THE DAMNED — CLASSIC FILM PICK
The first of Luchino Visconti's "German Trilogy" of films (which includes "Death in Venice" and "Ludwig") is set in high society Germany during the early '30s. The Essenbecks — an industrialist family modeled after the Krupp family's steel production company — are brought down and consolidated into the Nazi war machine after the infamous Reichstag fire in Berlin on February 27, 1933. Hitler used the arsonist attack as an excuse to suspend civil liberties for the German people and assassinate his communist rivals. Liberties, such as habeas corpus, freedom of the press, and “secrecy of the post and telephone,” remained in place throughout Hitler’s reign, which ended in April of 1945.
Members of the SS murder the Essenbecks's anti-Nazi patriarch Baron Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals). Investigators photograph his bloody body resting on the opulent bed that once provided comfort. The political assassination sets into motion the collapse of the Essenbeck family, an aristocratic representation of an “old” Germany that Hitler sought to obliterate. As with “The Leopard,” Visconti is fascinated with the trappings of aristocracy, and their impermanent nature under the threat of fascist ideologies. All riches are temporary.
The company's like-minded vice president Herbert Thallmann (Umberto Orsini) is falsely indicted for Joachim’s murder before escaping from Gestapo forces that incarcerate his wife (Charlotte Rampling), and children at the Dachau concentration camp. It wasn’t only Jews who were sent to the camps. The family’s industrial empire slips into the cunning hands of Dirk Bogarde’s anti-hero Friedrich Bruckmann, a shortsighted opportunist mentored by SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Grien), himself a would-be thief looking to co-opt the Essenbeck fortune and status.
Visconti stylishly captures the frenzied debauchery and violence that the Nazis employed throughout the era, including the Night of the Long Knives wherein Hitler's execution squads massacred his political enemies — the paramilitary Brownshirts known as the SA.
Written by Visonti, with Enrico Medioli and Nicola Badalucco, "The Damned" is an incendiary precursor to Nazi-era films like Liliana Cavani's "The Night Porter" (1974), Tinto Brass's pornographic "Salon Kitty" (1976), and even the musical play and film "Cabaret."
By boldly confronting the psycho-sexual depravity of the Nazi mindset all the way through to is inevitable incestuous nature, Visconti creates a specific cinematic vernacular for viewing and discussing Hitler's manic ideology. That Visconti's iconic vision became a cinematic touchstone for other influential filmmakers is a testament to the Italian director's lasting power as a storyteller and as an important conduit of historical information.
Rated R. 156 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)
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