As the credits open Luchino Visconti’s anti-fascist classic The Damned, we are told that “no resemblance to actual events is intended.” Whether Visconti was afraid of lawsuits or he intended the disclaimer as a joke, it’s nonsense. The von Essenbecks are the Krupps, the notorious family of Rhineland industrialists and arms merchants who made an alliance with Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s, and survived the war with their property largely intact. The Damned is one of the most savage attacks on a prominent ruling class family ever made. Visconti’s hate is pure. It’s magnificent.
The Damned opens on February 27, 1933 at the birthday celebration of Joachim von Essenbeck, the family patriarch. One by one we meet the Essenbecks, their friends, family, and their contacts in the Nazi Party. There’s Joachim. He has no love for Hitler, but supports him anyway. He hates democracy even more. There’s Herbert Thallmann, the family firm’s vice president, an anti-fascist liberal, but isolated and ineffectual. There’s Konstantin von Essenbeck, a gruff, vulgar man played by Reinhard Kolldehoff, a German actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to George C. Scott. A young, vulnerable looking Charlotte Rampling plays Elizabeth, Herbert’s wife. A statuesque, blond Ingrid Thulin, the very model of Aryan perfection, plays Sophie von Essenbeck, the widow of Joachim’s eldest son, a fighter ace who was killed in the First World War. Dirk Bogarde, who Visconti will cast as Gustav von Aschenbach 2 years later in his film version of Death in Venice, plays Friedrich Bruckmann, Sophie’s lover, an opportunistic Essenbeck Vice President from a middle-class family. Helmut Griem plays Aschenbach, a 30-something SS officer, the handler Hitler has assigned to manage the von Essenbeck family, and a clear stand in for Satan. Above all there’s Martin von Essenbeck, played by Visconti’s Austrian lover Helmut Berger, a flamboyantly androgynous young man in his 20s, that “rough beast,” who, to quote Yeats, “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
February 27,1933 is Joachim’s last birthday celebration. It’s also, not incidentally, the night of the Reichstag fire. “Why can’t they chose a better night to burn the Reichstag?” Martin sighs after Konstantin interrupts his drag show — an iconic re-staging of Marlene Dietrich’s performance in The Blue Angel— with the news. The Essenbecks are not passive observers of German history. They are a stand in for the German ruling class as a whole. There’s been a coup in Berlin. Earlier, on the drive up from the factory, Aschenbach the SS officer had told Friedrich Bruckmann that there would be another coup inside the Essenbeck mansion itself, that he would soon have the opportunity to take Herbert’s place as Vice President. Later on, after Joachim has gone to bed, and the family settles in for the evening, we hear a scream. Even though an observant filmgoer has already figured out that Friedrich Bruckmann will kill Joachim and Aschenbach will frame Hebert, we are initially confused. Joachim also hears the scream. He’s in bed, still alive. It’s a testament to Visconti’s genius and artistic daring that when we put two and two together we realize that the scream had come from a servant who caught Martin molesting his 11 year old cousin. Earlier we had seen him get out of drag, take the little girl under a table, and begin to undress her. Yes, the evil in Germany is so thick you can cut it with a knife. After the brief interruption, and Joachim is finally sent on his way to hell — Frederick pumps him full of bullets from Hebert’s gun then puts the gun back in Herber’s bedroom— the SS storm the Essenbeck Mansion. Herbert escapes. But before he climbs out the window on his way across the border to France, he gives the gun back to Friedrich. Friedrich, as per Aschenbach’s instructions, then dutifully hands it over to the SS. Herbert, thus, has “proven” himself the murderer and middle-class Friedrich Bruckmann is now in full control of the Essenbeck arms factories. Vast wealth awaits him in the coming arms buildup if he plays his cards right.
If the murder of Joachim on the night of the Reichstag Fire was a coup against Hebert and German democracy, it also sets the stage for Hitler’s next move, the Night of the Long Knives. Konstantin von Essenbeck, a senior member of the SA and a clear stand in for Ernest Rohm, knows that if he doesn’t move quickly, his days are numbered. Let’s not overlook what Visconti is doing here. Visconti, a gay Marxist who joined the Communist Party during Mussolini’s dictatorship, is telling us that the theory lately so beloved of the American corporate propagandists at Fox News — that Nazism is socialism — is bogus. Ernst Rohm was a rough, gay, proletarian street brawler but the SA was never a “socialist” faction within the Nazi Party. Konstantin von Essenbeck is one capitalist jockeying for position with Frederick, and then Martin, two more right-wing “masters of war.” The Night of the Long Knives was not about the SA and national “socialism” being replaced by the SS and national capitalism. It’s an evolution from one stage of fascism to another. Konstantin, his real life counterpart Rohm, and the proletarian street brawlers had served their purpose. They had violently suppressed the communists and Social Democrats. Now, like Hegel’s “delicate flower of history,” they had to be run down by the German state, utterly crushed, and eliminated from the politics of the Third Reich. Konstantin does manage to divert a shipment of machine guns from the Essenbeck Factory to an SA compound along the Rhine, but he’s doomed. Aschenbach and Frederick have the upper-hand. Konstantin and the SA, stupidly, hold a drunken, gay orgy when they should be preparing for battle. At dawn, in a gorgeous scene that Visconti would later replicate for the opening of Death in Venice, black clad SS men armed with the latest sub-machine guns manufactured at the Essenbeck factory come out of the mist in river boats, storm Konstantin’s compound, and, in an orgy of violence that’s nothing more than a continuation of the orgy of debauched gay sex that had gone on the night before, leave a bloody pile of Teutonic man flesh that would make Francisco Goya proud. Konstantin and the SA have been eliminated. Frederick, who Aschenbach convinces to come along on the raid, now reigns supreme.
But does he?
Sadly for Frederick Bruckmann and his wife Sophie, Aschenbach and the SS is thinking two steps ahead of him. Nationalism Socialism is not “socialism,” but it’s not capitalism either. The Essenbecks, the old German ruling class, are too weak, too perverse, too debauched to resist the German state. Friedrich’s Teutonic version of the American dream won’t last long. His days, like Konstantin’s, are already numbered. As Visconti shifts from the rivalry between Frederick and Herbert, then Frederick and Konstantin, he shifts from politics to family politics, or, to be more accurate, dramatizes Germany’s next step down into utter depravity and evil through the destruction of the Essenbecks themselves. Martin, who’s long been under his mother Sophie’s thumb, is Aschenbach’s instrument of choice. Even though flamboyantly androgynous, Martin isn’t gay, but a heterosexual pedophile. Not only is he molesting his 11-year-old cousin, he’s also molesting the 11-year-old daughter of his Jewish mistress, a young girl who hangs herself as Martin, by his own account, looks on and does nothing. Achenbach, who’s quite open with Martin about how there’s no danger of his going to prison for the death of a Jewish girl — it’s not even a crime in the Third Reich — nevertheless has Martin’s number. Martin is weak, hateful, amoral, terrified of his mother, the very embodiment of a ruling class ripe for takeover by the fascist state. He, not the upstart class climber Frederick Bruckmann will rule the Essenbeck corporation. Martin does not disappoint. When we next see him, he’s already decked out in the uniform of an SS officer. First he pushes out Bruckmann. But that’s not enough. The Essenbecks, and Germany, will implode under the weight of their own evil. In the film’s most notorious sequence, Martin rapes Sophie, his own mother, and leaves her a broken shell of her former self. The last scene of The Damned is chilling. Martin arranges for Frederick and Sophie to get married. Frederick is a beaten man, Bogarde’s slump shouldered body language effectively embodying the moral flaccidity that made him Achenbach’s tool, then his victim. Sophie is worse. A catatonic zombie with a white powdered face and bright red lips — an image Visconti will use two years later in Death in Venice to symbolize death and spiritual corruption — she’s already gone. The marriage is concluded. Martin hands them poison. The Essenbecks are no more.
Historical note: The real life Essenbecks, the Krupps, would survive. Although Alfred Krupp, the family patriarch, was tried and sentenced to 12 years in prison for his use of slave labor, he was later pardoned by the American High Commissioner in Germany John J. McCloy. McCloy also fully restored the Krupp family’s property. Sadly, the occupation of postwar Germany was managed, not by radical Italian filmmakers, but by Wall Street lawyers.