Blu-ray Review: Visconti's Controversial THE DAMNED Is a Blessing From Criterion

Helmut Berger, Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin and Charlotte Rampling star in Luchino Visconti’s X-rated anti-Nazi drama.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Blu-ray Review: Visconti's Controversial THE DAMNED Is a Blessing From Criterion

By 1969, a pivotal year of unease regardless of which filter one views it, Italian master filmmaker Luchino Visconti had already reinvented his career at least once.  

Through tumult and transformation, the dichotomies inherent in his aristocratic linage (a key aspect of his life which he always held to) alongside of his socialist beliefs and his homosexuality collided and colluded in multiple, provocative ways.

His film of that infamous year, The Damned (La caduta degli dei; co-written by Visconti with Nicola Badalucco and Enrico Medioli), proved to be both a blessing and a curse.  X-rated in the U.S. during that brief gleaming moment when such a rating did nothing to sully a film’s legitimacy, the film nonetheless weathered a global battery of controversy and questioning.  With The Damned, Visconti for the first time takes and runs with the freedoms emboldened to him by such a rating.  

While the filmmaker’s take on what passes for decadent and amoral have culturally shifted somewhat (cross dressing, gay clubs, and certain fetishes depicted no longer carry the degree stigma purveyed), much of what’s depicted continues to resonate as such (heavily implied pedophilia, incest).  The talking points generated by a filmmaker of Visconti’s stature abruptly swerving into such territory rendered The Damned something of a daring sophisticate sensation.  As scholar Stefano Albertini says on his video interview included among the many bonus features, this was the first Visconti movie that you wouldn’t see with your mom.

Trading his native axis power for the more visibly mechanized Nazi party of Germany, The Damned takes place prior to World War II but firmly in a time of swastika saturation.  By the end, the red, white and black symbol of the Third Reich is prominent on a nearly absurdist level, as to match Disney’s 1943 Donald Duck Nazi-land nightmare, Der Fuehrer’s Face.  

Unlike Disney, though, Visconti is having no fun at all.  20/20 hindsight upon the atrocities committed by the party of Hitler rightly cast an altogether somber, even oppressive vibe.  As that particular bright red comes to dominate the otherwise muted palate, the notion of this evil’s all-consuming nature is pronounced with internal flame and fury.  The aforementioned “decadence and amorality” play out as the Third Reich’s hold tightens more and more on the wealthy central family.

The cast, all tremendously game and clearly wholly trusting of Visconti as he ensconces them in such surroundings, is led by Swedish great Ingrid Thulin as the morally vacuous and conniving lady of the gargantuan house.  Also prominent are Helmut Griem, Umberto Orsini, a fresh-faced Charlotte Rampling, Florinda Bolkan, Albrecht Schönhals (in his final film appearance), and top-billed Dirk Bogarde, who is all but superseded by the unrelenting scene-stealer, Helmut Berger.  

Berger, still very new to cinema, is not only made to enact all of the film’s eye-opening overt “moral rot” in his character’s slide into Nazism, he also had the benefit of being in a relationship with the director at that time.  Many of the actors, including Berger, appear in short, archival interviews which are included on the disc.

The Damned sparks up just as the Reichstag fire flares up in 1933.  The film tells the story of the Essenbeck clan, an uneasy family of old-money industrialists in Germany.  The oppressively heavy tone is set immediately, as the opening titles appear over Dante’s Inferno-like factory footage of molten lava being cast and metal conveyer belts chugging into oblivion.  One of composer Maurice Jarre’s most darkly bombastic scores accompany the pouring and churning of it all.

The Damned_2.jpg

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Damned captures said vibe.  While never the kind of conventionally beautiful movie that Visconti’s The Leopard is, the film wields a similar opulence- albeit through the cold filter of fascism.  

Between the off-putting unpleasantry of the cinematography and the notorious fragility of the film stock of that era (The Damned looks like a film made in 1969), this couldn’t have been an easy film to restore and present.  Whatever the effort, it was worthwhile.  Here we have a rather remarkable new 2K digital restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna and Institut Lumière, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.

Here are the details on Criterion’s well-curated array of bonus features:

•           Alternate Italian-language soundtrack

•           Interview from 1970 with director Luchino Visconti about the film

•           Archival interviews with actors Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin, and Charlotte Rampling

•           Visconti On Set, a 1969 behind-the-scenes documentary by John Abbott

•           New interview with scholar Stefano Albertini about the sexual politics of the film

•           Trailer

•           New English subtitle translation and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

•           An essay by scholar D. A. Miller.  (Unfortunately, the essay is on the reverse side of a poster fold-out, thus restricting its accessibility).

•           Bold, new painted cover by George Pratt

Criterion is nothing if not sharply astute in its timing of The Damned.  It doesn’t take a German historian to notice the similarities between the manufactured nationalist outrage that gave way to the Third Reich and recent/ongoing contemporary politics.  

In the U.S., lifetimes of learned media complacency mixed with a consistent underlying “greed is good” social messaging gets us the Fox News ascendancy of real estate mogul and reality TV fraud Donald Trump.  That’s merely one example of the undying scourge of ruling-class fascism continuing to devour us.

If that sounds like a whole lot of heavy-duty political familiarity… well, yes.  Anyone paying any attention and connecting the dots of recent history to not-quite-as-recent history has had a grasp of just how disturbing things have gotten and continue to get, and how it’s not new.  The lessons of The Damned -- that the fundamentals of Nazi-ism are soul eaters -- is one that should’ve been absolutely finalized in 1945.  Yet, here we are, grappling with it, again.  

And perhaps, more to the immediate point, so was the world in 1969.  If that were not the case, would Visconti have gone so far as to steer his prestigious career into the mire of unabashed tawdriness and controversy that The Damned triggered?  

In any case, New German Cinema firebrand Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who pressed many of the themes of The Damned in his own slightly later-produced BRD Trilogy (also available from Criterion), reportedly called it his favorite movie.  That certainly stands to reason.

So successful was The Damned that it became the first in Visconti’s own “German Trilogy,” as it was followed closely by Morte a Venezia in 1971 and Ludwig in 1973.  As documentarian John Abbott says in his brief documentary, Visconti on Set, the filmmaker was always a “man of two worlds.” Unique in all of cinema history, he was the aristocratic Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo, but also someone who utilized his stature as a “poet of the poor.” Abbott goes on to say that in always leaning into his socialist beliefs, for Visconti, “the proper blending of the physical world with people and their emotions is what motion pictures are made of.”  

The Damned, being the resonantly grotesque parable that it is, delivers its judgement with no compromise.

La caduta degli dei (Götterdämmerung)

  • Luchino Visconti
  • Nicola Badalucco
  • Enrico Medioli
  • Luchino Visconti
  • Dirk Bogarde
  • Ingrid Thulin
  • Helmut Griem
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CriterionItalianNazisViscontiLuchino ViscontiNicola BadaluccoEnrico MedioliDirk BogardeIngrid ThulinHelmut GriemDramaWar

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