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Blu-ray: The Damned | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The Damned

Blu-ray: The Damned

Luchino Visconti’s indispensable trend-setting drama

Helmut Berger as Martin von Essenbeck (as Marlene Dietrich)Criterion Collection

One German writer found a neat yet teasing way to sum up the difference between Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), the first film in the Italian director’s “German trilogy”, and the two films that followed it.

The Damned, known in Italian as La caduta degli dei (meaning "the twilight of the Gods"), the writer explained, is “a masterpiece which is nonetheless suitable for the cinema-goers who fell asleep during Death in Venice (1971) or Ludwig II (1973)."

Visconti did, indeed, set out deliberately to surprise and to shock with The Damned, as he explains in a 1970 interview that's among the extras on this new Criterion release, a 2K digital restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna and Institut Lumière. In particular, he intended the dawn mass-killing of Ernst Röhm’s brownshirts, the so-called Night of the Long Knives of 30 June–2 July, 1934, to be sgomento, "alarming". Visconti’s imperative to give a warning about the dangers of fascism ran deep. When asked why the carpets in one of the grand houses used in the film needed be replaced with parquet flooring for the film, an operation which was to take several days, he declared that it was necessary because “the floor must play the music of fear”.

Criterion The DamnedYet Visconti also flirts with Nazi depravity and “chic” in a way that would be impossible today. And that fascination and those tropes make The Damned a film alive with contradictions, bringing to the fore Visconti’s own ambiguities as a gay Catholic and as a patrician communist. Such internal dichotomies have produced a vast array of scholarly explorations. For those seeking a launch-pad to go off and explore things like “neo-Gramscian hegemony”, there may be no other film quite as provocative or as fertile for theorising as this one.

Visconti elides and overlays both factual and fictional backgrounds in it, and that, too, has also proved fertile ground for exegesis. The Essenbeck family clearly has a historical antecedent in the Krupps. Visconti was fascinated with the fact that “cannons have always served the German state”, and that the Krupps had been making them since 1587. He was equally fascinated by the Krupp heir who walked away from his inheritance, Arndt von Bohlen und Halbach, who is clearly a model for the doomed character Martin, the breakthrough role for Helmut Berger. And yet the story of the downfall of an aristocratic family also has literary antecedents, not just in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, but also further back. When Visconti describes the smilingly evil character of Aschenbach, played by Helmut Griem, he sees him as representing the same function as the witches in Macbeth.

The Damned can be stagey and operatic, often creepily and ponderously so, but it is fascinating for its long-term function as a trend-setting and highly influential work. It was so widely watched that it became unavoidable, and paved the way for movies that followed it, for Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling to reunite in the dark Nazi-inspired games of The Night Porter. Further along the line it is hard to imagine Fassbinder’s Despair, also with Bogarde, without the blueprint of The Damned.

@sebscotney

Visconti flirts with Nazi depravity and 'chic' in a way that would be impossible today

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