La Caduta Degli Dei - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The Damned)

Italy-Germany, 1969

Director: Luchino Visconti

Production: Pegaso Film-Italnolggio (Italy), Eichberg Film-Praesidens (West Germany); Eastmancolor, 35mm; running time: 164 minutes, English version: 155 minutes. Released December 1969.

Producers: Alfredo Levy and Ever Haggiag; executive producer: Pietro Notarianni; screenplay: Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli and Luchino Visconti; photography: Armando Nannuzzi and Pasquale De Santis; editor: Ruggero Mastroianni; sound mixer: Renato Cadueri; recording director: Vittorio Trentino; art director: Pasquale Romano; set designer: Enzo Del Prato; music: Maurice Jarre; special effects: Aldo Gasparri; costume designers: Piero Tosi and Vera Marzot.

Cast: Dirk Bogarde ( Friedrich Bruckmann ); Ingrid Thulin ( Baroness Sophie von Essenbeck ); Helmut Griem ( Aschenbach ); Helmut Berger ( Martin von Essenbeck ); Charlotte Rampling ( Elisabeth Thallman ); Florinda Bolkan ( Olga ); Reinhard Kolldehoff ( Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck ); Umberto Orsini ( Herbert Thallman ); Albrecht Schönhals ( Baron Joachim von Essenbeck ); Renaud Verley ( Guenther von Essenbeck ); Nora Rici ( Governess ); Irina Wanka ( Lisa Keller ); Valentina Ricci ( Thilde Thallman ); Karin Mittendorf ( Erika Thallman ); Peter Dane ( Steelworks employee ); Wolfgang Hillinger ( Yanek ); Bill Vanders ( Commissar ); Howard Nelson Rubien ( Rector ); Werner Hasselmann ( Gestapo official ); Mark Salvage ( Police inspector ); Karl Otto Alberty, John Frederick, Richard Beach ( Army officers ); Claus Höhne, Ernst Kühr ( SA officers ); Wolfgang Ehrlich ( SA soldier ); Esterina Carloni and Antonietta Fiorita ( Chmbermaids ); Jessica Dublin ( Nurse ).



Badalucco, Nicola, Enrico Medioli, and Luchino Visconti, Caduta degli dei , Capelli, 1969.


Ferrara, Guiseppe, Visconti , Paris, 2nd edition, 1970.

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Ferrero, Adelio, editor, Visconti: il cinema , Modena, 1977.

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Servadio, Gaia, Luchino Visconti , Milan, 1980; translated as Luchino Visconti: A Biography , London, 1981, New York, 1983.

Rondolini, Gianni, Luchino Visconti , Turin, 1981.

Bencivenni, Alessandro, Luchino Visconti , Florence, 1982.

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Sanzio, Alain, and Paul-Louis Thirard, Luchino Visconti: Cinéaste , Paris, 1984.

De Guisti, Luciano, I film di Luchino Visconti , Rome, 1985.

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La caduta degli dei
La caduta degli dei

Mancini, Elaine, Luchino Visconti: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1986.

Villien, Bruno, Visconti , Paris, 1986.

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Bacon, Henry, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay , Cambridge and New York, 1998.


Hofsess, John, in Take One (Montreal), May-June 1969.

Wilson, David, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1969–70.

Sarris, Andrew, in Village Voice (New York), 18 December 1969.

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Cecil, Norman, in Films in Review (New York), February 1970.

Crowds, Gary, in Film Society Review (New York), February 1970.

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Davies, Brenda, in Films and Filming (London), May 1970.

Delmar, Rosalind, "La Caduta degli Dei: The Damned," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1970.

Tarratt, Margaret, " The Damned: Visconti, Wagner, and the Reinvention of Reality," in Screen (London), Summer 1970.

Mellen, Joan, "Fascism in the Contemporary Film," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1971.

Korte, Walter F., "Marxism and Formalism in the Films of Luchino Visconti," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1971.

"Ingrid Thulin Comments on Visconti," in Dialogue on Film (Washington, D.C.), no. 3, 1972.

Marx, J., "A tragedia alkonya," in Filmkultura (Budapest), November-December 1973.

Lyons, D., "Visconti's Magnificent Obsessions," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1979.

Badalucco, N., "Film architettura in tre atti," in Cinema Nuovo (Rome), July-October 1989.

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Ward, E., "The Great Films: Three Views of the Holocaust," in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), September 1991.

* * *

The Damned is the story of a bitter power struggle within a family of powerful German industrialists, the von Essenbecks, set against the early years of the Third Reich. When the film opens, on the day of the burning of the Reichstag, the head of the firm, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck, is due to retire. His eventual heir is his grandson, Martin, but he has two possible immediate inheritors: his brother, Baron Konstantin, vice-president of the firm and a member of the SA, and Herbert Thallman, a liberal anti-fascist and former vice-president. Behind the scenes, however, Baroness Sophie, Martin's mother and widow of Joachim's oldest son, and her lover, Friedrich Bruckmann, the company manager, form an alliance with Joachim's nephew Aschenbach, an SS member, to gain control of the firm. They shoot Joachim, but make it look as if Herbert was the culprit, and he is forced to flee. With the aid of Martin, Friedrich becomes president, but Konstantin discovers that Martin is a paedophile and blackmails him in an attempt to gain control himself. He, however, is eliminated by the SS during the Night of the Long Knives. Sophie and Friedrich are now in complete control, but refuse to accept that they are dependent for support on SS man Aschenbach. He therefore sets out to destroy them.

Like so many of Visconti's films, The Damned is the story of the decline and decomposition of a family, and as in Senso and The Leopard in particular, the fortunes of individuals are linked to wider developments at a climactic moment of history. There are also, as various critics have pointed out, significant parallels with Mann's Buddenbrooks , which showed the decline of a German business family through the increasing paralysis of will of its various members, amounting to a kind of death wish which seemed to echo the exhaustion of the whole Imperial regime. Both film and novel open with preparations for a family dinner party, and the title of the opening chapter of the latter, "The Decadence of a Family," could easily serve as the sub-title for The Damned as a whole. And if Mann's family mirrors the decline of the Imperial regime, Visconti's is a microcosm of Germany's industrial elite faced with the Nazi "Machtergreifung." The film has been called "the Krupp family history as Verdi might have envisaged it," but one could just as aptly substitute the names of Kirdorf, Thyssen, Schnitzler or any of the other industrialists who supported Hitler. More specifically, the murder of Joachim could be seen as representing the liquidation of the old, conservative ruling class by the new National Socialist order; the framing of Herbert for the murder parallels the framing of the Left for the Reichstag fire (especially as his surname, Thallman, irresistibly recalls the name of Thalmann, one of the Communist leaders arrested after the fire); and the killing of Konstantin by the SS (of which Aschenbach is a member) entwines the family history in the early power struggles amongst the Nazis, which culminated in the liquidation of the more populist, "radical" elements in the famous Night of the Long Knives. It is then only a matter of time before Martin and Aschenbach are in total control, representing the fusion of party, capital, and military under a leadership which is both supreme and also pathologically unstable.

However, there are problems with relying too heavily on such a reading, which does not do justice to the film as a whole. If we go too far down this road we soon encounter a criticism made by Rosalind Delmar, among others, namely that "fascism itself remains unexplored, becoming a backdrop to the action rather than an intrinsic part of it; its relation to the family struggle remains intellectual rather than expressive." Or as Claretta Tonetti has written: "The passions of the members of the family have a separate existence from the political shaping of the country. . . . Politics remain in the background of the shocking internal struggle among the Essenbecks. The Nazi takeover has little to do with the impact of the scene in which Martin rapes his own mother." Unless, that is, one subscribes to an ultra-Reichian view of Nazism, or wants to ally The Damned with that curious tendency in Italian cinema, from Germany Year Zero to The Conformist , which seems worryingly keen to link support for extreme Right-wing politics with deviation from the heterosexual norm. Nor can the victory of National Socialism in Germany be explained wholly in terms of internal feuds amongst its old and new ruling interests—that way leads us straight to the by now rather stale criticism that Visconti, the one time Marxist, became increasingly over-interested in the affairs of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie.

Better, then, to regard The Damned as one of Visconti's family melodramas, replete with his usual operatic and mythic inflections. Much of the action takes place within the sumptuous "set" of the Essenbeck mansion, and scenes between the individual characters alternate with those involving a larger "chorus." The Night of the Long Knives sequence forms a massive and spectacular central set-piece. Again like Mann, Visconti makes use of various Wagnerian leitmotifs, such as fire and play-acting, which become a key underpinning of the symbolic structure of the film. The fact that the film also carries such strong echoes of Macbeth , Dante's Inferno , Wagner's Gotterdammerung (the original title of the film, in fact), and the aforementioned Buddenbrooks , suggests strongly that Visconti sees The Damned not simply as a representation of history, nor simply as the working out of an intense family conflict, but also as having mythological significance (in the same way that Vaghe Stelle Dell'Orsa is a working out of the Oresteia myth). According to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "over and above what is directly stated in the film itself, myths imply a whole set of further statements about the permanence of certain driving forces in history and the trans-historical ineluctability of the tragic mechanism." The problem here, however, according to Nowell-Smith, is that "unlike in Vaghe Stelle , the myth element is neither unitary nor fully integrated into the structure of the narrative." As a consequence, the mythical overtones not only add nothing to the story but actually rather work against the historical and personal-dramatic elements. As Nowell-Smith concludes, "in the last analysis the Essenbecks are only the Essenbecks, more interesting to the world, perhaps, than the average family, because of the power of their capital; but their fall (only to rise again, without a doubt, in 1945) is neither the end of civilization nor its restoration."

In short, The Damned , without being one of Visconti's finest films, is still a remarkable work, but it is one which, for its own sake, needs to be rescued from some of the more inflated claims—political, psycho-sexual, and mythological—which have sometimes been made for it, albeit with the best of intentions.

—Julian Petley

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