'The Damned' (1969)
One could think of it as the 'The Magnificent Ambersons' of Nazi Germany.
The nearly three hour roller coaster ride that is 'The Damned' shows the controversial Italian Director Luchino Visconti indulging in a recurrent theme of his - the moral disintegration of the family unit. In 'The Damned' (which earned an X-rating in the U.S.A. upon its original release), he focus on a particular family, the Von Essenbecks, an extremely wealthy upper-crust bunch. Set in the years 1933 - 1934, the years when the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany, the film chronicles the events which culminate in the Von Essenbecks finally throwing their lot in with the Nazi administration. They are the damned of the title - rich people having sold their souls to the devil in the name of self preservation and the possibility of even more wealth.
At the film's beginning a fancy dinner is being staged to honor the retiring patriarch (Albrecht Schoenhals) of the wealthy family of steel industrialists. (The Von Essenbecks, are loosely based on the Krupp family - whose steel empire forged the weapons of war that would play a key role in Hitler's rise to power.) These festivities come to a screeching halt when it is announced that the Reichstag is burning. From here on, the film is the story of the Von Essenbecks descent into total corruption.
Along the way we are treated to a litany of perversion; including incest, pedophilia, cross-dressing and homosexuality. The decadence of the class and the times is brilliantly captured by Visconti. 'The Damned' makes 'Cabaret' look like a family Disney musical by comparison. Lucino himself came from an Aristocratic background and his familiarity with the manners and attitudes of Old Money certainly contributed to the verisimilitude of his films. 'The Damned' is no exception.
The story culminates in the famous "night of the long knives" incident (June 30 through July 2, 1934). This was a violent purge of a group of former supporters of Hitler, the SA (Sturmabteilung), conducted by the Gestapo (German secret police) and the newly formed SS (Schutzstaffel), an elite Nazi corps. The SA were a fanatical paramilitary organization who helped Hitler get elected chancellor, but who were perceived as a threat by the Fuhrer after he assumed power. Hitler moved against the SA and its leader, Ernst Röhm, to forestall any move by leaders of the Reichswehr (the German military), to challenge his rule. The Reichswehr both feared and despised the SA, especially since Röhm made no secret of his ambition to absorb the Reichswehr into the SA (with himself as its leader, of course). Hitler also used the purge to go against conservative critics of his regime - especially those loyal to Vice-Chancellor Franz Von Papen - and to settle scores with old enemies. At least 85 people died during the purge (although the final death toll may have been in the hundreds) and more than a thousand perceived opponents were arrested. The purge succeeded in strengthening and consolidating the support of the Reichswehr for Hitler. It also provided a legal grounding for the Nazi regime, as the cowardly German courts quickly swept aside centuries of legal prohibition against extra-judicial killing. After this historic event Nazi rule would be unchallenged, and the fate of Germany, and by extension the entire world, was sealed. In 'The Damned' this historical incident is distilled into a bloody one night rampage.
But 'The Damned' is not a film about Hitler (the Fuhrer is never even seen). Neither is it an historical epic (although it is based on actual historical events.) It is instead a morality play about what happens when one compromises with evil. If an evil force isn't opposed in its early stages, after a certain point it becomes IMPOSSIBLE to oppose it, Visconti seems to say. And it is here where I believe the movie still resonates with today's cinema audience. In this decade our own country crossed the Rubicon by invading a peaceful country and setting into motion a series of horrifying events. Substitute 2003 for 1934 and the U.S.A. for Germany and you get the idea.
To this day, there is still little consensus on Visconti's status in the pantheon of cinema directors, or even on the merits of his individual films. You can imagine Fassbinder making this film with far more aplomb and a better sense of political history (the scenes of the naked and frolicking SA men would have undoubtedly taken on an even weirder significance though), but I doubt that it would be as visually stunning. Visconti, who also directed theatre and opera productions, shows a flair for the visual which is unrivaled in cinema (his meticulous attention to detail is legendary). No one challenges his craftsmanship and his sense of spectacle.
Unfortunately Visconti was never a master of the camera. He constantly draws attention to himself with his long zooming shots and penchant for gimmicks such as hiding behind a plant and shooting through the foliage (for no apparent reason). Some of the scene constructions are, frankly, amateurish. The film is also weakened by an overlong story (at 2 1/2 hours), some truly bad performances, and a melodramatic script. (Ironically, the script represents the only time in which Visconti was nominated for an American Academy award. It didn't win.) It feels as if it were written by a graduate student doing a research paper on 'Mein Kampf'. The dubbing is atrocious. At times it appears that the dialog is being spoken in English by the actors, at others it is clear that it is not. And it is no better on the DVD release.
Visconti got invaluable support from his mostly European cast. Faces familiar to American viewers include Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling (who is still sizzling on the screen today, as is witnessed in Francois Ozon's excellent 'Swimming Pool' (2003). Not many female actors have the confidence to do a full frontal nude scene at her age!) And Helmut Berger, Visconti's lover at the time, does a good job as Martin Von Essenbeck, the heir to the dynasty who willingly makes his Faustian pact with the devil.
The film concludes, as it began, with images of a blast furnace at one of the Von Essenback factories. With this image Visconti is clearly stating that Fascism has its origins in the inferno of industrial capitalism. Whether you agree with this conclusion or not 'The Damned' is still worth seeing. A flawed near masterpiece.
Mark E. DeSnow