Much has been said about Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, which explored the fall of a wealthy industrialist coinciding with the rise of fascism. It tells a tale of moral decline, degeneracy, political opportunism, and eventual ruin. Although it never fails to challenge you in terms of the subject matter (some of which would have been controversial in 1969), I find that it tends to meander about the place with its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, and it’s not always easy to stay interested, however I would recommend at least trying, because what it does offer is an allegory of the twisted lust for power, and the ruination it may bring.
The film’s plot centres around the Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family in Germany that apparently survived the Great War and the last economic depression, but after the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, the family’s fortune and prestige comes under threat. On the night of the Reichstag fire the family’s patriarch, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (who despised Hitler), is murdered with a gun belonging to the family firm’s vice president Herbert Thalmann, forcing Herbert to flee. The family fortune falls into the hands of a relative in the SA named Constantin, with an amoral pervert named Martin waiting in the wings, scheming to take power for himself and advance himself through the echelons of the Nazi Party.
I won’t try to mince words. The film itself is a very long and often trying film, and a tad too dismal for those who don’t have the patience for it. There is a sequence of events that is laid out rather incoherently. That being said, there is much historical territory that could have been explored in the film, but this is squandered by the mere fact that it focuses solely on the perspective of a disintegrating family, and only in the period spanning 1933 and 1934. Not that there was no dramatic potential. In fact, many scenes serve the point of the film, such as Visconti’s re-enactment of the Night of the Long Knives.
The acting is sometimes a bit hammy, but it is certainly good in terms of performance. Many critics have cited Helmut Berger’s performance as Martin von Essenbeck as one of the high points of the film, and I can arguably agree. He gives Martin the creepy personality that such a character deserves, and in a way, he is basically a personification of how the most extreme ills persist in totalitarian societies. He is the fall of a nation in one sick, twisted man, stealing the central role in a film about the fall of industrial titans.
The film’s style is very much extravagant, in a subtle sort of way. It makes use of lavish sets and costumes, presumably to heighten the sense of moral rot within the society. There’s also something to be said about the way the characters are dressed, a reflection of aristocratic prestige that’s weathered the ages but is slowly being eroded. Though the film itself disappointingly tends to meander on for quite a bit, it is a fairly well-executed drama, one that might age well after repeated viewings.
- Score: 69%
- Grade: C