Damned, The (1969): Visconti’s German Trilogy

(Italian title: La Caduta Degli Dei)

the_damned_posterThe German title of Luchino Visconti’s film, “Gotterdammerung,” after Wagner’s opera, may say it all.  “The Damned” is a highly melodramatic tale of decadence and corruption, drawing parallels between the decline and demise of a rich family of industrialists and the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

A major international hit, “The Damned” played for a long time in the American arthouse circuit and later at universities’ film societies.

Visconti’s earlier films had analyzed Italian society during the Risorgimneto and the postwar periods.  The Damned has often been regarded as the first of Visconti’s “The German Trilog,” followed by Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973).

Like Visconti’s “The Leopard,” this epic tale, which is set in 1933-34, begins with an elaborate spectacle, in this case, a dinner that celebrates the retirement of the family’s patriarch, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck, the head of a huge steel empire.  (The clan’s name is a thinly veiled reference to the Essen-based Krupp family of steel industrialists).  The older man has appointed Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), an outsider, as the enterprise’s temporary chair.

The gathering takes a turn to the strange and deviant, when Joachim’s grandson, Martin (Helmut Berger, at his most deviously handsome) dresses in drag and delivers one of Marlene Dietrich’s signature songs, “Falling in Love Again.”

 

the_damned_2_viscontiThe epitome of decadence, Martin is a sadistic bisexual, a drug addict, a pedophile, and also a rapist.  One of the film’s most sensationalistic scene depicts the incestuous relationship between Martin and his mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), who’s Friedrich’s mistress. The other describes an orgy among the SA, who are then brutally killed by Hitler’s SS troops.

In the background, the Weimar Republic and German democracy come to an abrupt end with the burning of the Reichstag.

Sumptuously mounted,  showing Visconti at its most operatic, “The Damned” is directed as a grand spectacle, defined by baroque sets and lavish costumes, which delibertely call attention to the excessively devious nature of the tale.

 

Detailed Plot

the_damned_4_viscontiThe Essenbecks, the clan at the center of the narrative, is a wealthy industrialist family doing business with the Nazis.  On the night of the Reichstag’s fire , the family’s conservative patriarch, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck, who represents the old aristocratic Germany and is against Hitler, is murdered.  Herbert Thalmann, the firm’s vice-president who openly opposes the Nazis, is framed for the crime.  He escapes, but his wife Elizabeth and their children do not. The business is put under the control of a relative, SA officer Konstantin.

While his son, Günther, is a sensitive and troubled student, his nephew, Martin, is a sexually deviant playboy who is molesting  his young cousin as well as a poor Jewish girl. Martin is dominated by his possessive mother, Sophie, the widow of Baron Joachim’s only son, a WWI  hero. Martin’s drag performance as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel at his grandfather’s birthday celebration, sends waves of shock to his audience—his relatives as well as the viewers.

Friedrich Bruckmann, an employee of the family firm and Sophie’s lover, ascends in power despite his low social status, thanks to Sophie’s support and the SS officer and family relation Aschenbach, who pits family factions against each other in order to move their steel and munition works into state control.

the_damned_3_viscontiriedrich kills Konstantin in the SS coup against the SA (the populist fascist front) during its 1934 meeting.  Known in history as the Night of the Long Knives, the SA meeting and the subsequent executions of its leaders by the SS is portrayed as a homosexual orgy and gory bloody massacre.

Aschenbach dismisses Friedrich, who controls the family fortunes, as a weakling and not a loyal Nazi. When Herbert Thalmann returns to the family table, he reveals that his wife and children were sent to Dachau concentration camp, where his wife died; he decides hand himself over to the Gestapo in return for the freedom of his children.

Aschenbach makes a deal with Martin, the ignored heir, to remove Friedrich and Sophie from control, so that Martin may get what is owed him. In the film’s most shocking act, Martin rapes his mother, who descends into catatonic madness, and allows Friedrich to marry her. The tale ends with Martin handing them poison for their suicide.

the_damned_8_viscontiOpening to great worldwide acclaim, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and was named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review.

I have shown the film in various contexts, and it has always evoked strong response, ranging from disapproval and condemnation of its excessive theatricality and self-indulgence to appreciation and admiration for Visconti’s masterful treatment of the technical elements.  As noted, the lavish production values include cinematography and musical score from Maurice Jarre

Censorship

the_damned_11_viscontiShot in Italy and Germany, the film was given an “X” rating by the MPAA and was heavily edited whenever shown TV.   In 2004, when Warner resubmitted the film for re-classification for its DVD release, the MPAA changed its rating “X” to “R.”

 

 

 

 

Oscar Nominations: 1

Story and Screenplay (Adapted): Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Adapted Screenplay Oscar went to William Goldman for the Western, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

 

 Cast

the_damned_6_visconti

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dirk Bogarde as Friedrich Bruckmann

Ingrid Thulin  as Sophie von Essenbeck

Helmut Griem as Aschenbach

Helmut Berger as Martin von Essenbeck

Renaud Verley as Günther von Essenbeck

Umberto Orsini as Herbert Thallman

Reinhard Kolldehoff as Konstantin von Essenbeck

Albrecht Schoenhals as Joachim von Essenbeck

Florinda Bolkan as Olga

Nora Ricci as the Governess

Charlotte Rampling as Elizabeth Thalmann

 

Running Time: 155 Minutes