"Don't dream of coming back one day to find a Germany which was so dear
to your heart. It's finished, that Germany. Forever. There will be no other
Germany but this one."
Luchino Visconti won his only American Academy Award Nomination for The Damned, a movie that I can only liken (oddly enough) to watching a fatal car accident. As utterly horrifying and perverse the on-screen events may appear, Visconti serves them up with such panache that they are equally hypnotic.
Facts of the Case
Luchino Visconti's The Damned follows the Von Essenbecks, a German industrialist family (possibly modeled after Germany's Krupp family) from the night of the Reichstag fire when the Von Essenbecks have gathered in celebration of Joachim's birthday to their eventual downfall shortly after the Night of Long Knives.
Joachim von Essenbeck built his family's dynasty on top of his steel works, which his daughter-in-law, Sophie von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse) and her lover Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde, Death in Venice), would like to control for themselves. Standing in the way is Joachim's heir and Sophie's immoral playboy of a son, Martin (Helmut Berger, Ludwig), and the company's newly appointed vice president, Konstantin von Essenbeck. The result is a Macbethean story involving lust, treachery, murder, and absolute corruption.
Luchino Visconti's journey into Hell starts of at a rapid pace with visions of fire and a pulsating march during the opening credits. He then loses most of the momentum, however, as all of the main characters are rapidly and confusingly introduced in an overly long opening sequence (about the first quarter of the film) where the scheming is staged. The Damned is a difficult film to watch for several reasons: the sound quality, in combination with many of the actor's accents, makes the dialogue extremely difficult to understand at times; as mentioned before, Visconti's introduction of characters is ill-staged and confusing; and the film itself is a complex mixture of plot and symbolism.
It would be wrong to say that The Damned is simply a film about a family or Hitler's rise to power in Germany. The von Essenbecks are Germany, and their fate as the evil of fascism descends is tied to the fate of Germany. If the von Essenbecks are a personification of Germany, and her relationship with fascism, then Elizabeth Thallman (Charlotte Rampling, The Verdict, Farewell My Lovely), while a minor character, is equally important as the personification of the morally superior innocents not ambitious enough to seek the power that fascism had to offer its most loyal citizens. Elizabeth transcends race or nationality and does not seem to be representative of Holocaust victims (it is still too early in the history of the Third Reich), but instead Visconti's commentary on innocence in the wake of fascism. With Elizabeth's eventual capture and death, his commentary is clearly this: under the overwhelming power of evil, those who are not corrupt or willing to become corrupt will not survive. If blood ties are stronger then friendship, the promise of power is still strong enough to break those bonds.
The juxtaposition of Elizabeth Thallman and the von Essenbeck clan brings up an interesting question, with several different answers: Who exactly is The Damned meant to refer to? In one sense, it refers to the entire family and their acquaintances, as the core of the von Essenbeck corruption will be the downfall of everyone involved. In another sense, it is a reference to the central character involved in the scheming, Sophie von Essenbeck, and by association, her son Martin.
Effeminate Martin is the most enigmatic of the lot and, in the end, the film's anti-hero. We can't like Martin, because he is far too perverse for the option to even be considered, but he can be pitied. If any in the von Essenbeck clan deserve pity, Martin is certainly a prime candidate. His mother, Sophie, and her lover, Frederick, seemingly write him off as an immoral playboy who can be easily manipulated by the promise of new playthings: cars, women, or otherwise. His perversity seems to stem mainly from his large Oedipal complex, which Sophie uses to her advantage, employing seduction as a tool to manipulate her son. And manipulate him she does, having her son dress in drag (appropriately, a Marlene Dietrich get-up), probably on more than one occasion, for the family's entertainment. The perverse mother/son relationship draws upon one of my favorite literary themes: the nature of evil. In the Shakespearean plays that Visconti draws from—namely Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III—the bard poses the very same question. Is evil banal and trite or celestial in its origin? Visconti's response is neither—evil is hereditary, even maternal, in its conception. Martin is solely his mother's creation. Even if the seeds were already planted, Sophie nurtured her son's psychosis for her own benefit, resulting in a case of evil begetting evil ultimately to its own destruction.
Visconti's original title for the piece was not The Damned, but rather La Caduta degli dei, or in English The Fall of the Gods. The implications of this title to the piece are just as interesting, for the von Essenbecks (in particular Sophie and Frederick) believe that in the face of fascism, they are indeed gods. It is only Aschenbach who points out to Martin that the truly powerful respect fascism, the power it has given them, and the power it can take away. So if indeed, Sophie is to be considered one of the gods, then Martin is most certainly her Hellspawn.
While this analysis barely nicks the surface of The Damned, a true in depth discussion would require a Ph.D in psychology, but this ought to whet your appetite nevertheless.
Stylistically, Visconti's work is beautiful. In my mind, The Damned could easily have been a large influence on a later postmodern piece, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. For his version of Hell, Visconti has chosen to emphasize brown and red; instead of fire, he appropriately chooses molten metal. Throughout most of his film, Visconti places his audience inside his frame of action. From this vantage point, he creates a subconscious atmosphere of uncomfortable suffocating intimacy, which he mimics in his storyline as fascism descends on the von Essenbecks.
If the archival footage presented in the featurette Visconti is any indication of the original quality of the film, then the DVD transfer is, without a doubt, the best restoration I have ever seen. In the featurette footage, the actors appeared washed out and the entire picture had an almost fuzzy cast to it. In addition, there were frequent spots of dirt that, had they been present in the actual film, would have been distracting to say the least. Instead of a speckled distracting mess, Warner Brothers presents a beautifully vibrant and colorful film. Based on the standards of modern flicks that have been released on DVD, some of the images do appear speckled; however, they are much clearer and more life-like then the featurette would have led me to believe possible.
Unfortunately, it appears that Warner Brothers put most of their eggs in one basket, because the sound quality is not even close to the standard they set with their video transfer. The soundtrack was rather muffled, for lack of a better word, throughout most of the film. When this feature was combined with the heavy European accents, many portions of the dialogue were indecipherable. While watching the film, I felt it necessary to turn on the closed captioning in order to understand the dialogue and follow the storyline.
As a DVD, The Damned is only slightly better than a bare-bones disc, including only the original theatrical trailer and a featurette detailing Visconti's work on the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Damned was originally released in America with an X rating. This DVD presents the film with an R rating, and it is not clear whether the original film was edited, or re-evaluated by modern standards. I include this tidbit of information only because some of the subject matter is still controversial, even for Hollywood. While the DVD is an excellent presentation, this film is still not for the faint of heart.
In all honesty, Visconti's The Damned makes Cabaret look like good wholesome family fun. Overall, it's not a bad film, just intense. I would recommend this one for the art film crowd or anyone that liked A Clockwork Orange. At a list price of $19.98, running out to add the DVD to your collection may not be worth it.
Visconti and his crew are cleared of any charges. Warner Brothers is guilty as charged for releasing a DVD with such awful sound quality.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Visconti: A Master Director at Work on the Set Featurette
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