The Damned (1969), followed by Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973), is a historical drama film by Luchino Visconti and the first installment of the aforementioned German trilogy. Set in the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power, the film portrays the steady disintegration of the affluent Essenbeck family due to the actions of one Hauptsturmführer Aschenbach, a highly influential and manipulative leader of the Schutzstaffel.
Events in the film are driven by real-life incidents that were instrumental to the transformation of the Weimar Republic (Hitler as Chancellor) to Nazi Germany (Hitler as Führer). These include the Reichstag fire and the Röhm purge (or, The Night of the Long Knives), among others.
A Milanese nobleman himself, Visconti (officially The Count of Lonate Pozzolo) luxuriates in the decay of German nobility due to Nazi interference and the intrinsic decadence of the members of the Essenbeck family. As a result, The Damned presents itself as a detailed study of instability, sexual transgression, and megalomania, with particular attention to the characterization of the aggressors and their victims.
The man, his mother, her lover, and their cousin
The elderly patriarch Joachim von Essenbeck’s birthday party serves as the point of introduction for all the major players in this demented power game. We are first introduced to Konstantin von Essenbeck, Joachim’s nephew and SA officer, whose son Günther is his father’s polar opposite, preferring to take refuge in music instead of whatever Konstantin does. To ensure the survival of the Essenbeck steelworks in the emerging fascist climate, the Nazi-averse Joachim decides to make Konstantin the vice-president, replacing the outspoken critic of the Third Reich, Herbert Thalmann.
As news of the Reichstag fire breaks out, SS officer Aschenbach, a cousin of Sophie’s husband (Joachim’s deceased son), sets things rolling towards the beginning of the end. An ambitious social climber and Sophie’s lover Friedrich Bruckmann is carefully provoked into assassinating Joachim with Herbert’s gun.
Herbert is forced to flee as the Gestapo arrives to arrest him, leaving his wife, Elizabeth, at the mercy of the Essenbecks. As Sophie and Friedrich bond over their machinations, Sophie speaks disparagingly of her son Martin, the new owner of the Essenbeck steelworks. With Joachim dead and Herbert out of sight, Sophie speaks of persuading her son to abdicate his throne in favor of Friedrich.
But Sophie’s impression of her son is misleading. Martin von Essenbeck is first seen in drag, channeling Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930). His decision to partake in a drag performance on his grandfather’s birthday is clearly amusing, but there is no immediate indication of him being a dangerous deviant.
Just as the viewer is beginning to regard Martin in an unserious manner (not unlike his mother), Visconti drops some extremely unpleasant hints about Martin’s nature. A quiet predator, Martin dons a playful persona to trap unsuspecting young girls like Thilde in a cycle of abuse: he is a pedophile.
In other news, Aschenbach stalls the supply of weapons to the SA to fulfill Hitler’s vision of eliminating Röhm. Günther’s school is set on fire. Sophie arranges for Elizabeth and her children to be deported to the newly opened Dachau Internment Camp. Lisa, Martin’s latest victim, hangs herself. Konstantin discovers Martin’s transgressions and attempts to steer the weapons supply back to the SA by blackmailing him.
Sophie discovers a disheveled Martin in the attic and reports to Aschenbach to get him out of trouble. Friedrich is aghast to find out that Aschenbach wants him to eliminate Konstantin. By this time, it’s implied that Aschenbach is too shrewd not to abuse Friedrich’s ambitious nature, constantly deceiving him on the pretext of promising power.
The SA (including Konstantin) gather at Bad Wiessee for an evening of drunken merrymaking. As the SA officers retire to their beds with their young male companions, the SS raids the place at the crack of dawn in an event known in history as The Night of Long Knives. Friedrich doubles his murder count by executing Konstantin at the behest of the ever-powerful Aschenbach. He then turns his attention to the increasingly volatile Martin to leverage his hatred of Sophie.
Aschenbach’s strategy to pacify Martin works because he says the exact words that Martin craves: that he is not guilty. In the ensuing conversation, Martin vows to destroy his mother’s security, effectively submitting himself to Nazi control. Aschenbach’s job is done: the heir to the Essenbeck throne is no longer a thinking human, and his mother and her lover are about to be exterminated for using ‘national socialism’ for their own benefit.
A commotion erupts at the dinner table when Friedrich von Essenbeck starts to assert himself as the family patriarch before Sophie, Martin, Günther, and Aschenbach. In the middle of a heated argument with Günther, the arrival of the absconding Herbert Thalmann serves as the last nail in the coffin for Sophie and Friedrich. In a moment of revelation, Günther learns from an outraged and fearless Martin that Friedrich is Konstantin’s killer.
No amount of Sophie’s admonishment would work on a now fully transformed Martin. Aschenbach embraces Günther. Martin sexually assaults his mother the night before her wedding. Sophie sinks into an unresponsive stupor. Friedrich and Sophie get married. Martin gifts his mother and her new husband a pair of cyanide capsules immediately after the wedding. The Damned ends with Martin doing the Nazi salute before his dead mother.
Direction and Performances
The Damned is a perfectly cast film. Helmut Berger as Martin von Essenbeck is the star attraction of Visconti’s (almost literary) epic. No other actor, not even Alain Delon, would fit into the role of Martin. One doesn’t need to be devastatingly beautiful to pull off an androgynous character, so this is more about Helmut Berger’s disposition than his physical beauty. Mr. Berger was also openly bisexual; perhaps that acted as a catalyst for his perfection.
Ingrid Thulin as Sophie von Essenbeck is equally impressive as the definition of opulence. In contrast, Dirk Bogarde, who nails the role of Friedrich, looks rather plain (which he should, because he is not family). Bogarde is so good at portraying the anxious, unassertive pushover Friedrich Bruckmann that it is easy to rank this role as one of his best. It’s right up there with the characters of Hugo Barrett in Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963) and Max Aldorfer in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974).
Lastly, when singling out individual performances, it would be a crime not to hail Helmut Griem as the nefarious Aschenbach. Viewers can wonder what makes everyone fall prey to his words, but I chalk it up to his voice – silky monotone delivered with conviction, great at goading unsure people into action.
Regarding the other aspects of film form, Visconti excels in almost everything. The frequent zoom-ins might look theatrical, but they fit in with the way the film is presented. The Night of Long Knives sequence is exquisite in its portrayal of homosexual SA officers of the likes of Konstantin dancing and drowning in booze. Bathed in reddish yellow and decorated with men in pearls, corsets, and satins, Visconti creates a fleeting moment of chaotic freedom before ending it in mass slaughter—soft-focus cinematography for the win.
Luchino Visconti had a penchant for exploring inhumanity in his films, be it through Rocco and His Brothers or The Damned. And he did it very well. As an icon of European cinema, he collaborated with other icons like Helmut Berger, Alain Delon, Dirk Bogarde, and Claudia Cardinale to create critically acclaimed feature films, many of which won multiple awards at Cannes and Venice. Although Visconti’s career began with pioneering work on neorealism, today, he is known for sweeping grandeur and the cinema of decadence, very much like The Damned.