A Fusillade of Passion

THE DAMNED
Luchino Visconti, 1969

Fellini. Antonioni. Bertolucci. De Sica. Pasolini. Rossellini. And Visconti. Italian cinema would practically be nothing hadn’t those names existed.

Among those filmmakers, Luchino Visconti is the one whose works I find very exciting. Most of his films are fearless; yet underneath that audaciousness lies a certain touch of overwhelming tenderness.

Death in Venice is Visconti’s most popular work. (That film is a tearjerker.) While The Damned is, in my opinion, his best and sadly underrated opus.


Set in 1933 Germany, The Damned tells the story of the Essenbecks, a wealthy family that owns a steelworks factory that supplies the artilleries the Nazis use. (The Essenbecks were loosely based on the Krupp family.)

The f*cking World War II is yet to explode, but the Essenbecks already have a war of their own. Their enemies: each other.

The steelworks company is presided by the family patriarch, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (played by Albrecht Schoenhals). Everyone in the family, even the friends of the family, wants to be in Joachim’s position; that’s why someone eliminated him.

Aside from Joachim, the Essenbecks are:

Ingrid Thulin as Sophie
Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) – also known as the Baroness von Essenbeck. Joachim’s ritzy daughter-in-law; she is the widow of his son, a soldier who died in combat. Sophie is a domineering mother to her son, Martin.
An effeminate Helmut Berger is Martin, the heir apparent to Joachim. He doesn’t give a damn about the steelworks. His primary concerns include sneaking into his girlfriend’s apartment, getting laid, and sexually harassing little girls. I guess it’s fair to call him the perverse Essenbeck. Martin is an amoral, self-indulgent brat who would stop at nothing to get what he wants. And he wants to destroy his own mother for depriving him of her love and attention. (Talk about a case of Oedipus complex.)

Konstantin (René Koldehoff) – A member of the SA. The newly appointed vice president of the Essenbeck Steelworks. He knows he doesn’t have a chance to become the company’s president. That’s why he sets his sights on his musically inclined son, Gunther.

Gunther (Renaud Verley) – A cellist. He is probably the gentlest Essenbeck. Konstantin wants him to quit school and focus on the family business, so that one day he would be in the position big enough to throw his own father out. Trouble is Konstantin is a pushy dad, and Gunther is hard-headed son.
The family friends are as follows:

Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) – Sophie’s lover. Replaced Joachim as the president of the Essenbeck Steelworks. The root of Martin’s hatred for Sophie. Frederick is full of ambition, but lacks firm courage to fight for that ambition.

Herbert Thallman (Umberto Orsini) – An outspoken leftist. The former vice president of the Essenbeck Steelworks. The prime suspect for the murder of Joachim.

Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) – Herbert’s wife. The mother of Herbert’s two daughters. She’s not as politically outspoken as her husband. Just like Gunther, Elizabeth wants to live a life free of contempt.

Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) – A high-ranking officer of the Third Reich. The baddest of the bad. He is devoid of any emotion. I think Aschenbach represents Adolf Hitler. He is evil and manipulative, just like Hitler.

The Damned is approximately three hours long. But it has a vast amount of energy in it, that’s why I didn’t find it tedious. It remarkably explores themes such as greed, madness, and decadence. The film is kinda like The Godfather set in Nazi Germany.
Berger’s voice and accent are very reminiscent of Joel Grey in Cabaret. He is remarkable as the heinous Martin. And his legs. Who would think that those sexy legs belong to a man?!
It’s great to see Thulin in a non-Bergman film. Sophie is a total departure from most of Thulin’s characters in Ingmar Bergman’s films. In fact, I think Thulin is the most daring among Bergman’s actors. I mean, come on, she did Salon Kitty at the age of 50.
Berger and Thulin’s accent are quite out of tune. I think it would’ve been better if the actors spoke in Deutsch. Anyway they’re supposed to be a German family. (I’ve seen the undubbed English version.)

L-R: Dirk Bogarde as Frederick Bruckmann. Helmut Berger as Martin.

Most of the actors are very good. Bogarde’s acting is awesome as always. But my most favorite performance is by Griem. He is a scene stealer as Aschenbach. The actor portrays his character with so much ease, yet his performance is the strongest. The scene of him luxuriously munching those grapes while Sophie and Martin are arguing is well placed.
The cinematography made me feel like I’m watching a phenomenal stage play. The interior lighting usually plays around green, red, and blue.
Maurice Jarre’s music is epic, just like the film. The opening theme is heart-pounding; it perfectly fits the “fearless yet tender” description I said a while ago.

The Damned is a fusillade of passion. It explodes with emotional intensity and power. An underrated classic, I must say.

Perhaps the greatest film, the film that I think means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theater.
– Rainer Werner Fassbinder on The Damned

Trailer for The Damned:

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