Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) entangles two stories: the decline of an old high-bourgeois German family and the rise of National Socialism. “My film ends,” Visconti said, “where Nazism begins.” At the film’s close, in 1934, Hitler’s party has secured state control and its barbarism is picking up steam as fast as the hellish foundry engines whose images bookend the film. By contrast, the von Essenbecks, the prominent steel family that owns these engines, have reached the end of the line. More heavily than any other film in Visconti’s long career, The Damned is invested in taking things to extremes. Family rivalries find expression in murder and family affections in molestation and incest; even between an unrelated man and woman, sex is demented. And Visconti’s manner is hardly more restrained than his matter. While the melodrama careens from one frenzied scene to another, his once stately camera grows contagiously restive, with free-form zooms and sudden shifts of perspective. Of this new tempo, the poster child (literally featured in the film’s publicity) is Visconti’s lover at the time, Helmut Berger, whose twitchy performance as the family heir is nothing if not molto agitato.
The von Essenbeck saga is as convoluted as any opera libretto. Its gist is an internecine struggle for control of the steelworks, set in motion by Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), the clan’s widowed daughter-in-law, and Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde), Sophie’s lover and the firm’s striving manager. Like the Macbeths, this wicked pair get rid of whoever stands in the way. Right off the bat, Friedrich murders Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals), the president of the firm and the family patriarch, and pins the crime on Herbert (Umberto Orsini), the vice president and the only “good” (anti-Nazi) family member, who is forced to flee. Friedrich goes on to murder Joachim’s son, Konstantin (René Koldehoff), who has been blackmailing Sophie’s son, Martin (Berger)—the principal share owner—in order to seize the reins himself. Konstantin, you see, is a Nazi, but no longer the right kind: he is an officer in the SA, the storm troopers (or “brownshirts”), who helped in Hitler’s early ascent but increasingly find themselves marginalized by the SS, the rival paramilitary group enjoying the new chancellor’s favor. And then and then . . . until finally it is the turn of Sophie and Friedrich to be eliminated by Martin, now a full-fledged SS man, who will run the firm as ordered.
For all the plot’s tortuousness, the von Essenbecks are never more than Nazi cat’s-paws. Their very murders are spurred on and even ordered by the film’s Mephistophelian SS kingpin, aptly named Wolf von Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). And if so many of the family must be suppressed, it’s because they’ve failed to undertake the self-suppression that the new regime demands of them. Despite what Friedrich guiltily calls their “complicity,” they retain enough monied arrogance to think they can use National Socialism to advance their own interests. So, like even the smallest flower that obstructs the path of the state, as Wolf says, quoting Hegel, these capitalist collaborators must be crushed as implacably as Communist opponents. The malleable Martin may flourish only if he never blossoms.
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