Rainer Werner Fassbinder once called The Damned “perhaps the greatest film, the film that I think means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theatre.” That is one of the most hyperbolic things the man ever said, but you totally get why Fassbinder loved the film: it deals with Nazism and homosexuality, the characters are all amoral monsters, and it’s all a big sweeping melodrama! The reality is that it marks the decline of Luchino Visconti as a force to be reckoned with, and doesn’t hold a candle to his films that were concerned with Italy, especially The Leopard.
The rise of Nazism is seen through the eyes of the Essenbecks family, wealthy German industrialists who get wrapped up in the early days of the Nazis’ rise to power (the film only goes up to the mid ’30s. It’s useful for the viewer to have at least a basic understanding of the series of events that led to the Nazis gaining power, because it’s all in the background, and without it you may get a little lost with the story. Helmut Berger plays Martin, the amoral and sexually ambiguous grandson of Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals), who ends up being the focus of the film.
The major issue the film has is that you can tell Visconti, and eventually the studio backing the film, went through the footage with a chainsaw and massacred it. Dirk Bogarde plays Friedrich Bruckmann, who is an executive in the family’s steelworks. Friedrich is having an affair with Martin’s mother. Essentially, Visconti cut large chunks of Bogarde’s performance out to focus on Berger’s Martin. Visconti was in a romantic relationship with Berger, and fetishes him to an almost ridiculous degree, along with the other young Nazis. The most iconic moment of the film is Berger doing his “Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel” act in full drag as the family are informed that the Reichstag is burning. The film is very good at showing the short period when the Nazis tolerated gays in their ranks—until they didn’t.
For its time The Damned was very transgressive, and faced serious censorship issues. The original cut ran around four hours, and some early critics saw a cut that was around three hours long. We are now stuck with a 156-minute film, which at times feels a little too disjointed for its own good. You wish somebody could find the missing footage and maybe cut it into a mini-series, like Visconti’s later film Ludwig. The film may not be quite the classic some have made it out for, but despite its flaws it is an impressive film, although with Cabaret covering much of the same ground only three years later, it lacks the punch it had in 1969. Still, it has some remarkable sequences and a great ending, even if some of the operatic melodrama brings the film down.
The disc includes two audio tracks, the English/German version and the completely Italian dub. The bulk of the extras are archival interviews with Visconti, Berger, Charlotte Rampling and Ingrid Thulin. The other two extras on the disc are a short 1969 making-of documentary and a new interview with film scholar Stefano Albertini about the film’s sexual politics. The essay in the leaflet is by D.A. Miller.