Monday, September 23, 2013

Luchino Visconti | La caduta degli dei (The Damned)

a world where anything is possible
by Douglas Messerli
Luchino Visconti, Enrico Medioli, and Nicola Badalucco (screenplay), Luchino Visconti (director) La  caduta degli dei (Die Verdammten) (The Damned) / 1969

It may be tempting to read Luchino Visconti’s important 1969 film The Damned as an historical take on the German, Essen-based Krupp family and their collaboration with the Nazi’s, and, to a certain extent, one can track the fall of that family—from the historical events of the burning of the Reichstag, through the rise of the German SA, The Night of the Long Knives executed by the SS, and other nightmarish Third Reich events—but in the end, these and other situations are presented from such an operatic perspective in Visconti’s film that their veracity must be called into question. Visconti has always been a master of melodrama, often working with large, operatic gestures (his Senso, in fact begins with an opera), and The Damned, with its numerous early singspiels and cabaret performances (particularly the memorable drag number of actor Helmut Berger [as Martin Essenbeck] impersonating Marlene Dietrich) are often outrageously theatrical. Seen through the lens of realism, in fact, The Damned might seem quite laughable, but as slightly camp family drama set against the truly ludicrous would of war time Germany, where, as both the Nazi SS cousin of the Essenbeck and Sophie Essenbeck declare “anything can happen,” the work ultimately succeeds in making us realize that, in the most terrifying way, “everything goes.”  

      As the family of steel industrialist Baron Joachim Von Essenbeck gathers to celebrate his birthday, the Reichstag is set on fire, an event to which various members of the family react differently: Herbert Thalmann, the firm’s vice president, a virulent anti-Nazi, sees it as a ploy to destroy any of Hitler’s opponents, particularly those of the left. Others, such as the Nazi Ashenbach (Helmut Griem), perceive it as a signal that the left must be crushed. The Baron, although detesting Hitler, argues that in order to save the firm he must make closer ties with the Nazis, passing the company on to the control of the totally unscrupulous SA officer Konstantin. Meanwhile Friedrich Bruckmann, the company foreman (Dirk Bogarde) has fallen in love with Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin), the widow of the Baron’s only son, who died in World War I. In a pact with Sophie to himself gain control of the company, he kills the Baron, blaming the murder on Herbert, who escapes the Gestapo forces responding to the family’s calls.

     In that very first scene we also encounter Sophie’s beloved son, Martin, as he performs the Dietrich piece in drag, and the serious cello playing Günter (Renaud Verley), Konstantin’s university-educated son. All of them, except perhaps Herbert, are born killers, each agreeing to manipulate and torture one another in order to gain power and allow their personal perversions.

     For Sophie, perversions include her passion for Bruckmann and her oedipal love for Martin—and like her father, desperately desiring power itself. Although we might suspect Martin as having a gay relationship, in fact, his tawdry affair is with a kind of model (she describes her job as posing), and, more horribly, he has pedophile obsessions for the Thalmann’s young daughter and an even younger Jewish girl who lives in the apartment next to his girlfriend. His relationship with the child ends in her suicide by hanging.

     Although Thalmann, perhaps the only truly moral figure of the film, escapes, his wife Elizabeth and her two children are left behind, as she tries to get permission to leave the country. Sophie finally relents, allowing her to leave, after a dramatic aria-like speech which demonstrates her delusional vision:

                   Don’t fool yourself, however, Elizabeth. Don’t dream of coming back
                   one day to find a Germany which was so dear to your heart. It’s finished,
                   that Germany, forever. There will be no other Germany but this one,
                   and you will not be able to escape it, for it will spread before you
                   know it all over Europe and everywhere!

Although Sophie pretends to arrange for Elizabeth’s escape, the latter is stopped mid-voyage and she and her children sent to Dachau concentration camp, where Elizabeth is killed.

Sophie’s lover, Bruckmann, meanwhile, is manipulated by her and the SS officer Aschenbach to murder Konstantin and take over the company. In a long and languorously, filmed scene, Visconti plays out a day of the young SA boys near a lovely lake as they frolic, first in canoes and boats, swimming like healthy young scouts, activities which gradually, as the beer and German dancing is served up, turn darker and darker, until finally the seeming “good day in the sun” degenerates into a drunkenly lazy homosexual orgy, the boys singing and performing in drag before bedding down with each other and their elderly charges. While some critics such as New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby have complained of the disproportionate length of this series of events, I would argue that it is central as a mythological explanation of the whole fall and decline of the German empire which Visconti is attempting to encapsulate. The horrible massacre of the Sturmabteilung (SA) brownshirts in a gangster-style murder ends in dozens of bloody bodies of the young men by the Schutzstaffel (the SS, German defense corps) with whom Bruckmann has joined in order to destroy Konstantin, is emblematic of the notion expressed in the early scenes, that in Germany “anything is possible.” Perhaps never before or since, have more beautiful virile male bodies been sprawled as corpses across the screen!*

       Of all the destroyers in this work, only Bruckmann—a family outsider—has any conscience about his acts:

                    I accepted a ruthless logic, and I can never get away from it!

      Somewhat like Pasolini’s horrific meditation on Italian Fascism, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Visconti’s film functions in terms of circles, moving vertically closer and closer to the family’s final hell. After dismissing Bruckmann as a weak Nazi supporter, Aschenbach makes a bargain with Martin to give him control of the industrial giant. But when Martin confronts Sophie, he cannot overcome her sexual domination of him, and in retaliation he rapes his own his own mother, which results in her becoming psychologically unhinged, remaining an almost catatonic being for the rest of her brief life.

      Defeated by his wife’s death and his daughter’s incarceration, Herbert Thalmann now returns home to turn himself over the Gestapo in order save his two children. At the ruthless tableside, over which Visconti’s camera has time and again panned across the faces of these brutal beasts, Günther—previously the quiet and introspective one—suddenly spits out his hatred of the whole bunch, a hate so overwhelming that Aschenbach immediately takes him under his wing as an ally to destroy the last remnants of the Von Essenbeck estate.

      Now a member of the SS, Martin sadistically gathers together a group of fellow deviants to celebrate Friedrich Bruckmann’s marriage to his mother. Finally, becoming a Von Essenbeck, Bruckmann with Sophie retires to their room where her son has handed them poison so that they might commit suicide. The final image of the film is a gruesome picture of the two, dead upon their wedding couch. Only the most sexually twisted and hateful of the family members remain, beings so totally perverted that they have lost all control. The State can take over the once proud family-controlled plants.

      Thalmann previously expressed to Günther what has become obvious: the family is not simply a symbol of Germany, but is Germany itself:

                      It’s all over, Günther. It was everyone’s fault, even mine. It does
                      no good to raise one’s voice when it’s too late, not even to save
                      your soul. The fear of a proletariat revolution, which would’ve
                      thrown the entire country to the left…was too great, and now we
                      can’t defend it any longer! Nazism, Günther, is our creation. It
                      was born in our factories, nourished with our money!

 A world where anything is possible is an impossible place, an unendurable hell.

Los Angeles, September 22, 2013
*In actuality, the attack of the SS and Gestapo upon SA brownshirts was a far more complex issue, arising from the increasing power of Hitler’s early supporters, basically street thugs and unemployed individuals who were willing to help him to his rise. As Hitler became more and more ensconced in German political systems, however, the SA supporters, challenging both the traditional German Reichswehr, the German military, and the SS, the rising “Protection Squad,” on which Hitler had increasingly become dependent for support. Along with the Gestapo, these forces increasingly pushed Hitler to do something about the unruly and growing force, headed by the homosexual and quite rebellious Ernst Röhm. As Hitler grew in power, more and more of his conservative allies—including his Mussolini—railed against the moral behavior of Röhm and his soldiers.
      Finally, on the morning of June 30, 1934 Hitler and his associates flew to Munich the night after another Brownshirt gathering in the streets. Employing SS soldiers and others, Hitler attacked Hotel Bad Wiessee, where Röhm and numerous of his followers were spending the night. There they found SA leader Edmund Heines in bed with an eighteen year-old SA senior troop leader, shooting them both on the spot. Röhm was arrested, and later killed. But the raids of the SA followers also allowed Hitler and others to destroy a great many of their critics and others for whom they no longer had any need. In short, “The Night of the Long Knives” was not confined to a single event or even a single enemy, but included a large slaughter of seemingly dispensable supporters and former critics.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent, thorough review. This movie fascinates me to no end - the complex character interactions, the hypnotic spectacle, the excoriating depiction of Nazi Germany. My biggest complaint is that the last half hour feels like disappointing anticlimax after all that's come before. While I'd argue that The Leopard is a much better film artistically, The Damned is the one I come back to.