On the evening of Feb. 27, 1933, the Von Essenbecks, a wealthy family of German industrialists, sit down to an evening of at-home entertainment. First, two golden-haired granddaughters sing a sweet song. Then the teenage grandson plays a piece of music on the cello. Finally, Martin (Helmut Berger), the young heir to the Von Essenbeck steel plant, dressed up like Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel like in boa, stockings, and full makeup, sings a bawdy song. Moments later, the performance is cut short. The Reichstag is burning. A new day for the Nazi party is at hand.
Thus, we are introduced to Von Essenbecks, the center of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned (streaming now on the Criterion Channel as part of its tribute collection to British film star Dirk Bogarde) a portrait of a family so greedy, depraved and revolting that they make the Corleones look like the Waltons. And while the Reichstag fire may seem like the moment that sets the action in motion, we soon realize that the Von Essenbecks have aligned with the Third Reich, anxious to keep the family steel mill pumping out cannons and weapons one way or another. That night, Joachim, the elderly family patriarch, is murdered in his bed, and the fight for the head of the family business is on. The Von Essenbecks will find themselves clawing for power, trying to keep in step with ever-changing nascent Nazi Party and each other’s ruthless plotting.
“You must realize that today in Germany, anything can happen,” the unctuous and sinister Von Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), Nazi party up-and-comer and cousin to the Von Essenbecks, tells Frederick Bruchmann (Bogarde) at the film’s beginning. “Personal morals are dead. We are an elite society where anything is permissible. These are Hitler’s words.” Bruchmann and his lover Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin) play a sort of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, playing the family like chess pieces, only to be nightmarishly undermined by Sophie’s son Martin, a morally-bankrupt, preening, sniveling coward and pedophile.
It helps to have a bit of knowledge of pre-wartime Germany to put The Damned into historical context. The Von Essenbecks have knowledge that the Reichstag will burn and take part in a false flag operation to blame the Communists. Later they will stand idly by while books are burned, and members of their own family are arrested and sent to Dachau for political dissention. Bruchmann personally knocks off another scheming relative on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, shown here as a gangland style execution of members of the SA, the Nazi’s original paramilitary wing, at the hands of the rising SS.
Martin is a representation of all that is vile, putrid, and self-serving about those who cozied up Hitler for personal gain. Concerned only for his own-well being, lust for children, and his volcanic love and hate for his mother, Martin feels nothing for others, only his own superiority and desire to be the one Von Essenbeck to rule them all. He emerges as the victor despite molesting and causing the death of a Jewish child (hardly a crime in 1934), raping his mother, and turning over the precious Von Essenbeck steel plant to the Nazis.
There are no heroes in The Damned. Even Herbert Von Essenbeck, who seals his fate at the film’s start by cursing his family’s selfishness, bemoans that he is protesting too late, that he, by doing nothing, is as much to blame for the country’s sickened state.
The Damned is a beautiful film that is deeply hard to watch. The Von Essenbecks are possibly the worst family ever portrayed on screen (or otherwise); their depravity and hunger for power have no bounds, and yet are undermined and out-plotted by the monstrous Martin and the aforementioned Nazi cousin Von Aschenbach. Typical Visconti, there are scenes in The Damned that are staged like sumptuous theater (although at times, of the Grand Guignol style). The film rubs our faces in every kind of violence and orgiastic drunken sexual debasement (there is a literal orgy), reveling in the lack of law and order, and culling of those with a shred of conscience.
It’s interesting to examine The Damned as a companion piece to Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical film Cabaret, which concludes in the early 1930s, just as the horror of Visconti’s historical film begins. The days of clueless avoidance and slow realization of what’s coming at the sunset of Weimar Germany are at an end. In Visconti’s Germany, there is no tragically chipper Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles or dreamy Michael York as Brian Roberts.
The Damned is a fascinating historical horror film that mixes glamour and grotesque in a way that both mesmerizes and nauseates. The villainy and characterizations are almost campy in their sweaty, full-throated embrace of all that is morally void. It’s Italian opera meets giallo. The tragedy isn’t that the characters die at each other’s hands – it’s that such execrable people lived at all.