Italy, (West) Germany, 1969
Directed by Luchino Visconti
With Helmut Berger (Martin Von Essenbeck), Ingrid Thulin (Sophie Von Essenbeck), Dirk Bogarde (Friedrich Bruckmann), Helmut Griem (Aschenbach), Albrecht Schoenhals (Joachim Von Essenbeck), Reinhard Kolldehoff (Konstantin Von Essenbeck), Renaud Verley (Günther Von Essenbeck), Umberto Orsini (Herbert Thallman), Charlotte Rampling (Elizabeth Thallman)
People pace up and down the great rooms and long corridors of the stately castle: a party is going to be thrown, to celebrate the birthday of the patriarch. A few remarks, a woman on tenterhooks, men flushed with anger, each in his room, a strange talk in a car riding a road (it is barely missed by another car coming from the opposite lane): a few shots are more than enough to suggest tension, trouble. But the party takes place nevertheless, a show is given in the main drawing room, the gathering is a merry family reunion.
The misgivings the audience can sense are going to be fully justified: the story would be the relentless, cruel self-destruction of a quintessential Junker, industrial, wealthy, class-conscious family as the world it was born into morphs into a radically different, amazingly brutal, proudly modernistic and nihilistic system. The date is a symbol: the birthday party of Joachim Von Essenbeck, the octogenarian clan’s chief and chairman of the Essenbeck steelworks, happens on the evening of February, 27, 1933 – the moment when in Berlin an arson destroys the Reichstag’s building, four weeks after Adolf Hitler had been nominated Chancellor.
Ambition and frustration shape the plot of “La caduta degli dei – The Damned”. The titles appear against red-hot images of burning furnaces workers tend to in a factory: owning and running big and successful steelworks is what at a stake for the characters as a new party with an aggressive, militaristic outlook gains power, the factory images instantly signaling the hellish nature of both the fight to be in control and the regime to come. Both Konstantin Von Essenbeck, elder son of patriarch Joachim, and Sophie Von Essenbeck, widow of the other son of Joachim, killed during World War Two, sympathize with the Nazi party – actually, Konstantin is a leader of the SA, the party’s armed wing – and are glad to watch Herbert Thallman getting sidelined; the brother of the dead wife of Konstantin was too strident an opponent of the Nazi party and a key player in the business’ management.
But Konstantin and Sophie do not share exactly the same goal: the dynasty’s scion reckons to amass more power and prestige both in the family and within the SA while his sister-in-law envisions an even greater bond between the business and the family on the one hand and the new regime on the other hand and, above all, wants her lover, general manager Friedrich Bruckmann, to be at the top and to marry him without making a social fuss. Unlike Konstantin, who is still a brutal and blunt character despising his son Günther Von Essenbeck, Sophie is keen to take whatever it takes to reach her goals, bracing violence and shenanigans on a shocking scale. The very night of the birthday party she drives Friedrich to kill the old man and both lovers would make believe it was a revenge act from Herbert, compelling him to flee and dooming Herbert’s wife Elizabeth and two daughters to be prisoners of the clan and then of the government.
But a more central character emerges as this industrial family is rent apart: Martin Von Essenbeck, Sophie’s son. Cast from the very start (a dubious cross-dressing performance during the party, to imitate a raunchy cabaret singer) as an androgynous and pervert figure, he is quickly revealed as pathologically debauched and weak, a toy in the hands of his mother. But when a scandal threatens him, he promptly asserts more manly aggressiveness and desire. He espouses the Nazi ideal and ruthlessly crush, in part to avenge himself from the low, humbling status they forced on him, his mother and her lover, till death follows. He also becomes the steelworks’ real chief, after main rival Konstantin got killed in the internecine war between the Nazi party’s left and the leadership, culminating with the June, 30, 1934 massacre. The final shots show him dressed in a Nazi uniform contemplating the dead bodies of Sophie and Friedrich while his Nazi friends and their chicks cavort in the castle, which is now just a desolate location lost in a new, terrible social order.
And yet those events could not have been really possible if another character would not have help it. He stands first on the sidelines of the party, a distant cousin kind enough to give Friedrich a lift to the castle, quietly sitting at the dinner table. In fact, he would never be properly put front and center and more often than not feature on short scenes away from the castle and the steelworks. He does not act a lot but holds many conversations. He is the secret agent of the disaster, with an off-hands approach that skirts any direct and unpleasant meddling, rather prodding people to think his own way, that is the right ideological way. That is why Aschenbach matters so much: not because he drives the family into crisis and especially Martin to become an even greater monster he is already, but because he does articulate the real sentiment the Nazi party he is such a great supporter and big player hides behind populist promises. It is when he talks to Günther, after the young man learned that Friedrich took part to the killing of his father and as Martin begins to destroy his family, that he is the most explicit and dangerously seducing: Nazism is just the embodiment at political level of sheer hatred, which is clearly viewed as the engine of passions and ambitions and in fact praised as such. Nazism is pure evil assuming the trappings of power, looking for constant advancement and glory, using humans’ ambitions and frustrations to destroy the world and values.
Of course, it is impossible than a civilian as obscure as Friedrich could have wield a machine gun during the 1934 Night of Long Knives – it was the business of the army and the police and top Nazi leaders, including Hitler. The implausible detail points to a larger problem. The Von Essenbeck clan is held as a metaphor of an elite that has failed and was digested by the new regime. But such are the hatred and insanity running through the family that it is hard not only to relate to them but also to view them as representative. They do help to paint a wider, scathing picture of the Nazi ideology and system as they are working hard to entrench their influence over an old European civilization – but what is shows is an unrelenting display of debauch and decadence that truly shocks but verges on a politically ineffectual caricature.
The decay of the Von Essenbeck is outrageously made obvious and operative through a pathetic character who is right away presented as degenerate. As he plays hide and seek with his little cousins, the film is quick to suggest he is a pedophile. This unpalatable urge would lead him to another shocking relation that ends with the girl’s suicide – in this respect, the film, through the long ordeal of Herbert’s daughters and the tragedy of this little Jewish and poor girl, unsubtly demonstrates that innocence has no chance, and just no place, in the new Germany Hitler is creating. And that suicide is so embarrassing that it proves to be the perfect tool Aschenbach needed to push Martin down the road to destruction. The rest feels like a monster’s progress systematically going overboard, a horrific tale outdoing itself and gleefully showcasing an Oedipal vengeance that has little realism. The rape of the mother may both fulfill an obscure desire and vent a deep-seated rage but the awkward symbolism and the deliberately opera-like, over-dramatic shooting are frankly an irritation. Those are wanton images of scandal purporting to shock and awe and reducing the investigation on Nazism to a grotesque psychoanalysis.
The endless night at an inn where Konstantin has joined scores of SA activists has previously been a disturbing and long-winded flash-point. It is difficult to gather, even when it remembered how important eliminating the SA was historically, why the film lingers so much on the incident, even if it features key characters of the story. It seems the only reason is to emphasize how debauched the self-righteous, fully-committed men were and by contrast how vicious the party they help is. The never-ending, though remarkably and brilliantly shot and edited, sequence is a conscious mix of sex and blood, hypothesizing on rampant homosexuality while reveling in gruesome, graphic violence. At this point, and it would take time before ugly Martin rapes Sophie and kills her and her lover, the film has forcefully makes clear that all this business is just about degenerate and despicable morality, Nazism being the haven of madness.
From the man who shot “Senso” (1954) and “Il gattopardo – The Leopard”(1963) the visual splendor of the sets, props and atmosphere come as no surprise: this is a painstaking, precise, profligate reconstruction of a milieu and an era. The quality and utilization of those production values give the narrative a realistic and vivid ring. High culture informs the film, with veiled references to Thomas Mann (that Aschenbach name) and William Shakespeare (Sophie seems a new Lady Macbeth), underlining the film’s intellectual ambition and prestige. And once again, individual destinies are delicately intertwined with national history but here characters do not radiate and neither do they illuminate. They are just veneers recovering a crude assemblage of insane impulses and moralistic politics, shaping a comfortable definition of the Nazi as a über-monster, born out of depravity and amorality, a repugnant evildoer, grimacing wickedness all along. Even when the director’s communist sympathies and his unabashed desire to shock are taken into account, the film does look like, to quote critic Pauline Kael, a hysterical show of cinema, not a compelling one.