Written by: Johan Fundin on June 10th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: October 14th, 1969, Italy
Director: Luchino Visconti
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Helmut Griem, Helmut Berger, Renaud Verley, Florinda Bolkan, Charlotte Rampling
DVD released: May 24th, 2004
Approximate running time: 150 minutes
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English
DVD release: Warner Home Video (UK)
Region coding: Region 2 PAL
Retail Price: £5.99
“Watching The Damned can be compared with entering a room covered with deforming mirrors, one reflecting the monstrosity of the other in a disconcerting entanglement of images presenting greed for power, violence, and sexual perversion.” – Claretta Tonetti
Film-making giant Luchino Visconti blends operatic scenes of homo eroticism, incest, paedophilia, decadent orgies and strong violence against a backdrop of the horrors of 1930s Nazi era. The hyper-stylish The Damned – the first instalment in Visconti’s so-called “German Trilogy” – is a hypnotic and fascinating piece of visual art.
The story revolves around a wealthy, noble and influential family – the von Essenbecks – in Germany in 1933-34, in a society of the rising power of Nazism. Aschenbach (Griem), an SS member and a cousin of the von Essenbeck family, assists Frederick Bruckmann (Bogarde) to gain control of a commercially successful steel mill – a property of the noble family. Bruckmann’s link to the family is that he is the lover of the greedy and manipulating Sophie von Essenbeck (Thulin). The old patriarch of the family, Joachim von Essenbeck, is brutally murdered one night, and Herbert Thallman, a family relative who has accused the Nazi party of maltreatment and violence, becomes the murder suspect but Herbert succeeds to escape. Another obstacle in the way of Frederick’s and Sophie’s striving for power is Konstantin von Essenbeck – an SA member and therefore of strong political support. But Konstantin and fellow SA members are murdered by the SS in a bloody massacre, inspired by the real events of the infamous “Night of the Long Knives” in June 1934.
Meanwhile, another family member is aiming for the von Essenbeck’s power and thus becomes a competitor to Frederick. The new man is Martin von Essenbeck (Berger), Sophie’s son, a sexually aberrant psychopath who has sex with children. Martin hates his manipulating mother who keeps using him and he takes his revenge by raping her and subsequently keeping her under firm control until the day of her wedding with Frederick Bruckmann. The ceremony, however, turns to a funeral as Martin’s wedding presents for his mother and new stepfather are two capsules of cyanide poison. After the instant death of Sophie and Frederick the film ends, as Martin gives the Nazi salute.
Visconti brought from Sweden the actress Ingrid Thulin, whose talent once was discovered by stage and film director Ingmar Bergman. Thulin is outstanding as Sophie von Essenbeck, a role performance that is on par with her best achievements within the Bergman canon. Dirk Bogarde, also terrific, an actor that Visconti would cast again in the Trilogy’s second instalment Death in Venice (1971). Helmut Berger would return in the Trilogy’s final part, the extravagant Ludwig (1974). Even if The Damned, based on its context, is a profoundly bleak and horrifying film it is just amazing to look at. Shot in fabulous colors and lighting, orchestrated by a master director capable of visualising an aesthetic portrayal of violence and perversion. Visions of fire in violent red flashes appear rhythmically throughout the film, and the elaborate cinematography is drop-dead gorgeous.
It has been said that the only way to fully experience the overwhelming visual splendour of a Visconti film is on the big screen, but unless you are lucky enough to have a cinema near you that is screening his work, then this DVD of The Damned is a pretty good substitute. Warner Home Video (UK) presents the film in a glorious anamorphic widescreen edition. The English audio is presented in a Dolby Digital mono that faithfully replicates the films original sound mix.
The extra material comprises a trailer and a brief documentary called “Visconti” – a profile of the director on set.
Visconti’s microcosm is that of the family unit and its intrigues, a theme that he would return to several times during his directorial career. This is important to bear in mind when watching The Damned – it is not a political film, but primarily a bleak and grotesque story about power, greed, revenge and selfishness among people. Essential Visconti, highly recommended.