Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE DAMNED (1969) - Luchino Visconti

My first foray into Visconti territory and, man-o-man, what a decadent trip. An obscenely wealthy steel industry family, the Essenbecks, mingle and do business with the Nazi Party in their early days during the lead-up to WWII. In the wrong hands, this material could have easily been staid TV mini-series fare ala The Thorn Birds. But under Visconti's lavish lens it plays like a deranged Dynasty, a nasty bit of Euro soap opera in which no party comes away clean.

During the brilliant, extended "Night of the Long Knives" scene, in which a drunken party among SA officers turns into an orgy and then into a bloody massacre when SS officers arrive, the German subtitles mysteriously vanished on my copy. I was worried at first that I would miss crucial narrative info, debated pausing the film to find another copy. Then I realized I didn't need the subs. Visconti's languorous pans and busy Caravaggio-like framings told me everything I needed to know.

So many great actors in this ensemble. Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Charlotte Rampling. But, really, it's Helmut Berger's movie (he of Salon Kitty). As the gender-fluid Martin, the black sheep of the family (and in a family like his that means something), Berger's drag rendition of Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again" at his visibly perturbed grandfather's birthday is the show-stopper that gets the movie started and the most iconic image associated with the film. But it's the scenes of Berger playing hide and seek with the younger Essenbeck children that packed the creepiest punch. It's a bit of a surprise when you later find out Martin has a girlfriend in town, then not so much of a shock when it's insinuated she may have been a beard for him to molest one of her neighbor's children next door. Martin may have no head for the family business, but when that business becomes inextricably intertwined with the Nazis it's only fitting that this deeply corrupt black sheep not only survives everyone else in the Essenbecks but becomes a thriving member in the SS ranks.

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