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The Damned (La caduta degli dei)

by Glenn Erickson Sep 28, 2021

Sex and swastikas! — that combo shows up in both trash cinema and high art. Luchino Visconti’s searing look at Nazi corruption sees an industrialist family torn apart by murderous greed and ambition worthy of the Borgias. The fiendish Countess Ingrid Thulin has raised a twisted son (Helmut Berger) to serve her deadly schemes; her path to power involves framing one heir for a killing while another rival is sacrificed in an SS massacre for the good of the Reich. The chilling treachery plays out at family dinner tables, in the offices of a steel mill, and in various bedrooms; Nazi fervor is equated with sex perversion. The uncut original version, remastered, also stars Dirk Bogarde, Helmut Griem, Renaud Verley, Umberto Orsini, René Koldehoff, Charlotte Rampling and Florinda Bolkan.


The Damned
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1098
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 157 min. / La caduta degli dei, Götterdämmerung / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 28, 2021 / 39.95
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Helmut Griem, Helmut Berger, Renaud Verley, Umberto Orsini, René Koldehoff, Albrecht Schoenhals, Nora Ricci, Charlotte Rampling, Florinda Bolkan, Irina Wanka.
Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi, Pasqualino De Santis
Art Directors: Pasquale Romano, Enzo del Prato
Film Editor: Ruggiero Mastroianni
Original Music: Maurice Jarre
Original story and screenplay by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti
Produced by Ever Haggiag, Alfred Levy, Pietro Notarianni
Directed by
Luchino Visconti

I doubt that Warner Bros. bothered to release Luchino Visconti’s The Damned in my home town of San Bernardino; earlier in the year Midnight Cowboy caused a sensation — I went on opening night but was turned away when I returned the next week. Probably due to conservative public outcry, the theater owner rejected anybody who looked like a high school kid, even though I was 17, technically eligible by the X-rating rule. I think moviegoing culture in San Berdoo died a quick death in the ’70s, when all films stopped being family films. When I returned from college the next year, even Ryan’s Daughter was a subject of local reproach.

Thus I didn’t catch up with The Damned for decades. Unlike 1971’s The Devils it turned out to be relatively tame — a little nudity, scenes where men prance around in women’s underwear to represent Nazi depravity. But the ideas behind the scenes of perversity are what matter, with the only question being, does power-grubbing sick politics always go hand in hand with ‘sick’ sex, or are they one and the same?

Visconti directed a fairly wide range of dramas but he’s most known for his breathtaking period epics, best exemplified by the beautiful, meticulously accurate Senso and The Leopard … Francis Coppola appeared to be consciously channeling The Leopard in the big family scenes in his The Godfather. The Damned has impressive production values but is scaled back from Visconti’s earlier epic dimensions. A complex Nazi soap opera, it envisions a German family of industrialists as an evil clan like the Italian Borgias. The characters are certainly vivid. Although much of the storyline is taken up with behind-closed-doors political and business maneuverings, Visconti takes a major detour to depict a wild SA Brownshirt orgy at a lakeside hotel. Only a diminishing dramatic interest in the last third bogs the picture down, as does Visconti’s surprisingly unfocused directing style.

The Damned got plenty of attention in 1969 for its parade of depraved behaviors. It was originally rated X, but was later re-rated R, in an MPAA backtrack.

 

‘The Fall of the Gods’ is in this case the collapse of the noble, all-powerful Essenbeck family, a dynasty that controls the large German steel mills that the newly elected Chancellor Hitler needs to pursue the Nazi state’s military ambitions. On the night of the burning of the Reichstag, the Essenbeck family head Joachim Von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schönhals) celebrates his birthday, and is murdered soon after. It is the first step in a power play to elevate company executive Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) to the presidency of Essenbeck Steel. Pulling the strings is his romantic partner the Countess Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin). Central to Sophie’s scheme is her psycho-sexual control over her son, the direct Essenbeck heir Martin Von Essenbeck (Helmut Berger); he is also a predatory pedophile.

Sophie’s plan is to neutralize the other family executives. Framed for Joachim’s murder, communist sympathizer Herbert Thallman (Umberto Orsini) is forced into exile. More of a problem is the brutish Konstantin (René Koldehoff), a fervent Nazi and Brown Shirt SA commander. Konstantin thinks his path to power is assured, when he learns of a sex crime committed by Martin. But the mother and son relationship borders on the incestuous, and under Sophie’s influence, Martin has chosen Frederick to run the company. Sophie and Bruckmann don’t know it, but they’re really puppets of a close family friend, SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). The ruthless schemer leverages the vices of the Essenbeck family to secure the steel industry for the Third Reich.

The real strength of The Damned is its intelligent and dispassionate script. What it lacks in melodramatic surprises it makes up in believability. We’ve all heard of at least one family of German industrialists, the Krupps: Hitler’s Nazi transformation of Germany required the support of key industrialists. The movie is complete fiction but it does capture the way Nazi influence worked. Old Joachim Essenbeck knew the Essenbecks could survive only through political independence, but the ambitious heirs are too eager to work with the Nazis. Sophie, Bruckmann and Konstantin foolishly think their essential steelworks make them untouchable.

 

Although the various Essenbeck heirs are the main characters, the most important figure in The Damned is Helmut Griem’s Aschenbach, a self-contained strategist clearly deployed to destroy the Essenbeck dynasty from within. Aschenbach’s job is tricky, but the Essenbeck clan is easily outwitted. Dirk Bogarde’s Bruckmann is an ambitious fool. He thinks he has a strong hand but is at the mercy of the Lady Macbeth- like Sophie. Bruckmann has a bad habit of taking relationships for granted, especially when it comes to his ‘friendly’ SS mentor Aschenbach. Getting the anti-Nazi rival Herbert Thallman out of the way is not a big problem — as he too frequently mouths off against the Nazis, Herbert cannot be allowed to become the new steel mill president. After Bruckmann frames him for murder he must run for his life.

The film wastes no time revelling in displays of Essenbeck excess and depravity. Direct heir Martin (Helmut Berger) is a degenerate molester of young girls, criminal activity psychologically linked to the abuses of hs mother Sophie. She has dominated and twisted Martin since childhood so as to wield power through him: it is Sophie who prepares Martin for his drag performance at a family gathering — a spectacle designed to make Martin seem even more irresponsible.

The most aggressive heir-contender is Konstantin (René or Reinhard Koldehoff of Playtime and Soldier of Orange). A beer-swilling brute, he browbeats his gentle son Günther (Renaud Verley) and makes him stay in a college where a major activity is book-burning. Konstantin’s SA rank gives him police contacts, through which he learns about Martin’s sick relationship with a little Jewish girl. That leverage allows him to seize control of the steel works… for a short time.

Aschenbach plays all of these greedy aristocrats like pawns on a chessboard. Frederick Bruckmann and Sophie believe they are being groomed as industrial monarchs. Aschenbach dissolves the Essenbeck independence by involving Bruckmann in Nazi crimes. Aschenbach finds it easy to marshall the disillusion and hatred of young Martin and Günther Essenbeck against their parents. The ultimate goal is seize the steel works without force. The Essenbeck steel empire becomes an unofficial state enterprise.

 

The most-discussed scenes in The Damned were the episodes of perversity. They now seem tame… 1975’s Salò eclipsed all previous depictions of fascist crimes. Martin starts off the show by performing a drag version of a Marlene Dietrich tune, an image that provided the show with its key Ad campaign. That the old scion Joachim tolerates the display only makes sense in a family where incest is practically out in the open, although it seems doubtful that anyone but Sophie has an inkling what Martin is doing under the dining room table with Herbert Thallmann’s tiny daughters. The molestations remain off-screen but disturbingly imply everything. Martin is not actually gay — he has a prostitute girlfriend named Olga (Florinda Bolkan). Although speculating about sexual norms is risky business, in 1969 average viewers likely lumped homosexuals, drag performers, child molesters and Nazis into the same category.

The centerpiece of the film is an elaborate SA Blackshirt orgy at a lakeside resort, a restaging of the historical ‘Night of the Long Knives.’ In a calculated mass murder, Hitler’s elite SS eliminate the competing SA organization, the thugs that first brought Hitler to power. It’s the film’s one major scene that couldn’t play out on a theater stage; otherwise the movie is surprisingly small-scale. The episode is also almost free-standing, a departure from intimate secrets exchanged in dark rooms. Of the main characters only Konstantin is directly involved. Frederick Bruckmann and Aschenbach show up briefly at the finish.

In Visconti’s version of events, the beer-drinking SA conventioneers chase women around but mostly indulge in a big homosexual bash. When the SS killers arrive, the uniformed might think the Brownshirts are being masssacred not as a political power move, but because they are gay. Older service comedies and dramas often showed men cross-dressing for fun, mostly for soldiers’ entertainment. This party is of course different, but it’s the context that’s X-rated, not the content. Are we supposed to be shocked to see men dancing in female underwear?

 

Some criticize The Damned because it appears to equate Nazi evil with homosexuality. Actually, all the sex in this movie is Evil, especially the perverse scenes between Martin and the little girls and between Martin and his own mother. They fulfill Aschenbach’s declaration that ‘everything is changing,’ and that ‘anything is possible’ for the new masters of the Reich.

The vicious power plays culminate in some strong scenes of extreme family stress, to say the least. Sophie’s final incestuous struggle with Martin is partially bathed in green light, mirroring her entrance in ghoulish red during Martin’s drag performance. She eventually suffers a traumatic rape and and emotional breakdown, and finishes catatonic in a ghastly makeup, painted like a ghost. Visconti concludes with a hellish wedding attended by SS degenerates and their prostitute girlfriends. Mood-wise, it feels like warm-up for Pier Paolo Pasolin’s Salò. Surely the last hours in Hitler’s bunker played out like a bizarre, Hellish ritual, so the finale is indeed a good expression of a Nazi Götterdämmerung.

The performances are fine all around. Every cast member gets the opportunity to perspire profusely as they are put on the spot. Star Bogarde’s Bruckmann is appropriately craven; by the third act nobody pays attention to his temper tantrums. Ingrid Thulin is successful in the impossible part of an imperious matriarch who is also a power-mad fiend capable of most any moral outrage.  The 23 year-old Charlotte Rampling plays one of the few characters who doesn’t want to cut someone’s throat, so we can guess early that her end is not going to be a happy one. Rampling would later return with Bogarde in The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani’s thematically similar, creepy movie about nostalgia for kinky ‘Nazi’ sex.

CineSavant correspondent ‘B’ points out that The Damned was credited with igniting a mini- subgenre of ‘Nazistas,’ exploitation pictures that combined sex and swastikas. ‘B’ also notes that Bob Fosse’s film version of the musical Cabaret would seem to be heavily inflluenced by Visconti’s film. The ’60s Broadway show was comparatively lighter in outlook.

 

Leading player Helmet Berger is ‘introduced’ in this film but previously had a small part in in Visconti’s episode of The Witches, the segment entitled The Witch Burned Alive. His Martin von Essenbeck is a good study in psychotic behavior, as the privileged heir never has to fully confront his crimes.

The part with the biggest arc is Renaud Verley’s young Günther. He begins as a cherubic cello player and ends as a convert to the SS cause, through the influence of Aschenbach, of course. Helmut Griem’s SS mastermind is one of the best Nazi characterizations ever. He’s as Aryan and plastic-looking as a Thunderbirds puppet, yet makes Aschenbach frighteningly charismatic. We always knew that real Nazis couldn’t have all been goonish movie thugs, like Konstantin Von Essenbeck.

I had forgotten an aspect of The Damned that bothered me when I first saw it twenty years ago: Visconti’s camera direction. Numerous scenes are filmed with a telephoto zoom lens, giving an impression of haste. Many shots start or end with zooms just beginning or ending, as if the cameras were ‘hosing down’ the scene like rehearsed TV coverage. One key closeup of Dirk Bogarde by Ingrid Thulin’s bedside is grossly out of focus until the actor re-finds his mark and pops into sharpness. Only parts of the film are shot this way, but whenever the style is used the camera seems to be randomly recording instead of looking for an expressive viewing position.

I’ve never heard of anybody confusing them, but for the record there are two other noteworthy film classics called ‘The Damned.’  René Clément’s Les Maudits from 1947 is a must-see war tale about Nazis escaping to South America. Joseph Losey’s 1961 The Damned is a top-rank science fiction thriller most often listed under the alternate title These are The Damned.   When Visconti’s movie was shown in a heavily cut version on television, the joke was that it should have been re-titled, ‘The Darned.’

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Damned is a stunning encoding of Visconti’s film via a new 2K digital restoration. Colors are rich and dark in the cavernous rooms of the Essenbeck mansion. Shots from a functioning steel mill figure in a visit and in a couple of montages, superimposed over the characters. We’re assured that this is the full-length version of the movie, uncut. It has played at various lengths when new, re-rated ‘R’, etcetera.

The movie plays very well in English; it’s what most of the actors appear to be speaking. The menus say an Italian track is present, but I could not access it on two different players, either through the menu or my remote.

The old Warners DVD carried only a short promotional featurette; Criterion gives us a wealth of vintage TV interviews that remove some of the mystery from Luchino Visconti’s cinematic aura. One interview piece has him responding live to critical questions like, ‘why did the Nazis have to connive for influence with the Essenbecks?   Why didn’t they just nationalize the steel industry?’  Older interviews with other stars are offered as well (the run-down is just below). Analysis of the film’s sex politics is offered by Stefano Albertini (in a 1960 docu) and D.A. Miller (in the insert essay).

The insert foldout is larger than normal; one side displays an ‘Arrow Films’- like poster, alternate artwork by George Pratt. His design for the disc cover incorporates a representation of a woman (Ingrid Thulin?) embracing a skull. This seems wholly appropriate, as Ingrid Thulin’s Countess Sophie cruises through much of the movie looking like one of Dracula’s vampire brides, or perhaps a less glamorous Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness. By the finish Thulin has transformed into a ghoul not that far removed from the nightmarish art on the cover.

The Damned concentrates mostly on intimate evil power plays within one family ‘associated’ with the Nazis. A more political director would have emphasized that the Essenbecks are first and foremost damnable war profiteers. I doubt that anybody would make a movie about today’s corporate dealers of armaments and munitions, the real beneficiaries of the world’s ongoing conflicts.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Damned
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (But no Alternate Italian-language soundtrack)
Supplements (from Criterion): Interview from 1970 with director Luchino Visconti; archival interviews with actors Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin, and Charlotte Rampling; Visconti On Set, a 1969 behind-the-scenes documentary; New interview with scholar Stefano Albertini about the sexual politics of the film, trailer. On an insert fold-out, an essay by D. A. Miller.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
September 26, 2021
(6575damn)
CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.