The Damned (1969)

by | Jan 20, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Damned (1969)

Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Helmut Griem, Helmut Berger
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Studio: Warner Brothers
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital, English and German (Mono)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Visconti – A profile by John Abbott, Theatrical Trailer
Length: 157 minutes
Rating: ***

Considered in Italy to be one of that country’s top three film directors, along with Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti (Duke of Modrone) directed this powerful and brutal film as the beginning of a body of work known as his German Trilogy, which continued with Death in Venice (1973) and concluded with Ludwig (1973). Visconti directed 16 films in his lifetime, and also was very active in directing opera and theater. Notable films include Obsession (1943), The Leopard (1963), and The Innocent (1976).

The Damned follows the dissolution of the Von Essenbeck family, a powerful and wealthy clan who owns a steel foundry and armament factory, as they try to weather the changing political and social landscape of Germany falling under the control of Hitler and the Nazi Party. The film is set in the time period in Germany just before the infamous Reichstag Fire (February 1933), which gave the new Chancellor Adolph Hitler the excuse he needed to engage in repressive acts against communists in Germany to disrupt upcoming elections, and ends just after the bloody Night of Long Knives (June 1934), when Hitler decimated the ranks of the Brown Shirts, a rival group within the Nazis. The Damned begins at the birthday celebration of the family’s patriarch, Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schonhals), as the family is gathered around a long formal dining table, with Joachim pounding the table to attract everyone’s attention. It ends at the same table with the lone member, Martin von Essenback (Helmut Berger), sitting in the place of the fallen patriarch pounding the table to attract the attention of his nonexistent family. The two scenes bookend this drama, beginning with opulence and ending with desolation, showing the family’s inexorable slide to obliteration.

The performances of the cast are uniformly riveting. Especially note-worthy are Dirk Bogarde as Freidrich Bruckmann, the outsider who tries to marry into the family and assume control, but who relentlessly slides further and further into the grip of evil with disastrous results. Ingrid Thulin plays Sophie von Essenbeck with a mixture of cunning and viciousness that would make her right at home in the power struggles and intrigues of ancient Rome. Helmut Berger as Martin von Essenbeck is the personification of evil as he plunges into the depths of depravity in an attempt to takeover the reins of his family’s destiny and fortunes. Visconti’s masterful direction is equally fine, keeping the actors on track and sharply focused, eliciting far-ranging performances both broad at some points and subtle at others, though one or two scenes seem to go on a bit too long – like the party scene just before the Night of Long Knives – and could have benefited from some judicious trimming.

The lighting and camera work is another matter, though. The lighting is unusually harsh and heavy-handed with a tendency towards colored gels (red seems to be the hands-down favorite) and little subtlety. The preponderance of the camerawork consists of long continuous takes punctuated by random zooms into the scene and closely into the faces of the characters, whether or not the moment warrants it. The zooming doesn’t seem to be tied to dramatic reveals, but almost seems to be as if the cameraman just discovered that the lens could zoom. I found it to be distracting and annoying, at best.

This is not an easy film to like or view. It is certainly compelling and powerful, but it is more in the nature of a cautionary tale than merely entertainment. The viewer should be aware that likeable characters are few and far between, and those that exist in the story are dealt with in deplorable ways. Evil is rewarded, at least in the short term, and at the end of the film you are left with the impression that evil will always triumph and the innocent will always suffer. Ultimately though, we have here a morality tale of what happens when people think they can make deals with the devil without consequences to themselves, but instead find that they have been hopelessly compromised and consumed by the very evil that they thought they could control. Which, all in all, isn’t a bad lesson for our times as well.

– Hermon Joyner

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