Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
I knew going into The Damned that I was going to be in for a rough ride. I’ve been spending too much time with short movies lately, though, and needed to get something with a little more heft crossed off. I’ve also been ignoring the 1960s of late, not for any reason other than I’ve just been watching from other decades instead. The Damned, which clocks in north of two-and-a-half hours and is from 1969, fit both criteria. That it’s also a singularly unpleasant film about pre-war Germany and the rise of the Nazis is another matter entirely.
So, this is very much a film with characters centered in Nazi ideology, but it’s absolutely not a war film. Instead, the focus is on a wealthy German family that runs a steel-making empire. The family has weathered the defeat of Germany in the Great War and the massive economic depression that followed. Now, with the rise of National Socialism, the family deals with its evolving opinion of the new chancellor. Sounds like fun, right?
We’re not given a host of likeable characters here. The film opens on a dinner party held by the Essenbeck family. As it happens, it’s also the night of the Reichstag fire, which eventually cemented the rising power of the Nazis. The family reacts in different ways. Head of the family Joachim Von Essenbeck is a staunch anti-Nazi. He’s not much of a factor here, though, because he’s killed by someone in the house before the night is over. Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini), who is even more open about his disdain for the party, is framed for the crime. He escapes the Gestapo, but his wife and daughters are taken into custody.
After Joachim’s death, Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff) takes over the empire. Konstantin is a loyal Nazi and a loyal Brownshirt. He is grooming his son Gunther (Renaud Verley) as his eventual successor, but also deals with his nephew Martin (Helmut Berger). Martin deserves his own paragraph; we’ll get to him in a minute. Also thrown into the mix are Martin’s mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) and her lover Freidrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde). Bruckmann is a vice president in the firm, and the death of Joachim causes him to rise quickly in social and financial power.
So let’s talk about Martin for a moment. Martin is, of course, a loyal Nazi. Martin is also the sort of cartoon character that seems to be popular in movies of this ilk. In a movie filled with amoral and reprehensible characters, Martin has every sexual deviance of the time that could be thought of. Martin is, among other things, a transvestite (he performs in drag early in the film), gay, incestuous, and a child rapist. While a couple of those are no longer considered socially taboo, there’s no mistake that this character is presented to us as sociopathic, immoral, and absolutely enamored of Nazi ideology.
One of the big scenes here, in fact one of the scenes that earned The Damned its original X rating, is the depiction of the Night of the Long Knives when the Sturmabteilung (the Brownshirts) were purged. Here, the purge is depicted as happening the middle of a large cross-dressing homosexual bacchanal. Among the casualties is Konstantin, which creates a new power struggle for control of the Essenbeck family and business. The final act of the film more or less concerns the deadly political and familial maneuverings for final control of the business and for how that business will deal with the Nazi regime as it rebuilds its military machinery.
So, The Damned is not the sort of movie that one watches for a good time sitting on the couch. In a lot of ways, it feels like Salo with all of the torture and defecation removed. The sensibilities are very much the same at the very least. We’re presented with a host of people who can get no better than being the best of a bad lot. In fact, the only decent characters either vanish for large parts of the film (like Herbert) or are essentially non-entities (like Gunther).
While it’s not pleasant, this is still a film that is worth watching. Nearly 25 years after the end of the Third Reich, there was still that massive need to understand exactly what happened and how it happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. This is, I think, what Visconti is trying to figure out, and that makes this a natural parent to something like The White Ribbon. Sadly, since the characters are such broad stereotypes in so many ways, this is far less effective. The extreme nature of these characters, especially Martin, cause The Damned to come across at least in part like a cartoon.
I end up thinking about this the same way I seem to come at a lot of Luchino Visconti’s work. His films are always visually interesting, but also feel far too long (at least the ones I’ve seen) and also lack subtlety. All of his films feel like the first film of someone with talent who hasn’t quite learned how to tell a compelling story yet. The ideas are good and visually the film is great, but the man simply doesn’t tell his stories that well. It’s also disconcerting to have this many actors speaking different languages, which forces some goofy dubbing. I know it’s happening, but it’s still weird to look at.
Why to watch The Damned: Visconti’s work is always worth at least a look.
Why not to watch: It’s very unpleasant.