"This astonishing if ultimately frustrating production fuses two motifs familiar from earlier Visconti works: the historical spectacular (Senso, The Leopard) and the family saga (La Terra trema, Rocco and His Brothers). But there almost any similarity with the director's early films ceases altogether. The Damned is history as Walpurgisnacht, focusing upon the peripeties of a German family of industrialists-evidently modeled upon the Krupps--whose secret repository of vices gives new meaning to the stock phrase "skeleton in the closet". On the eve of the Reichstag fire, the Von Essenbecks, owners of an important steel factory with close traditional ties to the military, gather to celebrate the birthday of the family patriarch, Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals).
The heir to the dynasty is the elegant, amoral Martin (Helmut Berger), the only child of Joachim's son who has died in World War I and the beautiful, unscrupulous Baroness Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin). Sophie is enamored of the ambitious Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), and plans to use her son as a pawn to promote Friedrich's rise to power as head of the family business. Yet Sophie, in spite of her passionate love for Friedrich, is pathologically attached to Martin, who in turn has a psychopathic attraction to little girls. To guarantee the Nazis' control of the steel works, Friedrich conspires with the diabolical SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) in the killing of old Joachim, and later in the assassination of Martin's uncle Konstantin (Rene Koldehoff) during a homosexual orgy of SA followers on the Night of the Long Knives. But Friedrich's petty Machiavellian schemes to advance his own personal fortunes are readily outmatched by the superior cunning and ruthlessness of the Mephistophelean Nazis with whom he has sealed his Faustian pact.
It would be an understatement to characterize The Damned as oppressive. One of the standard conventions of older Italian films about fascism had been to pit bestial Nazis against numerically inferior but morally superior adversaries-the prototype is Roberto Rossellini's Open City. However, in this movie the forces of evil seem invincible. The film concludes-after Friedrich and Sophie have been forced to commit suicide following their nuptials-with images of a blast furnace: history being transformed into an inferno by the power of the total state.
Visconti further reinforces the pervasive mood of suffocation, an asphyxia nearly as much physical as moral and political, with a dazzling use of color mise en scène, emphasizing brown, black, and red shades, brilliantly realized by his directors of photography, Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi. Ever since shooting Senso, the director had shown a sensitivity to the expressive possibilities of color, but here he really outdid himself, without ever falling into the pictorialism that mars The Leopard as well as Death in Venice, and even more Ludwig. (Anyone who writes a book on the history of color cinematography one day will have to devote an entire chapter to Visconti.)
In his early films, Visconti seemed as much rooted in the 19th century as D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, or John Ford, a committed leftist who nevertheless owed as much to the humanistic realism of Alessandro Manzoni as to the economic and political doctrines of Karl Marx. But his career underwent a mutation in the1960s, signs of which are more evident in the febrile Sandra (1965), with its incestuous brother-sister relationship, than in the pallid, pious adaptation of Albert Camus' The Stranger (1967). The original, apocalyptically charged title of The Damned is La Caduti degli dei or The Fall of the Gods, an allusion to the final opera in The Ring of the Nibelung, bringing in both Richard Wagner-one of the spiritual godfathers of Nazism-as well as Wagner's vision of a fiery consummation of human history in the conflagration of Valhalla.
Yet Visconti's world ends in The Damned neither with a bang nor a whimper, but a fascist travesty of the heritage of European civilization, from art of ancient times down to the German cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. In this regard, the movie adopts the overtly deconstructive stance of postmodernism towards the past by showing how once viable cultural traditions can be corrupted and thus irretrievably lost. More of an allegory out of Sigmund Freud or Wilhelm Reich than a historical picture, The Damned does not at all pick up where The Leopard stopped, but anticipates in both dramatic strategy and style Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, which in a memorable sequence juxtaposes the choral finale of Beethoven's 9th Symphony-already made grotesque by being performed on a synthesizer-with images of Adolf Hitler strutting before his rapt admirers extracted from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.
In my own opinion, Visconti was one of the great directors in the history of the cinema, but The Damned is an agonistic work rather than an accomplished one, the record of an artist's struggle with his own personal demons. Still, The Damned is far more impressive than any of Bernardo Bertolucci's psychosexual exercises in interpreting history-not to mention a rebuke to such Fellini psychedelic schlock as Julietta of the Spirits or Satyricon--and Visconti got invaluable support from his cast, especially Ingrid Thulin and Dirk Bogarde, although some viewers may have a problem with Helmut Berger as the epicene Martin. Warner Home Video asks quite a stiff price for this tape, which does not seem to me wholly justified. The picture quality is adequate in copies I have seen, but this version is the R rated one, missing some footage deleted to change the original X-the IMDb gives the Italian running time as 155 minutes-- and the aspect ratio is not 1.85 letterbox as it should be, but full screen television."
Curtis P. Fallgren | San Francisco CA | 09/04/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Directed by Luchino Visconti in 1969 (during a period of exceptional fecundity of controversial and political films) this film stars Dirk Bogard, Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger. This trio has an extraordinary energy which allows for powerful and brilliant tableaus throughout the film. But also these actors become an ingenious study in themselves of the already corrupted middle and upper class German life; They are mere refuse from Germany's now dying Weimar Republic.
The story begins in the first year of Hitler's new Germany, and extends through mid 1934, peaking at Hitler's betrayal and massacre of his own idealistic and loyal SA troops headed by Ernst Rhome, a man he had loved.
The essential myopia and self-aggrandizing nature of these ruthless Nazi military capitalists (the trio and their cohorts), blends well with their all pervasive lack of genuine morality. This upper crust elite, abetted by the already effective propaganda machine used by the Nazi party, paints a vivid portrait of Germany's first year adjustment and committment to the fascist state.
Hauntingly revealing of the nature of creature human's ability to not know what s/he knows. Not unlike today and the average person's minimal grasp of just what the military industrial complex is doing within this Country as well as outside this Country.
Visconti's sets are often authentic structures or painstakingly exaggerated replications. To increase the drama and sheer size of these sets, some were built with walls slanting inward to agument their huge size. The costumes are detailed, elegant and elaborate enough to add to the already dramatic story and fanciful sets.
This film is worthwhile viewing if for no other reason than to see the young Helmut Berger in his debut as a character of extreme complexity, evil and deviousness. As a young Nazi, blond and beautiful, he easily reflects the new Germany he is supposed to represent. Visconti's "The Damned" is a film that is as contemporary with human lesson and meaning today as it would have been had it actually been made in Germany in 1933 and 1934."
"Offers one cannot refuse........"
Curtis P. Fallgren | 01/24/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
""DYNASTY" Teutonic style? Close, but not quite - perhaps a mix of "MacBeth" with overtones of "Oedipus/Hamlet" thrown in - THAT unforgettable scene [was it the underwear] between son Helmut Berger and Ice Queen mother Ingrid Thulin. [It's also quite like Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui", or Coppola's Godfather saga ].Brilliant Dirk Bogarde as the "lover" daring to venture, but not quite expecting that surprise end-result! AND Helmut Berger's first scene - "quite out Fossies - Bob Fosse".A nasty little tale about a rich mixed up kid in just, just pre-WW11 Germany, not quite knowing what or where, but being guided bit by bit into his own chosen Hell. Says a lot about the unstoppable power-hungry rich having access to unlimited resources and basically devouring its own kind in its quest for national or global control. There's much, much more to this movie, superbly directed by Visconti, and very advanced for 1969.Watch out for Charlotte Rampling [later teamed with Bogarde in the similarly veined "Night Porter"], also Helmut Griem who graduated to Bob Fosse's "Cabaret" as the bisexual [and very rich] love-interest; but the movie really belongs to Bogarde, Thulin and Helmut Berger. Opulent art direction and costuming, a super period piece for the connoisseur and serious film student - today we get pale imnitations - this is the real thing, a must see!It's time for a complete DVD restoration of this fascinating and disturbing work."
Trevor Willsmer | London, England | 11/13/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
""You must realize that today in Germany anything can happen, even the improbable, and it's just the beginning, Frederick. Personal morals are dead. We are an elite society where everything is permissible. These are Hitler's words. My dear Frederick, even you should give them some thought."
Visconti's tale of evil triumphant, The Damned is much better than it's given credit for. Beginning with a birthday party on the night of the burning of the Reichstag, the first of the Nazis many excuses for a little internal and external housekeeping, and using the fall of an aristocratic family of German industrialists who think they can control the Nazi Party for their own advantage to mirror the vicious power struggle between the SS and the SA as the Party corrupts and then destroys those who help it to power, it's certainly sensational - incest, child abuse, rape, murder, transvestism, homosexuality and, in the brutal recreation of the Night of Long Knives, mass murder are all on the menu. Nor are there any really sympathetic characters in this nest of vipers: even Umberto Orsini's sole voice of protest is raised too late to do any good in a family where no-one opposes and no-one stands together as one by one they meet their doom at each others' hands. Even those who actively plot to steal power - Ingrid Thulin's Lady MacBeth figure and Dirk Bogarde's executive desperate to marry into the family and become the heir apparent only to gradually realise that he has accepted a ruthless logic he can never get away from - become victims of their own internecine machinations. Their wedding becomes a macabre union between two of the walking dead, the reception a soulless affair filled with hookers and hangers on that stands as the complete antithesis of the lavish ballroom scene in The Leopard. In this atmosphere of moral decay and corruption, only the emptiest and most amoral can thrive in the form of Helmut Berger's disturbed paedophile, because he alone among them has no delusions of mastery or even thinking for himself: as long as his desires are fed, he's only too happy to be told what to think and what to do. Throughout, Helmut Griem's Mephistophelean SS puppet master never coerces or forces, he merely facilitates as they bring about their own destruction.
A few anachronisms aside, it's a chilling précis of how the ruling class - and by association the German population at large - willingly sold their souls and brought about their own destruction under Hitler, and Warners' DVD offers a good widescreen transfer of the uncut version that restores the extended build-up to the Night of Long Knives cut from the English-language prints, although only in subtitled German. Along with the trailer (which, along with the poster image of Helmut Berger dragged up as Marlene Dietrich, shows just how clueless the studio were how to market the film), the only other extra is a brief promotional featurette about the making of the film from 1969. "
Classic "Must-See" Visconti Masterpiece
Dan R. Doolin | New York City | 08/13/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It does not get much better than this in film. Visconti, a master film maker, exhibits his genius in this jaw-droppingly beautiful, exotic foreign classic. The Damned introducted Mr. Visconti's male partner, Helmut Berger, to the screen. Mr. Berger's acting is effortless as he is surrounded by stunning beautiful scenery, costumes and experienced foreign classic actors, who portray this screen play, partially written by Mr. Visconti. The camera work is not-to-be missed. You will be intrigued by the story and mezmerized by the beauty of the surroundings in each frame. The sumptuous decors are perfect to the last detail. Prepare yourself for a film experience which is among the finest available. All of Mr. Visconti's work should be seen. They don't make 'em like this anymore !"