Luchino Visconti’s allegorical fever dream The Damned is a mad deep dive into the depths of human souls, sometimes messily structured and occasionally unsatisfying dramatically, but just try to look away.
The Production: 3.5/5
Luchino Visconti’s allegorical fever dream The Damned plots a historical melodrama in true epic style. In fashioning a narrative set in the time of the National Socialist takeover of Germany, he’s invented an upper class German family and split it up so as to better understand how the Nazis were able to insidiously maneuver their way through the echelons of family dynamics in order to gain control of the whole of the country using every man’s (and woman’s) greed for money and power and human lust to pave the way for complete authoritarian rule. It’s a mad deep dive into the depths of human souls, sometimes messily structured and occasionally unsatisfying dramatically, but despite its length and lapses, it’s impossible to look away once one has begun the journey.
Noted for Germany’s largest and most important steel mill, the Von Essenbeck dynasty now finds itself trying to balance the old German regime with the rising influence of the National Socialist Party. Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), a cousin to the family and an important leader in the Nazi S.S., has his own scheme for the party to eventually gain complete control of the steelworks through murdering head of the family Baron Joachim Von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schönhals), installing Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) as the new head of the company once he marries Baroness Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin), using her son Martin (Helmut Berger) who controls the majority of the shares in the company as a threat against Bruckman to keep him in line, and dispensing with other troublesome family members as the need arises. But Martin, despite a host of depraved vices, has his own plans for taking over control of the company.
The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli, and director Luchino Visconti seems to have taken, along with Oedipus, Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the major source of inspiration for his power hungry central couple (played by Bogarde and Thulin) who kill the king (in this case, Baron Joachim) and also wipe out other heirs (Baron Konstantin Von Essenbeck played by René Koldehoff, a Nazi S.A. head honcho, and also pacifist son-in-law Herbert Thallman played by Umberto Orsini by blaming Joachim’s murder on him) in order to move to the head of the table. In each case throughout the film, the witch-like Aschenbach plants the seeds for the actions of the depraved clan, worming his way into their minds and poisoning them with dreams of riches and power. Director Visconti indulges himself throughout the movie lugubriously noting intricately the preparations for the opening birthday party (complete with a series of entertainments by various family members including Helmut Berger’s infamous introduction to the film outfitted in glorious Marlene Dietrich drag which she later said outdid her own work in The Blue Angel). He can’t just shoot Konstantin in the head to get rid of his influence on the family; he instead stages a twenty-five minute “Night of the Long Knives” in which a large cadre of Nazi S.A. revelers at Bad Wiessee (complete with nudity, drunken misbehavior, Nazi party songs, and suggested homosexual pairings) are exterminated by the competing Hitler S.S. force in grisly fashion. And Martin’s depravity which involves pedophilia, incestuous rape, and drug addiction, also gets more than a fair share of camera time. Visconti’s use of one splintered family to symbolize how almost the entirety of Germany was seduced into National Socialism is daring and evocative, but the excesses and lumbering pace (the climactic wedding of the zombie-fied Baroness Sophie and Friedrich Bruckmann is horrifically extended even though it does offer a shocking payoff) do the movie no favors.
Though billed fourth and “introduced” in the credits (though this was actually his fourth film), Helmut Berger gets the lion’s share of the attention; how could he not with so many vices that the director wants to catalog in such a detailed way (it’s no secret now that Berger was the director’s lover during this period of his career). His performance does show his inexperience, and the role is one of the most distasteful in modern cinema, but you certainly won’t leave a screening not remembering Berger or his character. Dirk Bogarde and Ingrid Thulin both sink their teeth into their avaricious roles with great glee, relishing every moment of victory and resenting mightily when things go wrong. Thulin, of course, gets the added horror of playing a mother raped by her son and going mad which isn’t scripted as well as it could have been but is played thoughtfully. Helmut Griem as the smiling cobra Aschenbach uses his good looks and charming manner to disguise the black core where a heart might have at one time existed. Renaud Verley as talented student and musician Günther Von Essenbeck is one of the real tragedies of the story whose life is ruined by the machinations of others rather than himself. René Koldehoff is very good as the blowhard Baron Konstantin who thinks he’s untouchable and learns a very bitter lesson. Charlotte Rampling as the wife of the pacifist Herbert is playing older than her years and is very touching even with limited screen time.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.85:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully presented in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. While the image is certainly an improvement on the original DVD release, there are still some problems with black levels (sometimes milky rather than deep) and shadow detail (details lost in the murky grays). At its best, the imagery is quite sharp and detailed with excellent and very well saturated color, but there are some occasional soft shots, too, that may or may not have been a part of the original cinematography. The English subtitles when German is being spoken or if one chooses the Italian language track are in white and are very easy to read. The movie has been divided into 21 chapters.
The disc offers the film in both English/German (the default) or Italian, both in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps). While the dialogue is clearly recorded, the sound mix is definitely lacking in bass giving the entire epic movie a bit of a tinny quality, certainly not what the director would have wanted. Maurice Jarre’s background score and the sound effects are mixed professionally, and the soundtrack is not burdened by age-related problems with hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter.
Special Features: 4/5
Cinema 70 (39:43, HD): a 1970 Italian panel discussion of the film with director Luchino Visconti mainly doing a Q&A with an audience of passionate moviegoers who pose very difficult questions to the maestro.
Visconti: Man of Two Worlds (9:20, HD): a behind-the-scenes documentary by filmmaker John Abbott shot during the making of The Damned with brief comments from the director and stars Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, and Ingrid Thulin.
Video Essay (15:35, HD) film historian Stefano Albertini offers a video analysis of the movie.
Cast Interviews: Ingrid Thulin (10:23, HD) interviewed in 1969 after filming her role, Charlotte Rampling (3:38, SD) excerpted in 1990 from a longer interview about her career, and Helmut Berger (5:29, SD) interviewed in 1969 as he was shooting Dorian Gray.
Theatrical Trailer (2:57, SD)
Enclosed Pamphlet: contains a cast and crew list, information about the video and audio transfers, and an essay on the film proper and its homosexual subtext by film scholar and professor D. A. Miller.
Definitely not for all tastes but a film rich in symbolic political and Machiavellian overtones, Luchino Visconti’s The Damned finally comes to Blu-ray looking the best it ever has and with a plethora of bonus material to extend and deepen the thought processes necessary for truly getting the most out of this very complex and difficult movie.
Some of our content may contain marketing links, which means we will receive a commission for purchases made via those links. In our editorial content, these affiliate links appear automatically, and our editorial teams are not influenced by our affiliate partnerships. We work with several providers (currently Skimlinks and Amazon) to manage our affiliate relationships. You can find out more about their services by visiting their sites.