Criterion Prediction #233: The Damned, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Damned
Director: Luchino Visconti
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Charlotte Rampling, Helmut Griem, Helmut Berger
Synopsis: The Essenbeck family hits a tumultuous decline once they get into business with the Nazi party and their precipitating downfall parallels the ascension of the Third Reich and its destructive influence in 1930s Germany and, later on, the world.
Critique: Out of all the ambitious Italian epics that followed the neorealist period of the 60s and 70s, Visconti presides over an impressive lot, with The Leopard, Senso, Death in Venice, Ludwig and his more controversial feature The Damned. The first in an informal “German Trilogy,” followed by Death in Venice and Ludwig The Damned (like the following features), boasts a terrific international cast in a classy swirl of European sensibilities that plays into the worldly concerns that the film parallels.
The sensibilities that made a film like The Leopard such a compelling realization of a country’s changing landscape shift into a more aggressive gear with The Damned, which makes perfect sense because it’s an exploration of fascism and the Nazi party. The film’s melodramatic tendencies retain the director’s inherent disdain for classism, and the mores of bourgeois culture, a simplistic observation would say that blind wealth begets fascism. Still, there’s more dimension to Visconti’s artful vision. On the one hand, there’s a fatalistic element, but there’s an open condemnation of the Essenbeck family. With political and historical hindsight we see the crude caricature esque villainy to many of the characters, the orgiastic excess of the brownshirts is repurposed hedonism in the most traditional definition.
Just as Bertolucci would make his sinister antagonists, Atilla (Donald Sutherland) and Regina (Laura Betti), in 1900 Macbethian sadists, Visconti does a similar move here with a few broadly drawn qualifiers of immoral depravity. The literary allusions of homeroticism and oedipal overtones feel like dramatic conventions or narrative repurposing.
Yet, the satisfying level of ambition in Visconti’s direction pulls off this complex feat with an effect that’s still jarring. The haughty repudiation of fascism and classism has a striking delivery even if it tends to lack subtlety.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Visconti is a prominently featured director in The Criterion Collection with The Leopard, Senso, White Nights and the semi-recent inclusion of Death In Venice. It seems like there’s still some interest in giving the director’s work the Criterion treatment. As of now, The Damned is available as an early generation DVD release there’s barely any features to speak of except a vintage feature which has some interest in its timeliness as well as a theatrical trailer and the picture is fairly spotty. Also, the only language track is the English dub with some scattered German dialogue. Since most Italian films with international casts at this time were dubbed in post anyway, it’s not too trying but I’m sure there’s a more faithful language track out there.