised images feel completely fresh. The Damned might really cry out to be seen on the big screen, but for a home-viewing, this is as good as it’s going to get.

It’s a huge movie. Not only with its runtime, but also the sense it gives that beyond its claustrophobic settings there’s a whole Germany where the machinations of the Essenbeck family members are paralleled on a wider scale in the plots and deceits and betrayals that brought Nazism itself into ascendancy. 

At the same time, it always falls just short of feeling real, even in location-shot exterior scenes with careful attention to historical detail. Realism had not been on Visconti’s filmmaking agenda for a long time, and though he shows here that he can direct conventionally exciting drama when he wants to (notably in the way that he builds up tension with the SS preparing for an assault on an SA gathering) it is clearly not his prime interest.

Indeed, the entire SS-SA episode—one of the film’s most famous—seems largely an excuse for an out-of-the-blue gay orgy, followed by immobile tableaus of men singing patriotic songs, followed in turn by scarlet blood on snow-white bedding. The point is not to bring the incident to life in a believable way, but to use it as a jumping-off point for imagery of dissolution, crude patriotism, and violence.

The result is that, while The Damned is an easy film to be impressed by, it tends to hold audiences at arm’s length, discouraging full engagement with people and events that are so OTT. This perhaps contributes to the mixture of admiration and disgust which it provokes in so many commentators: it’s an utterly beautiful film, but not a likeable one. And this isn’t only because of the queasy, grubby subject matter (which includes fairly explicit paedophilia and incest)—quite apart from their specific actions, none of its characters invites empathy in themselves.

The Damned begins in February 1933 on the night of the Reichstag fire, with the birthday party of old Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals). This family gathering forms, in effect, an immensely long introduction to the movie—nearly an hour in duration with the atmosphere as heavy as the food and as stiff as the men’s collars—but one by one we’re introduced to the key members of the Essenbeck inner circle (a thinly-disguised version of the real Krupps). Key among them are Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), the ambitious factory manager; Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), with whom he’s having an affair; and her son Martin (Helmut Berger), first seen doing a Marlene Dietrich-style drag act, to Joachim’s distaste.

Others who’ll play important parts in the film as it picks up pace and interest after this protracted opening include Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), a relative of Sophie’s who is already in the SS; Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff), an officer in the rival SA; and Herbert (Umberto Orsini), who unlike the rest is frankly anti-Nazi and warns that even those like Joachim who claim to stand above politics can’t shirk responsibility for the monster arising in their country (“Nazism is our creation, born in our factories, nourished with our money”).

The upheavals in Germany don’t dominate—news of the fire is conveyed almost casually—but a swastika and photo of Hitler in the corner of a mirror are pointedly noticed by the camera, and by the time Joachim’s murdered and Herbert is framed for the killing, it’s obvious the family is the country in microcosm. Joachim represents the old Germany figuratively destroyed in the fire, Herbert the Communist scapegoats.

Mapping the fictional characters of The Damned to historical reality shouldn’t be taken too far, however; for example, while Bogarde’s Bruckmann can for a long time be seen as suggesting Hitler or one of his closest aides (“the internal order of Germany cannot interest Europe”, he says, calm and chilling), and there are echoes of Hitler’s ultimate fate in Bruckmann’s as well, the storyline as a whole does not sustain the parallel. Indeed, while he and Sophie seem initially to be the focus of The Damned, it eventually shifts to Martin—an unforgettable performance from Berger, glowering, needy, ruthless, selfish, thoroughly corrupt. 

There are fine performances from Griem, too, as the SS man who appears mild at first but progressively reveals a terrifying commitment to the cause (“the collective thinking of our people is now complicity”, he says with delight) and Kolldehoff as the self-satisfied, self-indulgent Konstantin.

The biggest stars of The Damned, however, are Visconti’s direction and the cinematography by Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi: almost always dark, many of the interiors heavily shadowed, frequently adorned with luxurious colours, some sections more muted with the emphasis on military shades. Many shots linger on the gorgeous sets and costumes so long that their superficial sweetness turns rotten, the style as much as the story making Visconti’s point.

The Damned is hardly a subtle film. In the first shot, the camera almost descends into a vat of fire at the Essenbeck steelworks, and this blatant Hell-reference concludes the movie too. The lack of subtlety in its portrayal of Germans sinking to the moral depths—especially in the character of the sexually omnivorous, predatory Martin—and Visconti’s close attention to the particulars of depravity have left many critics dubious, too. Certainly, it’s difficult at times to be sure whether The Damned is voyeuristically prurient or simply honest, and it’s tempting to favour the first interpretation.

But it’s undoubtedly a film of great (if rather unpleasant) impact, and given that so much of that impact is visual, the outstanding 2K restoration here is precisely what The Damned needs to be judged fairly. 

ITALY • GERMANY | 1969 | 156 MINUTES | 1.33:1 • 1.66:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • GERMAN

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration.
  • Uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
  • Interview with director Luchino Visconti. An Italian TV interview (subtitled) from 1970.
  • Interviews with Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin and Charlotte Rampling. All archival material.
  • Interview with film scholar Stefano Albertini. Focusing on issues of sexuality in The Damned, this is the major new element of the Criterion reissue’s special features—and valuable for providing context to the film, especially given that there is no audio commentary
  • Visconti on Set. A 1969 documentary with some interesting and evocative footage.
  • Trailer.
  • Italian-language alternate soundtrack.
  • New English-language subtitle translation.
  • Essay by D.A. Miller. Miller is a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, with a special interest in gay issues in film studies.
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Cast & Crew

director: Luchino Visconti.
writers: Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli & Luchino Visconti.
starring: Helmut Berger, Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Umberto Orsini & Charlotte Rampling.

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