THE DAMNED—depressing, ugly, wildly overrated 1969 drama chronicling the rise of Nazism through a decadent family of industrialists hit nerves with those who get off wallowing in the twisted and then insist on rationalizing the voyeurism as though it was insight. It also carried clout with ‘cineastes’ (forget the lowing public herd, who avoided it like a pox) because it was written & directed by Luchino Visconti, lauded for the neo-realism of 1960 art house favorite Rocco And His Brothers and especially the majestic sweep of 1963s neglected epic The Leopard.*
In 1933 Germany, the Reichstag Fire gives Hitler his coup and sees the ‘Essenbecks’ family, running a steel and weapons conglomerate (ala Krupp), descending from their normal everyday perversions into fratricide over how and with whom to align among the new gang of power grabbing brutes. Coarse ‘Konstantin’ (Rene Koldehoff, snorting) is a pig rooting for the Storm Troopers. Slithering sister ‘Sophie’ (Ingrid Thulin, gasping) and her malleable lover ‘Friedrich’ (Dirk Bogarde, smirking) have other ideas, gummed up by the sick habits of her incestuous, cross-dressing, child-abusing son ‘Martin’ (Helmut Berger, preening deviance). Appalled brother ‘Herbert’ (Umberto Orsini, quivering) and wife ‘Elizabeth’ (Charlotte Rampling, trembling) are the only decent souls. All are puppet-played by handsome SS confidante ‘Aschenbach’ (Helmut Griem, cheerfully certain).
The storyline is certainly viable, mostly compelling and the script (Oscar nominated) has some interesting snatches of dialogue—coming from a titled family wedded with a fortune in pharmaceuticals gave Visconti an insider take on indulgent wealth and business power plays.
The acting varies between bouts of either the impassioned and/or cool and outright florid scenery-chomping. Visconti’s direction is all over the map; sometimes inspired, often sloppy, with a lugubrious pace—it’s a slow 154 minutes and the best-handled sequence, a wild homosexual orgy that degenerates into the famous slaughter ‘the Night of the Long Knives’ doesn’t pick up the tempo until minute-90. Along with choppy editing, the cut-rate sound quality makes it seem dubbed, when it isn’t. Worst, the non-stop zoom shots in the camerawork undermine scene after scene, the ceaseless movements batting you bleary with technique.
Bogarde has a few good explosive moments. Koldehoff is about as subtle as a truncheon to the kidneys. Thulin is both garish (her pancake makeup is absurd) and, with her rapid-hissed English, frequently unintelligible. Best in the cast is Helmut Griem, suave and icy, en route to his famous seducers role in Cabaret.
But cheer up—there is Berger’s creepout drag performance ala Marlene Dietrich to suffer through, followed by truly uncomfortable child molestation that is purely exploitative. This is one of the Least Fun movies you can happen on. Its notoriety helped usher in a spate of Nazis+warped-sex crud. Visconti’s fellow Italian sensibility shaker Bernardo Bertolucci handled the Fascist-corruption theme much better, seven years later, in his huge four-hour canvas 1900.
With Renaud Verley, Albrecht Schoenhalls, Florinda Bolkan, Karl Otto Alberty. The 7-year-old girl molested by Berger is Irina Wanka, who managed to survive this and grew up into a career as an actress and sought-after voiceover artist.
*Since Visconti was out front about his homosexuality, and this salacious saga had his boyfriend Helmet Berger splayed all over it, along with cat-coyly-out-of-bag Bogarde, gay-wish-fulfillment poster boy Griem and bring-on-the-abuse Rampling it’s no news flash that it has ‘appeal’ of a kind, for some segment of one part of the audience—read some of the gushing comments on various net posts and it’s camp-obvious there are private agendas goosing some of its champions. It can’t be the crummy cinematography. Visconti is accurate with nakedly displaying (literally) the butch aspect of a segment of the Reich’s ‘Supermen’. The Brownshirt massacre of #2 Nazi bigwig & homosexual Ernst Röhm and his slavish, like-leaning followers, shown midway in the pic, was mostly inspired by power struggles but it also gave a free hand to ‘purge’ gays from the German landscape along with all the others deemed unworthy. All this has a place in fact and in the film, but Visconti isn’t content with just shuffling the deck. He stacks it, so ‘Martin’ (Berger, (his longtime partner) isn’t just blatantly swishy and bitchy, he’s a child molester and a mother-rapist, too. Bogarde had gradually been letting his closet mask slip for years, starting in 1961 with Victim, so he had no trouble portraying a gender-bender, and his crushing WW2 experiences left him with such hatred of things Germanic that his job here (and later, in the rot of The Night Porter) had something of a revenge motive attached. Rampling would join him for the explicit tawdriness in that film. As for the other Helmut, the charming and Aryan prototype-handsome Griem, his ‘Max’ in Cabaret gave Michael York–and plenty of nominally heterosexual men as well– food for thought, when the alternative was Liza Minnelli. Was sage ich?