Monday, 14 July 2008

The Damned (1969. Italy/West Germany, Luchino Visconti)

'The Leopard', widely regarded as Visconti's finest film charted the decline of an aristocratic family during the rise of Garibaldi and Italian nationalism. It was sympathetic towards its main characters who were swept up by events and the inevitable course of history. 'The Damned' is thematically fairly similar. A German industrialist family, the von Essenbecks (rumoured to be based on the Krupp family) align themselves with the rising force of Nazism and find their own existence torn apart by family friction and divisions as Nazism takes control of German society. This is one dysfunctional family where you feel absolutely no sympathy with anyone as each jockeys for position and favour with the Nazi elite, each tries to set the other up, and where sexual abuse and immorality is the norm. It's now common for Nazism to be related to sexual dysfunction in cinema, but 'The Damned' is one of the original films that developed this concept - note how Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, two of the actors in Visconti's film, were reunited for Cavani's 'The Night Porter' - surely no coincidence.

The film begins in 1933 when Hitler recently became Chancellor but his position was still fairly unstable, although this changes with the Reichstag fire, which is mentioned in the opening family dinner. The patriarch of the family has his reservations about the new regime, and one son is ideologically opposed to it, predicting the danger to come. Conveniently, the former is murdered and the latter flees Germany after the SA charge him with the murder, though clearly this is just a set up. The company then passes down to the widow (Ingrid Thulin) of the deceased eldest son, who marries a social climbing executive (Bogarde) to secure their control, which naturally upsets the rest of the family who have seen their birthright pass over to an outsider, and each attempts to undermine the other and cosy up with the Nazi regime (seen in that the ultimate victor is indeed the Nazis who control the company by the film's conclusion, even though it's headed by one family member), which threatens the stability and position of the entire company. In the best melodramatic tradition, we know what the outcome will be but relish the excessive loathing and decadence that brings the family down.

The neo-realist roots of Visconti's work were long since past, as Visconti uses an explosion of lurid colour (reds, blues, greens) for metaphorical purposes, highlighting the depravity of a family in which incest and abuse of minors is commonplace. Perhaps it goes too far in that respect, coming over as too farcical and exploitative to work as a truly impressive account of a family's decline, and the pan-European acting talent ensures that much of the acting in one language comes over as a bit stilted. Still, for those looking for slightly campy and kitsch entertainment, this works fine (including one drag tribute to Dietrich in 'The Blue Angel') - it's just a little uneven overall. 3.5/5

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