Luchino Visconti’s The Damned may be the chef d’oeuvre of the great Italian director (La Terra Trema, Rocco and His Brothers, Sandra)—a spectacle of such greedy passion, such uncompromising sensation, and such obscene shock that it makes you realize how small and safe and ordinary most movies are. Experiencing it is like taking a whiff of ammonia—it’s not conventionally pleasant, but it makes you see the outlines of everything around you with just a little more clarity.
The Damned, called Gštterdämmerung in Europe, opens like Buddenbrooks—with so many characters introduced so quickly that one part of your mind will spend the rest of the movie just trying to sort them out, which is a rare treat since the decline of the novel-as-genealogy. It also draws on Hamlet, Macbeth, the legend of the Nibelungen, on recent history (as it might be fabricated in something like True Detective) and on Visconti’s love for the grand cinematic gesture.
Its story is that of a Krupp-like German steel dynasty in the first two years (1933-1934) of Hitler’s struggle to consolidate his power. It’s not so much that the von Essenbecks symbolize Germany—they are Germany. The film does occasionally record events in real Germany—the burning of the books, assignations in squalid rooming houses, and (for almost a quarter of an hour and with such loving detail that it almost wrecks the balance of the film) the “night of the long knives,” when Ernst Ršhm and most of his SA (Storm Troops) were assassinated by the SS (Elite Guard).
Most of The Damned, however, takes place within the huge, dark drawing rooms, the bedrooms, corridors, baths, and banquet halls of the Ruhr Valhalla where the von Essenbecks, surrounded by silent servants and as isolated as gods, struggle for control of “the factory,” the power of the universe.
There’s the old Baron, an aristocrat who has made no commitments to Hitler, but only because he regards Hitler with the distaste of a snob. There are also his son, Konstantin (René Kolldehoff), a follower of Ršhm in matters sexual as well as political; a young cousin, Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), an SS man scheming to keep von Essenbeck arms from the SA; the Baroness Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), the widowed daughter-in-law who likes to see her son, Martin (Helmut Berger), the Baron’s heir, dress up in extraordinarily convincing Marlene Dietrich drag; and Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), a mortal who, with Sophie, plots to acquire the von Essenbeck fortune, power, and name.
If the film can be said to have a protagonist, I suppose it would be Bogarde who, after murdering the old Baron in his bed, finds himself finally destroyed in a bizarre reworking of classic consequences. Visconti, however, keeps the melodrama at such a distance and plays it at such a high pitch that there can’t be much thought about protagonists and antagonists.
The Damned, while having validity as a political and social parable, is mind-blinding as a spectacle of fabulous corruption, detailed within the family organism that so fascinates Visconti. Like La Terra Trema and Rocco and His Brothers, Visconti’s new film keeps the audience outside the spectacle, but the von Essenbecks, unlike the families in the earlier works, are not only a family—they create their own social milieu. Nothing that happens outside seems to matter much because despite our knowledge of history, we know that Germany’s fate is the von Essenbecks’.
The film triumphs over a number of bothersome things, including too-quick transformations of characters, dialogue of epic flatness (“Complicity grows. I’ve accepted a ruthless logic and I shall never get away from it”), inconsistency of language (most of it is in English, but some is in German for no apparent reason), self-conscious references to great moments in history (the Reichstag fire), and scenes of melodrama that would strain even Wagner (as when Martin decides to “destroy” his mother by raping her).
All of the performances are excellent, but at least two are superb, that of Miss Thulin and Berger, a young Austrian actor who gives, I think, the performance of the year.
The Damned, however, is not a film that depends on dialogue or performance, but on Visconti’s vision that capitalizes on what would be theatrical excesses in anyone else’s work. He likes to begin scenes in close-up with one character talking to another, who may remain unseen, unknown, for minutes at a time. The entire film evokes a sense of makeup and masquerade, both physical and emotional. Color also is important. The first shot of the movie is a close-up of the orange flames of a blast furnace, after which the light seems to dim progressively to a twilight, set off by splotches of red, first a flower in a buttonhole, then Nazi armbands and flags and, finally, blood.
The Damned is a movie of great perversity—so intransigent that I think even von Stroheim would have liked it.
In almost every film Federico Fellini has ever made, the sea has occupied a very special place, sometimes as the ultimate barrier between confusion and understanding, sometimes as a kind of vast, implacable presence that dimly recalls protozoan origins. La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and his newest, most tumultuous movie, Fellini Satyricon, all end by the edge of the sea.
Watching Fellini Satyricon, which opened yesterday at the Little Carnegie Theater, you suddenly realize that Fellini, unlike the creatures of his extraordinary imagination, has refused to be stopped by the sea. He has pushed on, and there are moments when he seems to have fallen over the edge into the cinema of the ridiculous. You ask yourself: Is this dwarf, or this albino hermaphrodite, or is this latest amputation, really necessary? However, he finally arrives, if not at understanding, then at a magnificently realized movie of his own—and our—wildest dreams.
There have already been lots of pious alarms sounded over the excesses of it all, statements to the effect that it is fascinating to look at, but…and debates about its profundity—all of which strike me as about as relevant as finding oneself on Venus and complaining that one’s Boy Scout pocket compass doesn’t work. Even though I feel the film does have meanings, including dozens Fellini himself may be unware of, Fellini Satyricon is essentially its own justification, as is any work of art.
The film, which uses the director’s name in the title to differentiate it from another Italian film based on the same source, is Fellini’s adaptation of the satiric novel by Petronius Arbiter, written in the first century a.d. Satyricon has survived in such fragmentary form that all scholars do not necessarily agree whether it is a moral essay or simply a catalogue of the sexual achievements, most of them perverse, of its student-hero, Encolpius, his boy-lover, Giton, who has the constancy of a cloud, and his best friend.
Sometimes together, sometimes separately, Encolpius, Giton, and Ascyltus wander across the face of the Roman Empire, either participating in (often as victims) or just observing orgies, feasts, festivals, murders, abductions, you-name-it.
This is the first time that Fellini has based a feature film on a borrowed source, which may be the reason why the movie, although as fragmented in continuity as the literary work, achieves a classic dimension that is new for Fellini. Paradoxically, it is also his most original film. Fellini has done nothing less than create a new world, a kind of subterranean Oz, a world of magic and superstition, without values, without government, without faith, and almost totally without conscience. It has the quality of a drug-induced hallucination, being without past or future, existing only in a present that, at best, can be survived.
Fellini Satyricon also has the form of theater, of ritual, to such a degree that there is no difference between the reality of the film and the reality of a play-within-the-film or of the dryly comic legend of the Widow of Ephesus, which is pictured as it is being told by a storyteller at a sulphurous banquet.
This is made apparent from the very first frame, when Encolpius is discovered, back to camera, standing off to one side before a wall that is blank except for some odd graffiti. After a minute or two of rapid-fire, theatrically declaimed exposition, Encolpius turns to face the camera. From that moment on, Fellini fills in the blank wall. Quite literally, he turns his characters into art. The tale never ends. The film simply stops, in mid-sentence, as Encolpius, Giton, Ascyltus, and all of the other Fellini phantoms take their places in the fragments of a lovely wall painting that overlooks a serene sea.
The most spectacular aspect of the film, which is essentially descriptive rather than narrative, is the decor, the color, for everything has been manufactured by Fellini. Like El Greco, Fellini scorns natural sunlight. Even exterior landscapes have been photographed in such a way as to suggest the exotic fraud of the steamy, hermetic interiors. When Encolpius goes to retrieve his beloved Giton, who has been purchased by an actor, you aren’t sure for a moment whether he has wandered into life, or into a play, although everyone seems to be speaking Latin and not Italian.
Even Fellini’s casual way of synchronizing dialogue with lip movements works here. Dialogue comes to sound like incantation, instead of information. The individual elements of the film are realized with such conscious style that all of the nonacting, as well as the scenes of violence, or of copulations performed by persons fully clothed, have the effect of ritual, rather than the reality of some gaudy Italian spear-and-sandal epic, to which Fellini Satyricon is actually related, as all movies are related, though distantly.
The cast is a typical, multinational, Fellini mélange of amateurs and professionals, each one of whom exists principally as a face or just as a physical presence rather than as a performer. Most prominent are Martin Potter, an Englishman, and Hiram Keller, an American, who play Encolpius and Ascyltus and who might pass as a couple of Andy Warhol’s tough-soft leading men. Max Born, a young Englishman who resembles Joan Collins in drag, is Giton, an existentical cupid as might be imagined by Genet.
Although all of the women in the film, with the exception of a patrician’s wife (played by Lucia Bose), are harpies of terrifying scale, I don’t think Fellini is pushing homosexuality, which he depicts with such noneroticism that the movie looks almost chaste.
Fellini Satyricon is no more about homosexuality, than it is about ancient Rome. It is a surreal epic that, I confidently believe, will outlive all its interpretations.