Luchino Visconti’s The Damned is probably one of the most controversial films ever made. Its infamous reputation nonetheless suggests the film has something that continues to move viewers. Often criticized for treating Nazism as a horror movie, the film’s overheated stylization is central to its impact. Theoretically, The Damned seduces through a manipulation of emotions and appearances in the same way that Nazism did as a political movement. That irrational appeal is combined with the violent reality of the regime, and in the process, we derive an understanding of the movement greater than what is possible from rational discussion. Through that understanding, we are armed against similar seduction.
It’s a great theory. How valid is arguable, and there has been a lot of argument about the film and similar work. Perhaps the first question to ask is “Does it achieve that seduction?” Are the horror elements so shrill that they overpower both the appeal and the political focus, in effect, reducing Nazism to glitzy kitsch? This is, after all, a film that includes pedophilia, incest, murder, parricide, drug abuse and suicide in one family. The situation is beyond extreme, it is way, way over the top. Yet for all that, with one exception, there is only the tiniest of hints of the Holocaust or other real horrors of the regime. Does the movie thereby achieve the essence of Nazi aesthetics, much less Nazi politics?
That exception is the film’s tour-de-force, the vivid, but very questionable reconstruction of the “Night of the Long Knives,” when members of the SA were butchered by the SS. (Not least of the questions raised by the sequence is why Visconti accepted Hitler’s unsubstantiated description of the SA gathering at Bad Wiessee as a homosexual orgy.) Dramatization is a matter of distilling essences, particularly when making a political or historical point. What essence of Nazism does the Night of the Long Knives reveal beyond the Nazis’ willingness to murder anyone, including each other? That may get at a truth about the regime, but one hardly unique to Nazi Germany. Moreover, just how valid is it to plunk some of the main characters into the massacre when in purely plot terms their motives are more personal than political? In other words, the von Essenbeck family’s depravities are just too hyperbolic to serve as a microcosm of German society.
Which does not mean, however, that their disintegration fails to compel. For all the florid melodrama, The Damned’s heavy, plodding style does reveal a truth about Nazi aesthetics. Hitler’s specialty was to bludgeon spectators into numb acceptance of rapturous spectacle through sheer dint of mass and scale. Resistance was futile. By joining in, participants were rewarded with a rich, intoxicating euphoria. The Damned produces a similarly lumbering emotional and intellectual void, then fills it with a cloying sauce of overheated ingredients. It is tempting to conclude that if the film still disturbs, it may be because it continues to appeal.