Watching Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film, “The Damned “(“La Caduta Degli Dei,” literally “The Fall Of The Gods”), not long after I watched James Dean’s last film, “Giant,” was an interesting synchronicity, because both films center around the lives of the obscenely wealthy who are ethically corrupt. Both films are also examples of well made soap operas, with Visconti’s film being a sort of Nazi version of the old 1980s prime time soap opera “Dynasty.” However, while nowhere near a great film, Visconti’s film is clearly a superior film to “Giant,” from its more dynamic camera work to its soundtrack, which grabs one from its opening credit sequence, through its surprisingly well acted melodrama.
In a sense, Visconti offers us a modern Shakespearean parable about the Nazis, a nice change from the usual ‘Ain’t they evil bastards?’ routine. Also refreshing was the fact that this film does not lard the viewer with heavyhanded moralism. There is no focus on the corpses of dead Jews and others in concentration camps because this film does not focus on the Second World War, but on the Nazi rise to power, in 1933 and 1934. And it’s far scarier to see how easily people in power were willing to compromise themselves, all for the sake of continued luxury, as their country decayed, than it is to merely see the bodycount caused by typically cartoonish swastika lovers, because the former can easily be seen as a mirror held up to many, whereas the latter cannot.
The story is a narrative that, while confusing, in a realistic sense, is still guilty pleasure enjoyable because it has such ridiculous highs and lows. The tale centers around a fictive family of a wealthy steel Baron, the Von Essenbecks (very loosely based on the steel Krupp dynasty from Essen). The tale centers on five main characters: the Baron’s daughter Sophie (Ingrid Thulin, of Ingmar Bergman film fame); Sophia’s pedophilic, transvestite, incest-lusting son Martin (Helmut Berger); the Baron’s son- a homosexual SA leader, Konstantin (Rene Kolldehoff), Sophia’s scheming fiancé, Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), who manages the steel factories, and SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), who portrays one of the most effective Nazis ever onscreen. He just oozes evil. Assorted backstabbing and perversity reigns: Aschenbach powers Frederick into family power by murdering the old Baron, Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals), then blaming the lone decent member of the clan, Herbert Thalman, (Umberto Orsini), also an important company leader, who flees the country, only to return a year later after his wife and children have been deported to Dachau.
Sophia schemes to outwit Aschenbach after she tips him off about her homosexual brother, and Aschenbach has him killed on “The Night Of The Long Knives,” align with assorted other homosexual SA leaders. Martin morphs from a drag queen to a pedophile obsessed with both his young cousin and a young Jewess who lives in an apartment opposite one he rents. When the young Jewish girl is killed by hanging, possibly by Aschenbach or Konstantin, or even due to her own guilt over Martin’s ‘friendliness,’ Martin flips out, and rebels against Frederick, then embraces his hatred for his mother to become a Nazi, full force, eventually forcing her to have sex with him, then marry Frederick, and giving them both poison to kill themselves, which they do.
The 157 minute long film is not realistic, in any way, and never sinks into the unfunny wannabe camp that plagues the cinematic atrocities of Pier Paolo Pasolini, for this film actually has a tale, and one worth telling. The film that it most conjures up is Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour Of The Wolf,” a film which also featured Ingrid Thulin in nude sex scenes of a perverse nature (necrophilia there, incest here), as well as Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” wherein the perversity is so operatic and over the top, yet so beautifully wrought, that it becomes an odd art unto itself, somehow outside of being merely ‘cinematic.’
That said, the cinematography and framing of the film’s scenes (each one like a lush Renaissance painting), by cinematographers Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi is gorgeous, a vision of decayed elegance, and plays extraordinarily well against the alternately industrial and filigreed musical choices made by Maurice Jarre in the soundtrack.
The acting is excellent, for one senses that while the characters are over the top, the actors always reign them in to be just believable enough to be scary, and not laughable. Dirk Bogarde has the most thankless role as a man with a conscience, but betrayed by his own greed. He gives a hell of a performance. Ingrid Thulin has been better, but her character really hits home after her betrayal by Martin, her son, after he rapes her, causing a slow catatonia that leads to her acceptance of suicide (this from a woman who, earlier, had no remorse in betraying Thalmann’s wife, Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling), thus exiling her to death in Dachau.
Helmut Griem, as mentioned, is the perfect cinema Nazi, in looks and acting, which displays why the Nazis were so seductive- for he has the good looks, intelligence, and charm of Ted Bundy. Multiply that by several thousand and one can see why the Nazis were able to rise to power not through brutality alone. Renaud Verley’s Gunteher Von Essenbeck, son of Konstantin, who hates his father, loves his uncle Herbert, but ends up a Nazi to spite his family, has what, in any other film, would be the most bizarre character arc, but, in this film, that claim gets staked by Helmut Berger, who plays the sexually twisted Martin, which rivals Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho, at the start of the decade this film was released in, as the most bizarre character twist. It was the most universally praised performance in the film, but, in reality, it is not so much acting as balls to the walls, scenery chewing, I don’t give a fuck overacting. Yet, it works in this film, for this part, for the film is a Du Maurier or Bronte sisters sort of tale, only with crazier residents. And its influence on the later film version of the musical Cabaret is apparent. The screenplay, by Visconti, Enrico Medioli, and Nicola Badalucco (from his own original story), does that most interesting and daring of things- being over the top but mesmerizing nonetheless.
The DVD, from Warner Brothers, shows the film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio and has only two features: the original theatrical trailer, and a contemporary making of film called Visconti. However, the film makes up for that paltry total by showing the film in English, thus showing, again, that dubbing is far superior to subtitling in foreign films. While the English actors, like Rampling and Bogarde, spoke English, as did a few of the other actors, one can clearly see how effective the dubbing (or looping) process was used. One only wishes that more modern foreign films would go the little extra mile to please audiences in other parts of the world by doing as fine dubbing work as this.
“The Damned” is a good, solid prose film, exquisitely wrought, sans any visual or narrative poesy, but one dripping in melodrama. Yes, Visconti may have been better served, cinematically, in making the tale a little more realistic, but then the film would not have been as fun, nor memorable, if not in the way great works of art are, then in the way great primal screams are. And they are known to have the benefits and virtues, too.