The kind of analogy which Visconti draws in [The Damned] between the history of the von Essenbecks and the rise of Nazism is by no means without precedent in literature. As artists, Visconti and Mann [particularly in his novel Buddenbrooks] have more than a little in common. The symbolic structure of Mann's novels in which 'characters and situations take on a representative symbolic character' incorporating a 'general human predicament' goes hand in hand with a minute attention to naturalistic detail. Both Mann and Visconti are stylists without being mere aesthetes. Mann's 'static and reflective' language and the distancing he achieves through his intrusion as a narrator might be said to be paralleled by Visconti's slow-moving camera which dwells on the remarkable textures and grouping he achieves in his work and which sometimes takes on an independent life of its own. In The Damned, for instance, during the scene of the birthday concert, the camera wanders amongst the spectators like an unseen guest lingering on individual faces in unhurried scrutiny. (pp. 47-8)
More specific parallels between Buddenbrooks and The Damned are to be found between Mann's conscious use of the Wagnerian leitmotif which becomes part of the symbolic structure of his work and Visconti's use of the same technique in this film. The strongest recurrent image in The Damned is that of fire. The opening and closing shots on an ominous fiery furnace is an image to which we often return, either directly or through analogy, as in the book-burning scene. Faces are frequently shown lit in a red glow, as if reflecting flames. (p. 48)
The suggestion of impending doom in the ominous smoke and flames of the opening shot, and the ill-fated marriage which leads to death, are straight out of Wagner's Götterdämmerung itself. We are reminded of the way Visconti uses Verdi in his earlier operatic film Senso. This begins with a performance of Il Trovatore in Venice—we are told it is Spring 1866 and that the Austrian occupation of Italy is coming to an end. The camera moves between stage and audience until the chorus begins a call to arms. The audience is roused to demonstrate in favour of the national cause and there is considerable confusion out of which an Italian patriot challenges an Austrian officer to a duel. The camera movement between stage and audience and the effect of the opera in inciting action amongst the audience sets the tone of the whole film. Visconti has said that he wished to show the way in which the melodrama of the stage carried over into the action of the audience and principal characters of the film.
In The Damned, Visconti once again makes use of this kind of interplay between the associations of Wagnerian romantic epic and the behaviour of those it inspires. Significantly, there is no musical reference to Wagner. The performance on stage which leads into a wider performance, again including the spectators, is an amateur concert. In place of the heroic Brunnhilde we are shown not merely a contemporary sex symbol, Dietrich, but a debased pastiche of her appearance and performance. The song Martin sings as Dietrich comes from The Blue Angel , a film which deliberately presents its characters as actors and is concerned with the sado-masochistic humiliation of a man by a woman…. [The] humiliation of Martin by his Mother, analogous to that of Herr Unrath by Lola-Lola, is a symptom of a state of mind peculiarly receptive to Nazism. Thus through its cinematic and literary associations, Martin's act symbolizes something of the state of...
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German bourgeois society. (pp. 52-3)
Most of the music we hear in the film is popular and trivial. Visconti shows us something of a culture which has absorbed certain of the characteristics of Wagner's heroes—ambition, treachery, lust and ruthlessness without the vital redeeming element of the music itself. Similarly, Friederich, Visconti's Macbeth figure, inherits the ambition, guilt and weakness of his prototype without the intensity of imagination and power of verbal expression which lifts Shakespeare's character to the ranks of the tragic heroes.
The structure of The Damned is much closer to the theatrical Macbeth pattern than to the novelistic one of Buddenbrooks, since Friederich provides the central driving force against which the others react, and the phases of his rise and fall reflect those of Macbeth. Friederich loses control just as he seems most secure, at the family dinner to which Herbert Thallman's 'ghost' returns, when Bruckmann attempts to assert his headship of the family. But the signs of moral regeneration embodied in the figure of Malcolm at the end of Macbeth are ignored by Visconti in favour of an ironic Wagnerian ending in which the lovers are united in death, not with the exaltation of a Siegfried and Brunnhilde but with a hopeless resignation. (p. 53)
In Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa, which was also an attempt to uncover the facts and resolve the guilt of the past era of fascism, Visconti made an analogy with the buried hatred, incestuous desires, madness and death-wishes of a family group. Such imagery is not arbitrarily chosen. In popular mythology, sexual decadence causes the decay of a culture, as with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the Fall of the Roman Empire. The Damned is structurally more complex than Vaghe Stelle. As opera, it highlights certain strongly drawn dramatic themes and ostensibly ignores 'irrelevant' incident and details. In Senso, Visconti made an implicit comparison between the simplified outlines of Il Trovatore and the history of Franz and Livia which is simultaneously grand and petty. In The Damned what is virtually ignored is shown to be of equal importance with what is emphasized. The grand passion and Wagnerian heroics of the Nazi order survive only through a studied blindness to what is going on beneath the surface. The Essenbeck house in which most of the action takes place is an enclosed world, protected on the whole by wealth and privilege. Visconti's use of colour throughout the film reflects this idea…. [The] avoidance of unsavoury detail forms another of the films leitmotifs…. The crime of ignoring what it is more comfortable not to see, reflects the familiar post-war German chorus that under the Nazis no one knew what was really going on.
The Damned is almost certainly not one of Visconti's major films…. Generally speaking, the script lacks the substance and complexity to match Visconti's dazzling style…. Nevertheless, The Damned does not deserve to be hawked around as a peg on which to hang the latest fashion any more than to be reviled as an irresponsible chronicle of sexual perversion and brutality. Visconti's characteristic strength in handling groups, creative use of colour and camera movement together with the absorbing use of visual and thematic leitmotif will undoubtedly lead to a reappraisal of his achievement in this film. (pp. 54-6)
Margaret Tarratt, "'The Damned': Visconti, Wagner and the 'Reinvention of Reality'," in Screen, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 44-56.