The Damned (1969)
That all changed dramatically in 1969 when the growing relaxation of film censorship allowed him to make La caduta degli dei, better known by its international title, The Damned. A dark, outrageous, titillating, and violent saga, it shocked audiences with its combination of respectable actors like Dirk Bogarde (who reteamed with Visconti two years later for Death in Venice, 1971) and Ingmar Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin and graphic (for the time) depictions of sex and violence among the idle rich in Nazi Germany. This combination wasn't entirely new, as Roberto Rossellini had discreetly connected debauchery and fascism in his bleak Germany Year Zero in 1948; however, this film took the idea to a far more visceral and large-scale extreme than anyone could have anticipated.
As the Third Reich's grip begins to tighten, the affluent Von Essenbeck clan finds its empire built on industrial steel becoming unstable after the untimely death of its patriarch, Joachim (Albrecht Schönhals). Scheming exec Frederick (Bogarde), a budding fascist with some serious sexual identity issues, joins forces in both finance and sex with the family's eldest daughter, Sophie (Thulin), whose debauched son, Martin (Helmut Berger), spends his time at cabarets doing drag performances as Marlene Dietrich. Meanwhile a variety of SS officials and officers conspire to use the family for its own ends, as Martin becomes a pawn upon whom some of the nastiest crimes may fall. It all leads to the infamous Night of the Long Knives massacre, after which the dynasty takes a dark turn from which it may never recover.
A powerful and stylish allegory about the corruption caused by power and money, The Damned found its message obscured somewhat by the furor over its release, becoming one of the earlier major studio releases to be slapped with an X rating shortly after its creation. (The same fate befell another Warner Brothers import around the same time, Performance, 1970.) In this case the implied subject matter is more unsettling than anything shown onscreen; the brutal central slaughter sequence is certainly strong stuff (and was cut from many prints and video releases), but the pervasive air of sickly indulgence is impossible to wipe out no matter how many scenes could have hit the cutting room floor. Berger's drag performance is certainly an iconic moment (one of several throughout his partnership with Visconti both in front of and behind the camera), but the film offers indelible moments to all of its cast ranging from Helmut Griem (who parlayed this into a role in the similarly-themed Cabaret, 1972) to a very young Charlotte Rampling (who would go on to a more extreme Nazi-themed art house hit with 1974's The Night Porter, also with Bogarde) and Berger's onetime roommate, Florinda Bolkan (who would become a famous face internationally the following year with Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, 1970).
A major success in many countries including most of Europe and the U.S. (where it played much more widely than most of Visconti's previous films), The Damned instigated several new trends including the director's '70s affinity with Germanic subject matter (culminating in his mammoth and widely misunderstood Ludwig, 1972) and a string of lurid Nazi-themed films for the subsequent decade (mostly from Italy) culminating with Tinto Brass' outrageous Salon Kitty in 1976 (which reteamed Berger and Thulin).
Hardly the most prolific director of his generation, Visconti alternated between lush color films and stark black and white ones well into the 1960s; as such, his visual style seemed to be split in two, leaving audiences unsure what to expect each time he released a new film. This one proved to be a shock yet again as it's a film drenched in darkness, filled with cavernous spaces of inky black punctuated with blood reds and unhealthy flesh tones. Equally surprising is its soundtrack, an aggressive concoction by composer Maurice Jarre (who already had two Oscars® under his belt thanks to Lawrence of Arabia 1962) and Doctor Zhivago, 1965). On the surface he seems a surprising choice, though given his recent work on another Nazi-themed epic with The Night of the Generals (1967), perhaps he was just in that kind of mood.
Producer: Ever Haggiag, Alfred Levy
Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti (story and screenplay)
Cinematography: Pasquale De Santis, Armando Nannuzzi
Art Direction: Pasquale Romano
Music: Maurice Jarre
Film Editing: Ruggero Mastroianni
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Frederick Bruckmann), Ingrid Thulin (Sophie Von Essenbeck), Helmut Griem (Aschenbach), Helmut Berger (Martin Von Essenbeck), Renaud Verley (Gunther Von Essenbeck), Umberto Orsini (Herbert Thallman), Rene Koldehoff (Konstantin Von Essenbeck), Albrecht Schonhals (Joachim Von Essenbeck), Florinda Bolkan (Olga), Nora Ricci (Governess).
by Nathaniel Thompson