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Film / The Damned (1969)

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"What is the meaning of all this control?"
Friedrich Bruckmann

The Damned is a 1969 film by Luchino Visconti. It's the first part of a Thematic Series with Death in Venice and Ludwig, collectively known Visconti's "German Trilogy".

Set in the early days of Nazi Germany, The Damned depicts the downfall of the Essenbecks, a prosperous German steel family. Patriarch Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals) announces his retirement from the family business. Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), an ambitious company executive, conspires with Joachim's widowed daughter-in-law Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) and SS official Hauptsturmführer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) to murder Joachim and take over the company. This sets off a vicious power struggle between Friedrich, Sophie, Aschenbach, Sophie's son Martin (Helmut Berger), and Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff), an SA leader. Caught in the middle is Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini, dubbed by Christopher Cruise in the English-language release), Joachim's vice president whom Frederick frames for Joachim's death, his wife Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling), and Konstantin's son Gunther (Renaud Verley).

The Damned was extremely controversial in its day, for both its sexual content and graphic violence. It remains a polarizing movie: some critics consider it a masterpiece, others think it's overblown and sensationalistic. Compare for instance Vincent Canby's glowing review with Roger Ebert's scathing one. One notable fan is director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who said it "means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theater."

Not to be confused with a 1947 French film or the British punk band.

Tropes used by the film:

  • Aborted Arc: One early scene alludes to Herbert stealing corporate documents during his flight from Germany, hence rendering him potentially dangerous. This however is quickly forgotten — it's not even mentioned when Herbert returns - leading viewers to wonder what threat Herbert poses to the Nazis, or why his family has to suffer. Aschenbach even lampshades this, saying that foreign industrialists "won't be able to make use" of Herbert's documents.
  • Affably Evil: Aschenbach is a trope codifier. Whether he's wooing Friedrich, threatening Sophie, or negotiating with the Army, he's constantly smiling and speaking in a friendly, even tone of voice... which only makes him more menacing.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Averted. Aside from Konstantin, the Essenbecks only deal with the Nazis in the course of business (Joachim in particular seems disgusted by Hitler). We also see Herbert and his family persecuted as dissidents and a scene where SA leader Konstantin argues with Aschenbach and several Wehrmacht generals.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: As invoked by the title. The German elites are too decadent and self-serving to stand up to the Nazis and wind up destroying themselves.
  • Artistic License – History: Visconti's version of Night of the Long Knives compresses numerous disparate murders and arrests, spread over three days and across different parts of Germany, into a giant massacre of SA leadership at a single location in one, well, night. Not to mention Visconti's depiction of the SA leadership having a huge gay orgy just before the SS arrives.note 
  • Blackmail: Konstantin offers to Martin to cover his dirty affair with the Jewish little girl in exchange of being nominated president of the company. Later he's Hoist by His Own Petard.
  • Book Burning: The film provides a literal example when the SA plunders a college library and burns the books.
  • Break the Cutie: Gunther's arc from sensitive cellist to prospective SS recruit, as the bad things that happen to him kindle a hatred within him that allows Aschenbach to put his hooks into him.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Aschenbach and Sophie's meeting halfway through the film. Sophie tries to throw her weight around, threatening to withhold support from the Nazis unless they allow Frederick to inherit the steelworks. Aschenbach doesn't take it well.
  • Bury Your Gays: The film shows the Nazi SA having a gay orgy, only to be massacred en masse by the SS the next morning.
  • Cast Full of Rich People: The Essenbecks are a family of old money aristocrats living in lavish, decadent surroundings.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Martin's introduced singing a Marlene Dietrich song in drag.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Herbert's established as the Only Sane Man and staunchly anti-Nazi, but he's framed for Joachim's murder and exits about a half-hour into the film. Friedrich also qualifies, since despite his early focus, his character arc becomes less important than Martin's.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Aschenbach assures that Martin's relationship with the little girl and her suicide won't be investigated at all because she was Jewish. And of course because he's soooo rich and powerful...
  • Downer Ending: Martin has become a fanatical Nazi, Günther is brainwashed into following in his footsteps, and the last vestiges of institutional resistance to the regime have died or been cowed.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: We know that Elizabeth died in a concentration camp only because her husband tells about it.
  • Evil Uncle: Konstantin blackmails Martin for his dirty business with the Jewish girl. But Martin is pure evil himself, so...
  • Evil Versus Evil: All the characters except Elizabeth and Gunther are varying shades of evil, or at least petty or self-serving.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Gunther, at the end. From the White Sheep of the family at the end he's duped into joining the Nazi party.
  • Fan Disservice: While the film is known to be sexually risqué, most of the sexual scenes consist of child molestation, a depraved gay Nazi orgy that ends in a bloody massacre, and a sexually explicit incestuous rape scene.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Parent: Konstantin wants his son to stop fooling with his cello and literature and learning the family's business.
  • Frame-Up: Herbert is blamed for Joachim's murder. Symbolically parallels the Reichstag Fire occurring on the same day.
  • Freudian Excuse: If ever any movie character had one, it's Martin. Lost his father in World War I and is constantly reminded of his heroism; his mother is a domineering schemer with strong squicky hints of incest. Little wonder he turned out so messed up.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Konstantin blackmails Martin and uses his leverage to reroute arms shipments to the SA. This convinces Aschenbach to mark Konstantin for extermination in the Night of the Long Knives.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Essenbecks are clearly modeled on the Krupp family. Martin in particular seems based both on Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, a fanatical Nazi who usurped control of the company from his father Gustav with Hitler's blessing and later served three years in prison for war crimes, and his son Arndt, a homosexual playboy notorious for his wild international escapades in the '50s and '60s. Arndt reportedly hosted private screenings of this film for his friends, though his and their reactions are unrecorded.