The Damned Review
It would be quite possible to earnestly review Visconti’s The Damned as the piece of high art that it pretends to be. But that would be a serious case of misrepresentation. The Damned isn’t really art at all but it is absolutely fantastic trash and one of the great movie melodramas of its time. Despite being very specifically set in Germany between the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933 and the purge of the SA in 1934, it’s got about as much insight into the development of Nazi Germany as an average episode of “Allo Allo” and it’s on the same level of subtlety. Yet that doesn’t matter a jot because everything that’s enjoyable about the film has nothing to do with the social or political setting. The appeal of the movie is that of riveting soap-opera, a kind of Dallas plus swastikas.
The film begins at a dinner party for the birthday of Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Schönhals), a powerful German industrialist whose steelworks are on the key centres of armaments manufacture. His family and hangers-on are a motley collection, most of whom have their own agendas based around personal power in the new National Socialist Germany. Four people are particular significant; the Baron’s daughter Sophia (Thulin), her sexually deviant son Martin (Berger), her brother Konstantin (Koldehoff) and her lover Frederick Bruckmann (Bogarde), who happens to be the ambitious key administrator at the steelworks. The Baron uses the event to announce his retirement, placing Martin in charge and Konstantin as his deputy. But events are moving faster than anyone expects. On the same night, the Reichstag is burned and the event is used by Hitler as an excuse to move against his political enemies. The event is mirrored in the Essenbeck household where the Baron’s loyal secretary Herbert Thallman (Orsini) is disowned following an intemperate rant against the Nazi party. Later that night, the Baron is killed, Herbert is suspected and forced to flee, and Martin overrules Konstantin, placing Frederich in charge of the steelworks. These events are watched over by a friend of the family, SS officer Aschenbach (Griem) who is eager to manipulate the power of the family in the service of the party. Yet none of the family have counted on the actions of Martin, a pedophiliac rapist whose lack of self-control threatens to destroy them all.
It’s easy to see why Visconti would have been drawn to this story. In the early 1930s, he had lived in Germany and seen some of the historical events depicted in the film and his Marxist sympathies led him to regard Nazism as the eruption of some kind of evil force. Perhaps that’s why the film begins and ends in the red and orange inferno of the steel works. The original title of the film, La Caduta degli dei, meaning The Fall of the Gods, suggests his intentions – to show the self-destruction of an entire country through the workings of one family – and the attempt to link the events in the family drama with historical realities demonstrates his eagerness to have the work taken seriously. But actually, whatever political analysis is present here is very simplistic indeed. The great fallacy that Visconti indulges in – and he’s not alone in this – is the belief that Nazism can be explained as the legal sanctioning of personal sexual perversity and the character of Martin is meant to represent the essential deviance of National Socialism. Add to Martin the grinning Mephistophelean figure of Aschenbach and you have a clear view of how Visconti sees the period. What he ignores is the awkward historical fact that Nazism owed much of its success to the lower middle-classes whose very ordinariness made it possible for a series of hysterical, essentially paranoid doctrines to become widely accepted. Had the Nazis simply been a group of sexual perverts, they would never have commanded the widespread loyalty of the German people. It was the doctors, the lawyers, the teachers, the postmen - the ‘normal’ people who initially sat back and watched and then actively helped with basic bureaucratic tasks as millions of people were killed and the national economy was destroyed. The real horror of Nazism is that it was a phenomenon which was maintained and supported by essentially normal – and probably individually decent - people, not that it was some kind of sexually decadent inferno. In trying to analyse the Nazi rise to power in psycho-sexual terms, Freudianism for Dummies, thrown in, Visconti ends up by simply appearing hysterical.
It’s obvious that Visconti is trying to do what he did in Senso and The Leopard - capturing a key moment of change within a country’s history and relating it in strictly personal terms. But in those two films, he does it with a lot more intelligence and a subtle probing of character. There’s nothing in The Damned to match the brilliance of conception of the climactic ball sequence in The Leopard where we see the death of everything that the Prince holds dear. In the later film, Visconti replaces nuance with crude overstatement and this is nowhere more clear than in the extended depiction of the Night of the Long Knives. Although the actual massacre scene is superbly done as a memorably horrific set-piece, the orgy which precedes it seems to have more to do with Visconti’s own personal hang-ups than with anything that might have actually happened. Homosexuality, as elsewhere in the film, is associated with thuggish sexual perversion and there’s a sense in which we seem to be told that it’s the fact that the orgy is between men which makes it so appalling. In his earlier films, particularly Senso, Visconti’s own homosexuality allows him to see heterosexual love with a cruel clarity but in The Damned, it seems to lead him into a kind of self-disgust. It's all very well trying to use individual corruption as a metaphor for the moral decay of Nazi Germany but there has to be something benath this that makes the whole metaphor come together. Without this focus, the film looks exploitative rather than probing.
However, forget historical interpretation and concentrate on enjoying the hysteria and there’s much to appreciate in The Damned. It rattles along, for the most part turned up to 11, and the performers have a marvellous time with the rich array of warped characters. In a role which requires him to be a Teutonic Macbeth, Dirk Bogarde perfects the leer of self-disgust that he worked on in Accident and clearly enjoys the occasional opportunities to have a good shout. As became usual around this time, Bogarde plays a man who suppresses his feelings but this time, he is also allowed to be unnervingly malevolent. When he finally goes bonkers towards the end, he comes through with a fine case of the shakes. Ingrid Thulin also has good fun as the evil matriarch who comes unstuck when the son who she has raised to be psychotic finally turns his madness on her. This isn’t really great acting, but it’s enjoyable barnstorming in the grand old manner. Yet none of the cast can hope to compete with Helmut Berger. In his film debut, Berger demonstrates that the demented hamming which he later became famous for had actually been there all along. This kind of florid overacting is weirdly compelling and it’s a bit like having a full English fry-up; you know it’s bad for you but you simply can’t resist. Berger first appears in the film decked out like Marlene Dietrich in full war-paint and it’s at this moment, following the rather solemn introduction, that you know the real qualities of the film. It’s camp in full bloom and Berger knows this all too well. With his sulky face and those immaculately trimmed eyebrows, Berger seems to realise that this is a star-making role and he goes at it for all its worth, and then some. Martin is a totally unbelievable caricature – it’s not enough for him to be simply a decadent drag queen, he’s also a pederast who, having raped his little cousin and caused a 7 year old Jewish girl to hang herself, then goes on to rape and control his own mother – so playing him realistically probably wasn’t an option. The phrase “over-egging the pudding” springs to mind but there’s plenty of trashy entertainment value to be had in Berger’s mad overplaying.
The film is dressed to kill, making the most of a co-production deal which provided money from three continents. The wallowing in rot that makes the film so clammy is reflected in the settings, all slightly too rich and over-coloured. Visconti and his brilliant cinematographer Pasquale De Santis (along with Armando Nannuzzi) keep the film looking gorgeous, sometimes deliberately contrasting with the sleaziness of the content. The whole Night of the Long Knives sequence is a case in point. The interiors are all sweat and smoke while the exteriors are cold and clear. When the SS arrive, in the early morning mist, they fire on the defenceless SA men and the resulting carnage is posed like a Renaissance painting. By the end - a decidedly unusual wedding - the overstuffed, highly coloured interiors have a queasy quality which perfectly matches the narrative and the final image is genuinely memorable. There's also much amusement to be had from the screenplay which juggles acidic wit with some portentous statements like "The collective thinking of the German people is now complicity".
At this point, I want to make it clear that I don’t intend most of this as criticism of Visconti. I love his films, from the dark and brooding Ossessione to the insane folly of Ludwig but I tend to place them in two categories. There are the genuinely great works of film art like The Leopard and Death In Venice, truly visionary films which are deeply affecting. Then, there are the gorgeously demented melodramas like The Damned, Conversation Piece and the wonderful Senso which are so much fun that it’s a shame to condemn them for not being the serious studies of history and society that they pretend to be. In these films, Visconti lets his hair down and allows his love of pulp art to shine through with the same kind of care and attention to detail that makes the similarly loony melodramas of Minnelli, Aldrich and Ray so enjoyable to watch. Essentially, what we're talking about is the overwhelming energy of bad taste. Let’s not delude ourselves that the things that make The Damned great fun are anything to do with great art. In fact, it’s something else. It’s great, great popular filmmaking and that’s not something to be sniffed at.
Warners delayed this release, originally scheduled for April, for reasons which I can’t quite fathom but it clearly wasn’t so they could add some interesting extras. What we get is adequate and the transfer is quite good but it would be nice to have some less self-congratulatory background material on what was a pretty troubled production.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 – I had always remembered it being in ‘Scope which shows you how the memory can cheat. The transfer is, by and large, very good. The colours are splendid throughout with the strong reds and blues coming across impressively well. Some print damage is evident throughout with white speckling and small scratches appearing on a number of occasions. There is no problem with artefacts however and the film looks suitably filmic without appearing too grainy.
The soundtrack is in the original Mono on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. It’s acceptable but some of the music appears a little more distorted than it is intended to do and the dialogue is not always as clear as I would have liked. The volume level of the track seems rather low too and I had to play it loud in order to enjoy it.
There are two extra features. The trailer is present and very enjoyable it is too, pushing the soap opera aspects of the film for all they are worth. More honesty like this would have been welcome in the accompanying vintage featurette called “Visconti”. The eponymous director is presented as a great craftsman – which he is – and a completely serious and timeless artist – which, visionary or not, he has only been in selected works. The self-conscious seriousness of this featurette is quite draining and it soon becomes unintentionally funny.
Subtitles are present on the film but not for the extra features.
The Damned is a lavish, hugely entertaining melodrama that is far more entertaining than it would have been if taken seriously. Forget the artistic pretensions and enjoy the poised, richly furbished moviemaking and you will have a great time. The DVD presents the film reasonably well but a more carefully rendered soundtrack would have made it a more attractive purchase.