Sunday, July 31, 2016


Rigorous classicism.

Author: FilmSnobby from San Diego
1 April 2004
Pauline Kael famously called this movie "hysterical" (she was contrasting it to Bertolucci's *The Conformist*, which was supposed to be more "lyrical".) Well, a movie about decadent Nazis is bound to be a little hysterical -- what, were you expecting something tasteful? Hysteria is probably the best mode with which to treat the Third Reich. What's astounding is that director Luchino Visconti forced his sweaty, hysterical visuals into a rigid classical structure. The set-up is pure clockwork: one betrayal leading to another; one devastation opening up an even deeper abyss for another perpetrator.

Basically, Visconti is taking on *Macbeth*, here. Dirk Bogarde plays the Macbeth figure, an up-and-coming industrialist who's sleeping with an evil Grande Dame of Nazi finance, Sophie von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin, having an absolute ball), heiress to a munitions conglomerate. (The von Essenbecks are loosely based on the Krupps, but don't take this as any sort of literal historiography.) Thulin eggs on her lover Bogarde to commit a few politic murders and a frame-up or two so that he can take over the family business, with herself as the power behind the throne. But she doesn't count on the pathology of her grown son from a previous marriage, the hideous little monster Martin (Helmut Berger, acting terribly but it sort of fits in an Udo Kier-sort of way). Martin is your typical Nazi: a closet pedophile, a drug addict, a transvestite, a momma's-boy, a you-name-it. The scenes involving his seduction of a 9- or 10-year-old girl who lives in a shabby apartment complex are some of the most disturbing that you'll ever see in cinema . . . and along those lines, I seriously wonder about the state of mind of some of the commentators here who find this movie to be high camp, to be watched with drinking buddies. If you think molestation is funny, you'd better see a shrink, pal.

Anyway. The plot is so Byzantine that it finally defeats a brief summary. Let it suffice to say that Visconti manages to cram his complicated story neatly within the historical context of the period between the Reichstag Fire and the Night of the Long Knives, thereby maintaining a nutty observance of Classical Unities. All the while, he films the thing in Hammer-horror Pop color, with intense contrast between shadow and light. The first scene, by the way, is a shot of the blasting furnaces of the munitions factory -- a fitting intro to the horrendous vision of depravity which soon follows. Everyone's sweating in this movie: drops of perspiration trickle down temples, and beads of sweat glisten on upper lips throughout, as if the flames of Hell are licking up at the soles of their collective feet. *The Damned* is a feverish masterpiece. You'll never forget it. Highest recommendation.

(A tip for viewing of the DVD: I recommend that you watch the movie with the English subtitles ON. While everyone speaks English in the film, only Bogarde is clearly intelligible. Owing to the complicated plot, you'll need to know what's going on in order to fully appreciate Visconti's thematic design.)

This movie opens on a most impressive intro. Flames and smoke come up from a furnace, and as the titles jump on and off the screen, we hear a harrowing music theme by Maurice Jarre (the melody is close to Dr Zhivago's, but played with a frantic rhythm). The English/French title, "The Damned ", is far more appropriate than the Italian/German one which is "The Fall of the Gods". As the intro suggests, we are entering an inferno, and the characters we are going to see are the sort who will not hesitate sell out their soul to the devil in exchange of power and glory. "The Damned" is certainly a horrific movie, but as artfully made as can be.

Action takes place in the Ruhr industrial region of Germany, just after Hitler's rise to power. The aristocratic family von Essenbeck is the country's leading steelwork owner, a fictional equivalent of Krupps or Thyssens. Now, this movie is not trying to denounce the fact that big German industrials financed Hitler, but instead, it focuses on the internal struggle for power inside the family. Therefore,"The Damned" is not really a movie about nazism, even if it is often regarded as such. It a movie about power. Nazism is only used as an extreme context where the mechanisms of power are made more evident than anywhere else, because it is a system that openly legitimates the absolute domination of the strongest. 

Baroness Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) is the daughter in law of an aging steel baron. Her husband is apparently dead during WW1, but he left her with a son, Martin (Helmut Berger) who is immediately presented as immature and perverse. Baroness Sophie has an official lover, Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), and both are acquainted with an influent member of the nazi party called Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). Sophie is a modern incarnation of Lady Macbeth. Her schemes are to take control of the Essenbeck steelworks by any means, determined to crush anyone who might stand in her way.

Sophie doesn't care for anybody. Her lover Friedrich is anything but an angel, but he appears as a weaker character whom she adroitly manipulates. She has an obvious contempt for her son Martin, which gets obvious right away, as she is seen laughing behind a curtain while he is performing a transvestite number at his grandfather's birthday party...The only one who seems to have her esteem is Aschenbach the nazi, who is just as devoid of scruples as she is. 

The steel lady gets both her father-in-law and one of her brothers-in-law murdered, while her other brother-in-law is forced to exile, and her timid nephew to silence. Her son Martin becomes therefore the legitimate heir of the steelworks, but she only intends to use him as a puppet as she plans an official marriage with her lover Friedrich, through which she hopes to take control of the family's fortune. The wedding will take place, but not the way she expected...

The only enemy she did't think about (and does she think about enemies!) is her own son, whom everybody regards as incapable and degenerate. Indeed, Martin, by the way a pedophile, is not interested in power or money. But the blemished love of the boy for his mother has reverted into an infernal hate. Hate is going to be Martin's driving force to become the much unexpected winner of the game, as he is really capable of ANYTHING, even beyond what his merciless mother ever would have imagined. 

Ingrid Thulin's performance is stunning, probably her best one ever, and though Helmut Berger tends to overact, you couldn't find a better choice for the satanic role of Martin. The evil figures appear much more intense than the few innocent ones, among them a barely recognizable Charlotte Rampling in one of her early appearances. The baroque lavishness of the scenery makes a striking contrast with the ghastly minds of the characters (hard to speak of heroes) and their equally ghastly deeds. The film makes you wonder if the the already renowned Luchino Visconti deliberately intended to shock by all means, since all his other movies, before and after this one, were by far tamer.

THE DAMNEDBut indeed, in 1969, all ingredients were there to make it a perfect bomb. Two episodes of nazism are spectacularly rendered : first the public burning of books on the streets, then the Night of the Long Knives, which is depicted in a very long and shocking scene. A beer drinking party turns into a homosexual orgy, and eventually ends in a bloodbath. But even worse is still to come...

It can be established that "the Damned" was the first screenwork to deal with nazism so openly, and as such, it abruptly broke a long-lasting taboo. This film has been a trend-setter in many ways, and opened the path to a series of others that hinted to nazism as darkly erotic and fascinating, a trend that some called "nazi sexploitation of the seventies". True, the influence of "the Damned" can be traced in many vile under-products, but also in leading works such as "Cabaret" or "The Night Porter". A reaction to that trend came with the ensuing wave of holocaust movies, which made a point in reminding that nazism was above all sheerly destructive.

"Abandon hope all ye who enter here".

Author: Galina from Virginia, USA
14 July 2006
The first chapter in Lucino Visconti's trilogy of "German Decadence", "The Damned" ("Götterdämmerung"), 1969 is a deep and heavy drama; or rather tragedy with many references to Shakespearean and ancient tragedies themes. The film follows a German rich industrialist family, the munitions manufacturers (possibly modeled after Germany's Krupp family) who attempts to keep their power during the rise of Nazism regime. It takes place from the night of the Reichstag fire when the Von Essenbecks have gathered in celebration of the patriarch Joachim's birthday to their eventual downfall ("The Fall of Gods" is the film's Italian title) shortly after the Night of Long Knives.

A Marxist and an aristocrat, Visconti was both repelled by and drawn to the decaying society that he depicts in impressive and loving details and often in a flamboyant style - the examples are the scene with Helmut Berger impersonating Marlene Dietrich's Lola-Lola "Blue Angel", the beer party, the orgy and following them massacre during the "Night of Long Knives".

Both film's titles, "The Damned" and "The Fall of the Gods" prepare us for entering the gates of Inferno - "Abandon hope all ye who enter here". The characters we met, the members of the respected and famous family are "Fallen Gods" and they are ready to take the eternal damnation of their souls in the exchange for Power which is above money, love or any human feelings. The weakest and tender will vanish; the most unscrupulous, merciless, backstabbing, hating and cruel will celebrate on this feast during the time of plague.

The acting is very impressive by all members of a fine international cast that includes Ingrid Thulin, Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Renaud Verley, Umberto Orsini and Helmut Berger. I just want to say couple of words about Ingrid Thulin (Baroness Sophie, the widowed daughter in law of a steel baron Joachim) and Helmut Berger as her son, Martin. I've never seen Ingrid Thulin as beautiful, desirable yet wicked and evil as the German Lady Macbeth/Queen Gertrude/Agrippina the Younger. I dare say that I like her in Visconti's film better than in Bergman's films that made her world famous. Helmut Berger was born to play Martin - immoral, corrupted, and bad to the bone playboy-pedophile Hamlet/Nero in Nazi uniform yet at some point strangely sympathetic. And was he pretty as Lola-Lola :). 

Published: December 19, 1969
Luchino Visconti's The Damned may be the chef d'oeuvre  of the great Italian director (La Terra Trema, Rocco and His Brothers, Sandra)—a spectacle of such greedy passion, such uncompromising sensation, and such obscene shock that it makes you realize how small and safe and ordinary most movies are. Experiencing it is like taking a whiff of ammonia—it's not conventionally pleasant, but it makes you see the outlines of everything around you with just a little more clarity.
The Damned, called Gštterdämmerung in Europe, opens  like Buddenbrooks—with so many characters introduced so quickly that one part of your mind will spend the rest of the movie just trying to sort them out, which is a rare treat since the decline of the novel-as-genealogy. It also draws on Hamlet, Macbeth, the legend of the Nibelungen, on recent history (as it might be fabricated in something like True Detective) and on Visconti's love for the grand cinematic gesture.
Its story is that of a Krupp-like German steel dynasty in the first two years (1933-1934) of Hitler's struggle to consolidate his power. It's not so much that the von Essenbecks symbolize Germany—they are Germany. The film does occasionally record events in real Germany—the burning of the books, assignations in squalid rooming houses, and (for almost a quarter of an hour and with such loving detail that it almost wrecks the balance of the film) the "night of the long knives," when Ernst Ršhm and most of his SA (Storm Troops) were assassinated by the SS (Elite Guard).
Most of The Damned, however, takes place within the huge, dark drawing rooms, the bedrooms, corridors, baths, and banquet halls of the Ruhr Valhalla where the von Essenbecks, surrounded by silent servants and as isolated as gods, struggle for control of "the factory," the power of the universe.
There's the old Baron, an aristocrat who has made no commitments to Hitler, but only because he regards Hitler with the distaste of a snob. There are also his son, Konstantin (René Kolldehoff), a follower of Ršhm in matters sexual as well as political; a young cousin, Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), an SS man scheming to keep von Essenbeck arms from the SA; the Baroness Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), the widowed daughter-in-law who likes to see her son, Martin (Helmut Berger), the Baron's heir, dress up in extraordinarily convincing Marlene Dietrich drag; and Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), a mortal who, with Sophie, plots to acquire the von Essenbeck fortune, power, and name.
If the film can be said to have a protagonist, I suppose it would be Bogarde who, after murdering the old Baron in  his bed, finds himself finally destroyed in a bizarre reworking of classic consequences. Visconti, however, keeps the melodrama at such a distance and plays it at such a high pitch that there can't be much thought about protagonists and antagonists.
The Damned, while having validity as a political and social parable, is mind-blinding as a spectacle of fabulous corruption, detailed within the family organism that so fascinates Visconti. Like La Terra Trema and Rocco and His Brothers, Visconti's new film keeps the audience outside the spectacle, but the von Essenbecks, unlike the families in the earlier works, are not only a family—they create their own social milieu. Nothing that happens outside seems to matter much because despite our knowledge of history, we know that Germany's fate is the von Essenbecks'.
The film triumphs over a number of bothersome things, including too-quick transformations of characters, dialogue of epic flatness ("Complicity grows. I've accepted a ruthless logic and I shall never get away from it"), inconsistency of language (most of it is in English, but some is in German for no apparent reason), self-conscious references to great moments in history (the Reichstag fire), and scenes of melodrama that would strain even Wagner (as when Martin decides to "destroy" his mother by raping her).
All of the performances are excellent, but at least two are superb, that of Miss Thulin and Berger, a young Austrian actor who gives, I think, the performance of the year.
The Damned, however, is not a film that depends on dialogue or performance, but on Visconti's vision that capitalizes on what would be theatrical excesses in anyone else's work. He likes to begin scenes in close-up with one character talking to another, who may remain unseen, unknown, for minutes at a time. The entire film evokes a sense of makeup and masquerade, both physical and emotional. Color also is important. The first shot of the movie is a close-up of the orange flames of a blast furnace, after which the light seems to dim progressively to a twilight, set off by splotches of red, first a flower in a buttonhole, then Nazi armbands and flags and, finally, blood.
The Damned is a movie of great perversity—so intransigent that I think even von Stroheim would have liked it. It opened yesterday at the Festival Theater.
Directed by Luchino Visconti; written (in Italian, with English subtitles) by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli, and Mr. Visconti; directors of photography, Armando Nannuzzi and Pasquale De Santis; edited by Ruggero Mastroianni; music by Maurice Jarre; produced by Alfredo Levy and Ever Hagglag; released by Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. Running time: 155 minutes.
With: Dirk Bogarde (Friederich Bruckmann), Ingrid Thulin (Baroness Sophie von Essenbeck), Helmut Griem (Aschenbach), Helmut Berger (Martin von Essenbeck), Charlotte Rampling (Elisabeth Thallman), Florinda Bolkan (Olga), and René Kolldehoff (Baron Konstantine von Essenbeck).