While watching Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), my wife blurted out: “The Nazi budget for banners and armbands must’ve been enormous!” As the movie progresses, more and more swastikas show up, multiplying from a single lapel pin at a family dinner to crowding, eye-thieving backdrops, competing with acts of unimaginable cruelty. My wife’s comment is right on the mark, sums Visconti’s masterpiece up better than I could have: this work proposes a unity of opposites, at once loud, campy, and gruesome.
The Damned takes the medieval view of the sublunary human body as the microcosmic map of a transcendent heavens but switches out the final predicate. Here, we are in hell. One family, the von Essenbecks, a clan of wealthy, aristocratic steel industrials, stands in for the whole German nation. Each tries to outmaneuver their kin. Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini) and his wife, Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling), are the only ones to show any opposition to the new government. The patriarch, Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals), cries political neutrality, but begs his family to understand that they must get properly involved with Hitler’s regime for the good of the business. That’s all he’s ever cared about after all. The Reichstag burns as they party. They fight about who could be responsible (guess who gets it right). Soon enough Joachim is dead, Herbert, framed for the killing, is on the lam, and Elizabeth and her two children are held hostage by the state. When they do leave, it will only be in a ploy to guarantee Herbert’s return. And, even then, they will not escape. Dachau awaits them.
The family members begin to devour each other nearly immediately. The cast of characters and the nearly cartoonish self-interest of their actions ring more of soap opera than of epic. Martin (Helmut Berger) controls the greatest share of the company and appoints his mother’s lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) to be head of the company, much to the chagrin of his uncle, the SA-man Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff). Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), Martin’s mother, fights for Friedrich against first Konstantin and then Martin and SS-Hauptsturmführer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). Like the Book of Job’s Satan, Aschenbach is always whispering in ears, nurturing doubts.
Melodramatic though this may sound, the violence and cruelty are startlingly human—cowardly, weak, and half-thought. Early in the film, for example, we see a child’s self-inflected death, the result of abuse, which is then used as blackmail to further the Reich’s agenda. Visconti shows us the Night of the Long Knives when the street-brawling SA were massacred by the sleek SS. The scene follows a long night of partying, drinking, men in drag, half-dressed, switching rapidly from patriotic songs to tearful feelings of emptiness. This goes on for five or ten minutes. Men go into rooms to sleep together. Make-up-caked faces nod off on bared shoulders. We see men in black approach on a barge. The killing begins, up close. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Soon they are all dead and the cabaret-like chanting and existential musings were for naught. The SS is triumphant.
The movie’s commitment to the coincidence of opposites gets at the heart of the Nazi period in a way few films have. There really was camp—banners, parties, songs. There really was horror—the camps, the pogroms, the wars. Most of those who participated, however, thought they could play the system, could be complicit only up to the point they needed to be. Friedrich wants the Party only so that he can marry Sophie and take control of the company. Martin is feckless and thinks he can play nice despite his being compromised. Even the men of the SA think the future is theirs, only for their orgiastic reveling to end in rivers of blood and beer.
“Complicity” is the byword as the characters’ intrigues turn inwards and inwards until all are corrupted, destroyed, or both. Each has their reasons. Visconti’s film captures not so much the banality of evil as its excess, the campiness and melodrama of tyranny in all its mawkish perfidy. And it is gorgeous, if mortifying, in this bleak, salient glory.