Reputed to be one of Fassbinder’s favorite films, The Damned is Luchino Visconti’s predecessor to my favorite of his films (Death in Venice) and as epic in scope as The Leopard.
The Nazi-narrative is lush and grand, and no wonder Fassbinder liked it so much: it features decadence that Fassbinder would soon take to a new level, has those star-shaped candle reflections/flares that he loves cinematographically, features ugly, backstabbing characters, and deals with Germany’s history in all of its evils.
Visconti sure has some virtuoso flair, like this early camera move around a table that serves to introduce the many characters (including two of my favorites: Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde!), and to emphasize the tensions that either do or will exist by way of their current eyelines:
That shot above almost feels like the first act of a whodunit: the guests are around a table just before the lights will go out and fatal shot will be fired. Well…that’s almost what happens, and while Visconti is interested in far more complex things than a murder mystery that sense of drawing-room tension is never far from the film.
Visconti represents the various Nazis in endlessly pejorative ways. They’re pedophiles:
They’re sweaty old men:
(As a digression, everyone is so sweaty in The Damned. That’s intentional of course. It’s a hyper, grotesque film):
They’re young Hitlers in training (see that faint hint of a mustache on Martin (Helmut Berger), whose character arc could rhyme with Hitler’s actual one – artist to hate-spewing jingoist):
Even Bogarde’s Freidrich, who is far from innocent, but never fully embraces the National Socialist ideals, reads Mein Kampf in bed, under hallucinatory blue light before his snake-of-a-wife slides naked into bed, as though pairing Nazism with the strange sexuality that Visconti prefers in The Damned:
For that series of shots directly above, the blue light seems very unmotivated. Night isn’t that blue. We see a lot of that in The Damned. Blue, red, and green lights that emphasize the burlesque attitude of it all, as though the Essenbeck family is putting on some kind of lascivious show.
The relationship between Martin and his mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) seems to have been referenced countless times. It reminded me immediately of Michael Pitt’s incestuous relationship with his mother in Boardwalk Empire:
Visconti takes great pains to characterize the contradictory elements of Nazism. They are fanatics who party hard, engage in both hetero and homosexual sex, and drink as much as they revel in violence. Twice he pairs these orgiastic displays with another group of Nazis who represent the other side: rigid, symmetrical, and full of pent up violence. These three shots below are almost an A+B=C relationship. The partiers + the static, straight-backed soldiers = death.
We see that same relationship again at the end, this time all in one shot:
If I have any problem with The Damned it’s that Visconti zooms too much. It gets tiring. These aren’t slow searching zooms, nor are they snap zooms. He zooms in the same way that he pans or tilts: it’s like a reaction to follow movement, but it feels so unnecessary and unnatural, and it gets dizzying.
The end of The Damned really reminds me of Death in Venice, where Sophie Essenbeck’s face is painted the same way Bogarde’s was as Gustav von Aschenbach in Venice. What a series of connections and rhymes that is. It’s no mistake. The two films are inextricable and both deal with the same obsession and illicit sexuality:
Even the very end of The Damned anticipates that of Death in Venice with its catatonic tableau: