Luchino Visconti's 1969 film The Damned is a controversial engrossing work of art that grabs you from the start and doesn't let go until its final frames. As in many Visconti-epics, The Damned is disguised as a glorious soap-opera, filmed with meticulous attention to period detail, full of political metaphors, allegories and melodramatic operatic heights. The film's themes are challenging and at times tough to digest but in the hands of Visconti become a compelling and absorbing drama of epic proportions.
The original title of the film, La Caduta degli dei, meaning The Fall of the Gods, suggests the self-destruction of an entire country through the workings of one family, linking the family drama with the sudden historical events surrounding them. Similarly as what he did in The Leopard, Visconti captures a key moment of change within a country’s history and relates it in strictly personal terms. The Damned weaves a fictionalized account of 1933-34 Germany as the Nazis rise to power while following the Essenbecks, a wealthy upper-crust family of industrialists who mix in in with the Nazis, despite the ominous signs of their evil and decadence. Visconti's The Damned is not really a movie about Nazism, but a study about the detrimental effects of misguided power. In The Damned, Nazism is only the context in which the mechanisms of power are made more evident.
Visconti blends elements of Shakespeare, his own film The Leopard and over the top melodrama, focusing on 4 main characters of the Essenbeck household; the Baron’s daughter Sophia (Ingrid Thulin), her sexually deviant son Martin (Helmut Berger), her brother Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff) and her lover Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), who manages the Essenbeck’s steelwork business.
The film begins with the birthday celebration of The Baron, head of the Essenbeck household who uses the event to announce his retirement. That same night, the Reichstag is burned providing Hitler an excuse to move against his political enemies. The Baron’s loyal secretary Herbert Thallman is fired following an irate rant against the Nazi party. Then later that night, the Baron is killed. Herbert is suspected to be the killer and forced to flee. Frederich Bruckmann, Sophia's lover assumes the role of deputy. All of these events keenly observed by SS officer Aschenbach who is eager to manipulate the power of the family in the service of the party. In the meantime no one in the family is paying attention to Martin, Sophia's son; a pedophiliac rapist whose lack of self-control threatens to destroy them all.
Visconti’s intention in The Damned is not to present a realistic character driven drama but a highly stylized metaphor for Germany's descent into insanity. He intentionally uses extreme grotesque images, with one scene more bizarre than the next. The film is filled with moments of great sadness, perversion and horror that include themes of incest, pedophilia, homosexuality, murder, drug addiction and suicide. One of the highlights of the film is a bloodbath -- the historical "Night of the Long Knives," massacre of Hitler's old private army. This memorably horrific set-piece is superbly staged, beggining with a pastoral scene of soldiers playing in a lake, then progressing into an almost surreal drunken orgy of soldiers, naked women, men in drag, finally leading to the brutal massacre.
Visconti dramatizes alienation and madness in a very similar way that Stanley Kubrick handled similar themes in A Clockwork Orange. He photographs these acts of violence and perversion with detached but almost pictorial beauty. Everyone's sweats in this movie: drops of perspiration trickle down temples, and rivers of sweat glisten on upper lips while the baroque lavishness of the scenery makes a striking contrast with the ghastly minds of the characters. The cinematography is brilliant, capturing the decaying elegance impecably. Visconti uses a Hammer-horror pop color palette emphasizing the intense contrast between shadow and light (good vs. evil), blues, browns and reds. In the opening scene, he shoots the blasting furnaces of the steelworks factory, flames and smoke coming up from the furnaces as the titles jump on and off the screen and we hear the harrowing music theme by Maurice Jarre; a fitting metaphor of Hell and of the horrors and depravity which will follow.
The international cast is brilliant. Dirk Bogarde plays a man who suppresses his feelings but is suddenly allowed to be recklessly malevolent. Bogarde uses a leer of self-disgust in a true Macbeth fashion, giving a superb performance as the brutal opportunist. Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin is spectacular as a ruthless countess who will do anything to achieve her desires for power. She has good fun as the evil matriarch, a Lady Macbeth-like creature who comes unstuck when the son who she has raised finally turns his madness on her. Helmut Griem plays the SS officer Aschenbach with twisted intensity. Charlotte Rampling, who’s character may be the film's one truly tragic figure is unfortunately poorly developed and provides very little opportunities to showcase her immense talent. But none of the cast can hope to compete with Helmut Berger.
Helmut Berger’s over the top overacting is weirdly compelling and suits Visconti’s style and vision. As Martin, the heir to the Essenbeck throne, he is part Hamlet, part Ophelia and a lot of Marlene Deitrich. With threatening physicality, sulky face and immaculately trimmed eyebrows, Berger seems to realize that this is a star-making role and he goes at it for all its worth. His character preys on little girls, wears drag, rapes his little cousin, causes a 7 year old Jewish girl to hang herself, then goes on to rape his own mother – a very physical performance that although bordering on camp, is so perfectly balanced with all its contradictions that is remarkable to watch. When Berger is on screen you can't take your eyes of him.
With The Damned, Visconti reassures himself again a spot right up there, into the pantheon of great directors. One can see the influence of The Damned on later films such as Bob Fosse’s "Cabaret" or the psycho sexual drama "The Night Porter". The film was originally rated X due to its challenging subject matter, but Visconti’s craft and talent elevates this epic drama to a higher artistic level. With its brilliant set design, spectacular costumes, the intensity of Helmut Berger and Ingrid Thulin performances, and the operatic Maurice Jarre score, Luchino Visconti's The Damned is a feverish masterpiece not to be discarded.