Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

Rocco and his Brothers is a sociological examination of what happens to a rural, southern Italian family when they move to the industrial north that ultimately rejects sociological and economic explanations for human behavior in favor of the idea that character is destiny. In what’s widely considered to be one of cinema’s greatest films, Luchino Visconti — who is widely credited with having invented the Italian neorealism with Ossessione in 1943 — looks forward to the operatic melodrama of his “German Trilogy.” He also lays the groundwork for American films like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, and Scarface.

Italy, like the United States, has a rich, industrial north, and a poor agrarian south. Similar to how blacks came north in the 1940s and 1950s to work in the auto-industry in Detroit, the postwar economic boom in Milan attracted poor farmers from Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, and in the case of Rocco Parondi and his brothers, from Basilicata, the arch of the Italian boot. Rocco and His Brothers opens in “Stazione Centrale,” a grand edifice similar to Grand Central or old Penn Station in New York. We meet Rosaria Parondi, the family matriarch, Rocco, Simone, and their younger brothers Cira and Luca. They are going to meet Vincenzo, the eldest, who has come to Milan ahead of them. As the great metropolis unfolds around them, as they stare out of the windows of the bus as it makes its way through the brightly lit city center, we realize they have never seen this kind of traffic, wealth, or bright, artificial light. “It’s like daytime at night,” Simone will say later.

A more careful observer will also realize that Visconti has pulled a fast one. These aren’t the kind of non-actors usually cast in neorealist films, but movie stars. Except for Katina Paxinou, who plays Rosaria and who looks very much like an authentic southern European peasant, the Parondis look like a family of male models. Rocco, a very young Alain Delon, is ethereal and angelic, a vision of boyish innocence. Simone, Renato Salvatori, is forceful and masculine, a Mediterranean Brando. When they finally get to Vincenzo’s apartment, they find Vincenzo celebrating his engagement to Ginetta, played by a very young Claudia Cardinale. By drawing up a standard neorealist frame, poor family from the country cracks up in a big city in the industrial north, Visconti sets up the expectation that the key to the plot’s resolution will depend on economic and historical forces beyond the control of the individual. But by casting good looking professional actors as poor southern Italians, he blows up the neorealist conventions from the inside. It’s not poverty that destroys Simone and leaves Rocco trapped in a career that he hates, Visconti says. On the contrary, the freedom and relative prosperity in Milan allows allows the two men to become themselves in a way that could not have happened back in Basilicata. Simone becomes a rapist and a murderer because, deep down inside, he’s genuinely rotten. Rocco becomes, in essence, an indentured servant to a corrupt boxing promoter because he never wanted to be free in the first place.

But it’s Annie Girardot, a their neighbor, a prostitute who becomes involved with, first, Simone, then Rocco who gives Rocco and His Brothers its heart and soul. Giradot, who 40 years later would play Isabelle Huppert’s domineering mother in The Piano Teacher, turns in one of the great performances in cinematic history. From her pursuit of Rocco, to her terror when she’s raped and later murdered by Simone, from her desire for upward mobility to her essential honesty, from her emotional warmth and vulnerability to the hatred and rage she expresses over Simone’s brutality and Rocco’s passive aggressive betrayal, she expresses just about every emotion a woman seems capable of expressing. She’s also almost certainly the stand in for Visconti himself, her sexual obsession with Alain Delon the conduit through which a gay man in 1960 could channel his lust for a young Adonis. Not far behind her performance is Renato Salvatori as Simone. Even though Simone is an irredeemably loathsome cancer who snuffs out the life of a beautiful, vital young woman and sets his mother and brothers on the road to their eventual destruction, we can’t help but pity him. If Visconti is telling us that character is destiny, Simone’s destiny is the way he has no character, no self, no will, no morals, no individuality. He is a passive receptacle who becomes, in effect, the embodiment of the malevolent forces of industrial capitalism, the lumpenprole who falls out of the working class and preys on the working class. While I can imagine Marlon Brando in his Streetcar days playing Simone Parondi, I cannot imagine him so effectively expressing the emptiness of his character, the hollow, gaping hole that opens up inside a man too weak to hold himself together when given the freedom to live up, or down to his true self.

Rocco and His Brothers is occasionally compared to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, but all the comparison really does is highlight Ford’s essential optimism. Rosario Parondi is no Ma Joad. She doesn’t keep her family together so much as keep herself together as it falls apart around her. If Ma Joad was open minded and expansive, Rosario Parondi is small minded and rigid, too wrapped up inside the protective shell of her southern conservatism ever to be of much use to anybody. But if Rocco and His Brother is not The Grapes of Wrath it’s not Visconti’s later film The Damned either The Damned was an enjoyable movie, but only because we didn’t care about any of them characters. We hate Visconti’s ruling class family of Nazis every bit as much as he does and enjoy every moment of their destruction. The more creatively sadistic he gets, the more we cheer him on. Rocco and His Brothers is gut wrenching. We care about the people we see tortured on screen. We identify with them. We feel their defeat. I genuinely wanted to see Alain Delon’s Rocco and Annie Giroud’s Nadia get married and live happily ever after. That their defeat is due partly to their character, to their own lack of will, is a much more eloquent protest against capitalism than it would have been had it been simple poverty. “We come from the land of the olive tree, the moon, and the rainbow,” Rocco says, dreaming of his hometown in the south. None of them will ever see it again. It’s the empty fantasy of beaten, uprooted people.

The Damned (1969): The German Ruling Class Goes to Hell

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.