***/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Helmut Griem, Helmut Berger
screenplay by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti
directed by Luchino Visconti
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover It's hard to know what to think of a film as divided against itself as Luchino Visconti's The Damned. A portrait of corrupted aristocracy during the Nazi era that drags in sensational elements unrelated to its stated subject matter, it feels like a tabloid exposé in that it's more fascinated than critical of what it claims to repudiate. But once you get past the kink factor of jet-black uniforms and transvestite SA gatherings, you see what's really on Visconti's mind: an examination of how the privileged class was headed off at the pass by a fascist movement that rose from the lower orders. It's a weird smash-up between Visconti's class loyalties and his Nazi tormentors, and if their implications don't exactly impress, they make for a fairly absorbing exercise in rise-and-fall horror.
The plot is complex and confusing--near as I can figure, it's about the Essenbecks, a family of steel industrialists based loosely on the Krupp dynasty. No sooner are they debating a plunge into Nazi economics than is the Reichstag fire set and the Essenbeck patriarch murdered, creating a power vacuum that, with the family's resident left-leaner sent fleeing the country, can only be filled by a schemer. At first, the company falls into the hands of obnoxious nephew and SA man Konstantin (Rene Kolldehoff), who moves towards Nazifying the family firm--but Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), lover of Baroness Sophie von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin), thinks he can gain control with the help of cousin/SS member Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). When betting on Nazis, of course, nobody wins but the house: Konstantin soon finds himself on the receiving end of the Night of the Long Knives, while Frederick is usurped by Sophie's über-Nazi son, Martin (Helmut Berger), whose hobbies include child molesting and incestuous longings for mother.
It's this last part that rankles most: once you've reached the point where Nazis can be identified by perversion, you've crossed the line from domestic drama into kinky soap opera. Visconti's been known for his fascination with decay, but he's unfortunately let that fascination dribble all over the realism of The Damned, making the lesser thematic concerns compete with the upfront depravity that runs wild in the family. This is unacceptable for a couple of reasons. One, it stacks the deck in the audience's favour--there's no chance that they'll see themselves in the film's cartoon villains and thus won't reflect on their own possible culpability. Two, it uses the stock props of Nazism for an S&M sideshow, which reduces the suffering of millions to a cheap bondage turn-on. One wonders about the director's motives for tackling this subject, or if he cares about the implications of his images.
But perhaps this is missing the point. Visconti's secondary concern seems to be the dissolution of aristocracy by the cultural clean-sweep of the Nazi regime--and he reaps interesting dividends in that regard. The Essenbecks think they're riding Hitler to power and influence, but wind up being ridden by Hitler straight into the ground; by the end of the movie, the human connections and civility have been sucked dry, a victim of expediency and corruption that run counter to the continuity of the aristocratic line. As it's one of the many blue-blood transition points that Visconti lived to delineate (think Senso and The Leopard), he's marshalled the worst possible people to represent the killers of a class. His filmic rage comes with some heat, and while one can argue with the merits of his method, there's no denying that it's aroused a compelling film--less for the de rigueur kinks of Nazi chic than for its uniquely elegiac horror at how Nazism penetrated and replaced the normalcy of German life.
Warner's DVD release of The Damned gets fairly high marks. As befits a Visconti epic, the colours on the well-defined image--anamorphically letterboxed at 1.78:1--are lustrous and saturated, with reds coming through particularly vividly. While there is a small amount of muddiness during scenes of darkness, it's not enough to seriously dent its success. The mono sound is sharp and clear. Extras include "Visconti" (a 9-minute profile of the director on the set that is straight-up studio hagiography) and the film's trailer.
157 minutes; R; 1.78:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 1.0; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner