Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969)—a curious hybrid of international casting, with the actors speaking to each other in different languages, only later to be dubbed into a single language—was one of the great scandalous films of the late 1960s. Originally rated X, the film was the last word in decadence—something proclaimed by the iconic image of Helmut Berger (the then-object of Visconti’s obsessions) in startling Marlene Dietrich drag. And while that aspect of this overheated and very operatic melodrama seems pretty tame today, the film’s nonstop parade of perversions—pedophilia, incest, rape—and crimes, duplicity, complicity, and even more, is still shocking.
The film represents Visconti at his most drama-queen excessive, and how you respond to that will probably determine how the film plays for you. The story follows the rise of Nazism as it impacts the already pretty decadent von Essenbeck family (a thinly disguised version of the Krupps). The tendency is to think of the film as either a masterpiece or cinematic tabloid trash, when the reality is that it’s probably a little bit of both. Like all Visconti, it’s gorgeous to look at. But it moves faster than most of his films, which can be a plus, though it occasionally makes The Damned feel a little on the overstuffed side. It’s certainly effective in depicting 1933-‘34 Germany as a suffocating nightmare of hell on earth. And one thing it never is—despite a 155-minute running time—is dull. Imperfect and excessive—and also essential.