Blu-ray Review: The Damned | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, October 26th, 2021  

The Damned

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Oct 11, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

It may very well be impossible to properly prepare for the descent into decadence and depravity that is Luchino Visconti’s The Damned. As a relative neophyte to the director (having only seen Rocco & His Brothers), that was certainly the case in this instance.

To set the stage: It’s the dawn of Nazism, or shortly thereafter. Germany isn’t under Hitler’s boot just yet but he’s a known entity who is getting stronger by the day. His impending rule is seen not as a hypothetical but an unavoidable eventuality. As such, the aristocratic von Essenbeck family falls in line. The patriarch, Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals), reluctantly so on the night of his birthday celebration as he sees the Nazis as scum, but also recognizes his family’s clearest path is to welcome Hitler’s thugs through gritted teeth.

Joachim is murdered that night with Herbert (Umberto Orsini), the anti-Nazi VP who was ousted earlier in the evening, being framed.

This opening sequence almost suggests that, in spite of Joachim’s violent death, the film will be a series of power plays as the remaining family members position themselves to take over. And while it certainly is that, The Damned doesn’t get trapped in its aristocratic sheen and there are hints that this will be the case.

Joachim’s daughter-in-law - and widow of his only son - Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) is, for much of the film, depicted as ruthless and power-driven. She, not Herbert, is responsible for Joachim’s murder alongside her lover and future husband Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde), who is notably meek. Friedrich is also being coached by SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) about how he can best navigate the family ranks en route to power. But it’s Martin (Helmut Berger), Sophie’s son, who pushes the boundaries of where the film conceivably can and will go. Martin is introduced in Marlene Dietrich-inspired drag where he serenades his noticeably uncomfortable grandfather. Out of costume, Martin is effeminate and lispy to further the notion that he is stereotypically a homosexual.

But this is not really the case. It’s hinted upon during a game of hide-and-seek with his young nieces that he is molesting one of them, which is expanded upon when it’s much more directly shown that he is abusing a young Jewish girl who lives next to his girlfriend. Martin isn’t gay, and shouldn’t be seen as an offensive shorthand, but instead as someone whose appetites know no bounds, especially as upright society starts to crumble. He’s also enabled by his various protectors who either look the other way or ensure he has safe passage to continue his harmful deviance.

This, at least partially, is the point. Martin is the most overtly depraved member of the family, but that’s only because Sophie and Friedrich are lusting for power at the expense of everyone around them that their crimes seem muted by comparison even if they’re excessive in a different way. They represent the venality of evil, to play with a term coined by political theorist Hannah Arendt.

As the Nazi party rises to power it chews people up and spews them out when they’re either no longer useful or are perceived becoming too ambitious or powerful in their own right. The von Essenbeck family’s great undoing is their unbridled and unencumbered ambition. They align with Aschenbach, but he’s a rabid wolf with a stoic exterior. Konstantin’s (Reinhard Kolldehoff) fate as one of the SA officers shot down during The Night of the Long Knives - depicted as a homosexual orgy before the guns arrive - should act as the tip-off to Sophie and Friedrich, but they foolishly believe they’re protected.

The Damned doesn’t shy away from sex or violence and this is most effectively shown in The Night of the Long Knives sequence that begins in celebration that gradually turns into a homosexual sex party before buckets of bright red blood are poured out as they’re exterminated. On one hand, the SA are eradicated because they may have grown too strong. On the other, it’s evidence that Hitler will murder those who don’t conform to his binary ideal.

The film is very much an exploration of how power corrupts and decays. And while the depravity doesn’t go nearly as far as Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, they do serve as interesting bookends of where this kind of unchecked power - particularly via fascist totalitarianism - can ultimately lead.

The Criterion edition is an example of what they do best. Film scholar D.A. Miller helps put the film into historical context with his superb accompanying essay, “Damned if you Do it.” Additionally, there are archive interviews with Visconti and several of the film’s actors and a new interview with scholar Stefano Albertini that explores and helps contextualize the sexual politics within the film.

The Damned is a compelling and often entertaining melodrama that is also extremely bleak, challenging, and revolting. Epic in scope, Visconti doesn’t hold back in his bold vision of the corruptibility of power and ambition.



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