Jan 8, 2009

Luchino Visconti's Version of "The Night of Long Knives"

Not long ago, perhaps about two years, I first heard of The Night of Long Knives via an alternative media show. Yes, it had a cool sounding title, but it was the description of what it actually was that riveted me stone-straight in my car seat. We've all been taught textbook versions of Nazi Germany, of Hitler, and of the Holocaust, but what wasn't discussed in an open classroom environment (even in college) was the massacre of homosexual Nazis by another group of Nazis. After typing that, it's understandable why a teacher would want to keep such an event out of his or her lesson plans. Gays... Nazis... massacres. These aren't words teachers want students taking home from their classrooms.

Briefly, The Night of Long Knives was when Hitler ordered the SS to kill the SA. The former caught the latter off guard by ambushing them the morning after an exhausting and extensive gay orgy. [NOTE: My interest in this event was also sparked by a documentary review here on Soiled Sinema. Ty E or mAQ will have to amend this to let me (us) know what the title of it was, but it had something to do with homosexuality and Nazism.] Apparently, the SA did a lot of Hitler's dirty work, and for whatever reason (again, I'm not well versed on this) after they completed the job, he decided to dispose of them.

In the first half of the twentieth century, many a European felt the breeze of rolling Fascism and Communism. Sometimes both. Often both. Luchino Visconti's brother was a member of Mussolini's army, so it isn't unlikely that a young Luchino often found himself posing in Blackshirts for the mirror. But as an adult, Visconti became a devoted Communist. You can find this type of ideological slip-n-sliddin' all over Italian cinema (see Bertolucci's 1900). Visconti was also born into money and lived in a castle with his family. Knowing this background, it's easy to read a bit of fictional autobiography into his 1969 film The Damned. The movie is a tough one. Messy, and at times laborious, The Damned traces the rise of Nazism through the melodrama of a corrupt and family-owned steel corporation. Imagine Pasolini doing a signature, personal interpretation of The Godfather... but poorly, and with incest.

Well, sometimes Netflix queues can bring about sweet coincidence, because when I popped in The Damned, I was unaware it included a whole chapter on this historically hushed about event. But while Visconti's interpretation is still the kind that would likely infuriate gay activist groups today, the overall sequence is actually pretty tame and lazily executed. Like the entirety of The Damned, "The Night of Long Knives" chapter doesn't live up to it's gargantuan title. But at least we have it.

After a heavy night of cuddly drinking and pub-chanting, Visconti shows wasted members of the SA taking each other to bed: some crossed-dressed, some bare-chested and blonde, some old, paunchy, and Bear-like hairy. Cut to the SS arriving on boats, motorbikes, and jeeps. Without hesitation they enter the compound and execute the homosexual SA members at first sight. Despite a few expressive shots, most of the violence feels disjointed and clumsy. But what sticks with you is the imagery of penis-shaped helmet Nazis walking over (and on) their once fellow Nazis... now bare-bottomed and bleeding. I'm left wanting more after watching Visconti's version of the event, but the fact that at least one depiction of it exists on film is good to know. Now, to know more, get out those books, do research, check sources, and keep the curiosity of this historically significant event alive, because the establishment - all across the board - sure seem like they want it to die.

-The Man With No Name


Unknown said...

Wow... That's definitely news to me. Teachers seem to leave a lot of things out of the curriculum.

Anonymous said...

very interesting...never heard of it.

Soiled Sinema said...

Fox- Great writeup!

I too was disappointed by Visconti's The Damned. It baffles me how Visconti could make such subject material boring. For erotic postwar Nazi themed films I go with the Night Porter. Although slow at parts, it has some amazing perverse artistic scenes. The two leads of the Night Porter, Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, were also featured in The Damned.

-Ty E