Jun 3, 2013

The Damned

The 1# favorite film of German New Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who described the epic Italian-West German co-production as, “perhaps the greatest film, the film that I think means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theater,” The Damned (1969) aka La caduta degli dei aka Götterdämmerung directed by Italian maestro Luchino Visconti (Ludwig, Conversation Piece) is perhaps one of the most elegant pieces of post-WWII high-camp melodramatics ever assembled and quite a curious one at that due to the filmmaker’s not so inconspicuous homoeroticism and delightfully debauched depiction of loony libertine Teutonic aristocracy. Although a man of deep and ancient royal roots as someone “born into an ancient aristocratic family in Milan, one of seven children of the Grand Duke of Modrone,” Luchino Visconti—a man once known as “Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone”—also had some German ancestry and even admitted to American journalist Boze Hadleigh that, “I like the German personality—with the big exception of the Nazi madness. I feel almost German, sometimes. I am more calm than most of my country’s people. Many of my friends are German…” And, indeed, even regarding the “Nazi madness,” Visconti seems to have a special, albeit rather conflicted and rather risqué affinity for, if not on purely aesthetic grounds, as depicted in The Damned, a virtual blueblood Nazisploitation flick that, like Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1974) and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), would go on to influence the Nazisploitation subgenre, especially Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976), which would reference all of these works of hysterically horny celluloid Hitlerite works. Featuring the single greatest, if not wildly exaggerated and conspicuously campy depiction of the Night of the Long Knives aka Operation Hummingbird—the period between June 30 and July 2, 1934 when Hitler treacherously used the elite Schutzstaffel (SS) and Gestapo to purge the Nazi brownshirt Sturmabteilung (SA) leadership, including its opening homosexual leader Ernst Röhm (one of Hitler’s longtime good friends) and his boy toy Edmund Heines, to destroy the original National Socialist paramilitary wing’s independence and so the Führer could prove his solidarity with the Reichswehr (Germany military), who saw the big bad brown boys as rival and gangsters—ever captured on celluloid, The Damned is a film that still has the power to shock and awe modern viewers as a daunting depiction of the early history of the Third Reich that few outsiders, especially Americans, are aware of. Starring some of post-WWII Europe’s greatest actors, including Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Charlotte Rampling, Helmut Griem, and last but certainly not least, Helmut Berger—Visconti’s one-time boyfriend who was nearly four decades the Italian auteur’s junior—The Damned is not only an exquisitely exploitative depiction of the beginning of the end of Deutschland as a cuckold democracy, but also the beginning of the end of the European aristocracy and traditional Europa as a whole. 

 It is the night of the Reichstag fire when a half-retarded Dutch communist apparently committed arson against the Reichstag building in Berlin on 27 February 1933, thus proving that commie scum were plotting to destroy the German government and enabling the National Socialist party to consolidate total power in Germany and things are looking to change dramatically for the Von Essenbeck family/steel empire as well as the family patriarch’s Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals), an old school Junker conservative of the old aristocracy, has been mysteriously assassinated while lying asleep in his bed on the night of his birthday. Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini), the family firm's vice president who has an unflinching hatred of Nazis, be they were brown or black shirts, is framed for the crime and he hightails his way out of Germany and away from the Gestapo, but his beauteous wife Elisabeth Thalmann (Charlotte Rampling) and children are left behind and must face very definite persecution from Hitler's homeboys in the SS and gestapo. With the honorable and just Baron dead, the von Essenbeck empire is initially put in the dubious and degenerate hands of a SA officer Konstantin (René Koldehoff), a decidedly swinish sodomite of an aristocrat in a working-class National Socialist paramilitary group who personally has twink blonde supermen give him baths. To his decided disgust, Konstantin has an extremely effete and left-leaning student son named Günther (Renaud Verley) who is also interested in taking over the family business but he is too big of an art fag to be any sort of real threat, but his nefarious cross-dressing cousin Martin (Helmut Berger)—a fellow who does a mean impersonation of Marlene Dietrich's song and dance routine from Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) and likes molesting prepubescent girls, especially his own nieces and poor little Jewish ones—makes for a much more malicious threat as the absurdly amoral grandson of the dead patriarch. On top of maniac misfit Martin, his mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), the widow of Baron Joachim's only son, a fallen fighter-pilot World War I hero in the spirit of the Red Baron who would have been probably the right man to take over the von Essenbeck empire—is plotting with her social-climbing lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) to take over the business. Of course, the keenest chess player is a Faustian beautiful blond beast of a SS officer and family member named Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), who ultimately pits the family members against each other, using others to ruin others, only to ultimately ruin the person he once helped in a mere second’s time. Indeed, if you thought members of Irish white trash, Mestizos, black gangsters, and Islamic towelhead families were malicious to one another, you have yet to see the venomous and totally uncompromising treachery and two-facedness of the bold, beautiful, and damned von Essenbecks. 

 Featuring a SA drag number of Horst-Wessel-Lied, the anthem of the Nazi party, as well as a drunken homo-love rendition of Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” (“love death), the final, tragic yet touching aria from the 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde, by sodomite SA officer Konstantin before he and the Sturmabteilung is totally exterminated in a Teutonic twink blood orgy during the Night of the Long Knives, The Damned is indubitably the most masterful depiction of National Socialist high-camp ever depicted and it took no one less prestigious than a literal aristocrat, an Italian Germanophile of noble Guido and German blood to do it. Featuring sensitively assembled scenes of son-on-mother coitus of the catatonia-inflicting sort, one can only wonder what sort of blueblood depravity Luchino Visconti was exposed to as a true blue aristocrat himself during his rather long and eventful life as one of Italy's last true and completely cultivated Renaissance men. Despite being a staunch anti-fascist and even a member of the Italian Communist Party who once almost had a date up against a wall and in front of a blackshirt firing squad, Visconti was surely not a sincerely proletarian-sensitive filmmaker and even though his early Italian Neorealist works focused on the working-class, The Damned as well as virtually every one of his later epics, focuses on the ridiculously wealthy and recklessly wanton. As anti-Nazi conservative author Fritz Reck-Malleczewen described in his journal Diary of a Man in Despair (1947), a work chronicling Germany's dramatic transformation during the Third Reich, it was only the most debauched and opportunistic of aristocrats who found themselves kissing Uncle Adolf’s ass and certainly is the case in The Damned, a film where a pedophile and literal mother-fucker rises to the top of a steel empire (based on the Krupp family, a prominent 400-year-old German dynasty from Essen, Germany) that will be responsible for providing the ammunition and armaments used in the Second World War. Indeed, while melodramatically embellished in a campy fashion and at a pace and running length that is far too intolerable for most modern viewers, The Damned offers a rare and enthralling depiction of the secret workings of the Third Reich and its imperative utilization of industrialization—the final ironic Faustian nail in Occidental man's self-destruction. Indeed, it is quite symbolic that Adolf Hitler once stated to the Hitler Youth, “In our eyes, the German boy of the future must be slim and slender, as fast as a greyhound, tough as leather and hard as Krupp steel.” Of course, it is doubtful that Germany would have gotten as far as did during the war if it was only as hard as demonic dandy like Helmut Berger. 

 When I first saw Visconti’s The Damned over a decade ago, I thought it was an inferior work to Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1974), a work of melodramatically macabre celluloid Nazi naughtiness also starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, but now I see the former as an epic masterpiece of world-class cinema and the latter as a novelty arthouse smut flick of the rather superficial SS sort. Indeed, a work featuring Nietzschean Hitler quotes like, “Personal Morals are dead. We are an elite society where everything is permissible,” The Damned even goes so far as making National Socialism seem like some cool quasi-Satanic apocalyptic religion that came all too quickly and disappeared all to soon in a Wagnerian Germanic pagan holocaust of the body and mind. The first film in Visconti’s Germany trilogy, preceding Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1972), The Damned was the virtual film school Rainer Werner Fassbinder never attended and its aesthetic and thematic influences can be seen clearly in Despair (1978) starring Dirk Bogarde, Lili Marleen (1981), Lola (1981), and Querelle (1982), among various others.  More than anything though, The Damned probably gave Fassbinder the courage to not only direct revolutionary National Socialist period pieces, but also come to the realization that if he was born a couple decades or so earlier, he would have probably been a brownshirt and a back-door commando one at that.

-Ty E

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