There are keywords that come up over and over again as you delve into discussions of Luchino Visconti’s historical drama from 1969. the damned. Outrageous, over the top, demented, depraved – this film is not a walk in the park as it uses the power-hungry spell of a German family to reflect the country’s moral decay with the National Socialist takeover. More than any other film of the man who brought us works such as The leopard and The Innocent, the creative pushes things to the extreme. As the first entry in his ‘German trilogy’, followed by Death in Venice and Louis, Visconti eschews the typical historical drama with something more in common with an exploitation film. The film does not think of showing sadistic violence, incest and pedophilia on its way to deconstruct and subvert this period. It is a singular vision that only Visconti’s flamboyant personality could bring to the screen. While censors have tried to tame this one over the years, the original vision of the damned which exists today is a difficult text from which it is difficult to turn away.
The great family melodrama is essential in bringing to light some of the malevolent woes of 1930s Germany. The powerful von Essenbeck family – an echo of the true Krupp munitions dynasty, no matter what Visconti may say – are industrialists emblematic of the greed and desire that enabled the Nazis to take over the country. Now Patriarch Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals) is fiercely against this pesky Hitler, as is his communist-inclined son, Herbert (Umberto Orsini), but when there are dissensions in the ranks, problems quickly ensue. Power-hungry war widow Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) and her lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), the opportunistic director of the family business, see an opportunity to capitalize on the growing Nazi uprising by assassinating the patriarch and pinning him on Herbert while taking control of the company. Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), a cousin of the family and an important leader of the Nazi SS, keeps Bruckman in line using Sophie’s son Martin (Helmut Berger) who controls the majority of the company’s stock as a threat. While many personalities believe they have power at various times, they are sent as the Nazis wanted.
This is just a taste of the convoluted family melodrama on display in this story. Visconti dabbles in real historical events in inventive ways that, hopefully, individuals less historically inclined will consider as fictitious as Tarantino’s decision to brutally kill Hitler at the end of Inglorious Basterds. Some inclusions are more subtle, like the murder of Joachim coinciding with the Reichstag fire of February 1933 which allowed Hitler to consolidate his power base. Others are more openly the products of a rebellious Visconti; the infamous Night of the Long Knives of June 1934 underwent a twist in its execution. In a segment that feels like another movie (it even switches to German dialogue), the main actors are sidelined to follow what amounts to a big queer party from the cheerful SA that turns into a gay orgy. The SS come forward on Hitler’s behalf to slaughter these stormtroopers he deemed disloyal. Of course, this is not exactly the exact time frame, but by not only having these gay men killed, but doing so without them fighting, injustice lingers in the air of this expressionist dream landscape.
Visconti tries to convey many different themes, and not all of them are accessible in one view. The unifying theme could simply be desire, and it is a theme that splits into various thorny paths. Martin’s character is the key to many of the hard-earned ideas with the difficult sexuality roles he takes on throughout. From the first scene, he is revealed to be a flamboyant figure as he stars in Marlene Dietrich’s drag for his family, before later assaulting both his little cousin and a little Jewish girl who lives next to him. His psychopathy doesn’t end there as he later rapes his mother as he closes in on the end of his metamorphosis. The representation of homosexuality in this film is sure to arouse some anger, and for good reason, which seems to contradict what the very open Visconti would like. Still, if you think Martin is trying to take the personality of a homosexual to hide his psychopathy, you better accept him for the putrid figure he always has been. Yet as he goes full-fledged Nazi, Martin leaves his perversions behind to show just how numbed they must be with desire. In a sense, Visconti portrays the Nazi Party as the ultimate blockade of society.
In less abstract terms, there is the representation of desire in the form of physical greed. The wealthy family who are already comfortable but just greedy enough to want more – and just naive enough to believe that any singular entity can benefit from the Nazi uprising. They don’t even realize how close they are to total oblivion until it’s too late; their actions lead not only to a family dissolution, but to the collapse of their entire society to the national scourge of Nazism. Visconti does not aim to paint a pleasant portrait, but he is very effective in conveying some of his themes about the dangers of the lust for power. The performers do a truly remarkable job of bringing the challenging text to life in an engaging way. Every shot is a visual feast, no matter how disgusting the content is on screen. the damned It’s still a film that I personally struggle with as I try to explore the different dynamics, but one thing that doesn’t change is my admiration for the feat of filmmaking on display. It’s a grotesquely intoxicating saga.
the damned arrives on Blu-Ray with a new 1.85: 1 AVC encoded 1080p digital transfer derived from a 2K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative. The layout is as perfect as you could want it to be, as the new crawl looks pretty great throughout the run. There was no discernible case of print damage, and the clarity and overall detail is magnificent. The image holds up extremely well in long shots and the colors are well saturated in a visually splendid way. Skin tones are natural and consistent with the subtle facial features easily seen in close-up. Black levels hold up well with virtually no crushing and only the occasional loss of shadow detail. There does not appear to be any digital noise due to compression limitations or other such nuisances. This new presentation is top notch from start to finish and should appeal to any fan of the material.
The Blu-Ray disc comes with a remastered LPCM 1.0 mono track in English / German or Italian with optional English subtitles. Most of the performers provided their real vocals for the English piece, and it seemed to be the more natural of the two tracks. The score used in the feature film sounds good throughout the film as it complements the inner life of the characters. There are times when it threatens to overwhelm the dialogue, but the track maintains a good balance to keep the dialogue clear. Environmental sounds like machines or background chatter are rendered well alongside everything else. There do not appear to be any notable cases of age-related wear. The Criterion Collection gave this film the faithful and well-preserved audio presentation it deserves.
The Blu-Ray criterion of the damned includes a fold-out booklet featuring the new essay “Damned If You Do It” by film specialist DA Miller in which he discusses the themes and cultural relevance of the image. This provides a great deal of context and a worthwhile preview of the film. The reverse of this flyer is a beautiful poster similar in style to the sleeve, but a little more evocative. The special characteristics of the disc are as follows:
- Luchino Visconti: A 40-minute interview from 1970 for RAI television where Visconti and journalist Giorgio Bocca discuss the portrayal of fascism in the film, how it handles historical accuracy, the importance of locating this story in Germany instead. than in Italy, from the influence of the time when the film is created, the reception of the film and more. It’s interesting to see some members of the audience really engaging with Visconti and challenging him on the film’s ideas in a constructive way.
- Visconti on the set: A nine-minute behind-the-scenes documentary by John Abbott that features Visconti on the set of the film in which he talks about his process, finding the right performers for the film and more.
- Stefano Albertini: A new 16-minute interview with Stefano Albertini, specialist in literature and cinema, in which he discusses the place of this film in Visconti’s career, the influence of Helmut Berger on history, the ruthless character of the film. artwork, the influence of Visconti’s family life, the perversions in the film, the importance of costumes and more.
- Ingrid Thulin: A ten-minute vintage interview with actress Ingrid Thulin for the French program For the cinema aired in 1969 in which she talks about her desire to move on to directing, what it’s like to work with Visconti, feeling safe to shoot “sensitive” scenes with Ingmar Bergman and more.
- Charlotte Rampling: A four-minute vintage interview with actress Charlotte Rampling for the French program Music to the heart aired in 1990 in which she recounts what it is like to work with Visconti, the powerful emotions she felt, her kinship with her director and more.
- Helmut Berger: A vintage interview of almost six minutes with actor Helmut Berger for the French program The world of cinema aired in 1969 in which he discusses his work with Visconti to develop the character of Martin, his early work, how he met Visconti, the most difficult scene he has filmed and more.
- Trailer: The three-minute trailer is provided here.
the damned is a very difficult film that is sure to alienate many viewers, but those who cling to the artistic elements of the grotesque plot developments will be treated to something quite engaging. Luchino Visconti is once again uncompromising in his artistic vision, which must be admired in cinema. The performers do a truly amazing job of bringing this material to the screen in a punchy way. The Criterion Collection has released a Blu-Ray with a fantastic A / V layout and a nice array of special features. If you’re already used to the peculiarities of Visconti, this one should be a safe buy. advised
the damned is currently available for purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: The images shown in this review do not reflect the picture quality of Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: The Criterion Collection has provided a free copy of this disc for your review. All opinions in this review are honest feedback from the author.
Dillon is more comfortable sitting in a movie theater all day watching both big budget and independent films.