Synopsis: The dramatic collapse of a wealthy, industrialist/Junker family during the reign of the Third Reich.
When you think of an extremely wealthy, seemingly depraved family you imagine the worst. Luchino Visconti imagined it and filmed it and paid the price for making a movie that we often imagine when thinking about members of the elite that just rub us the wrong way.
The Essenbeck family is wealthy beyond imagination as patriarch Baron Joachim owns a steel work and munitions factory. With the rise of the Nazis and the road to war the plant becomes a target for the government causing Joachim to reluctantly aid the party, understanding that the union is unavoidable. For Aschenbach, a cousin to the Essenbecks and ranking SS member, this is not enough and so on the night of the Reichstag fire he manipulates the family into a feud. Letting them destroy each other and their control of the plant.
This movie is beautiful because Visconti is not afraid to show us how despicable a despicable family can be. In Chinatown Robert Towne and Roman Polanski show us how the wealthy Noah Cross rapes his daughter then becomes the sole caregiver to the ensuing child. In a family where Noah Cross is the head you’d expect the rest of the family to follow suit in character and that is exactly who the Essenbecks are, a family of amoral degenerates – power hungry during a time in history and location that encouraged evil.
Audiences are often repulsed by what they see on the screen in this film and condemn the movie for its content. Evil exists and Nazi Germany proved that to the world, which is why it’s so important that this film takes place in that world. If anyone were to say this family is too sensationalized, well, what do they have to say about the actual atrocities that occurred? The Essenbecks are a microcosm and by shining light on specific individuals the audience can truly understand how evil people function. It’s easy to look at footage from the war or the Holocaust and accept that it’s evil. It’s much more difficult to look at Martin Von Essenbeck and his interactions with children, or his mother, because what you’re looking at is no longer a history lesson. It’s a person who could be on the cover of a magazine you read while waiting for the dentist.
The Damned flows quickly as the family decays, each piece falling and leaving another battle for the remaining pawns. You get desensitized to the murder and lust and evil and that’s the point. That’s where Visconti wants you to be when he shows you that there are no depths to what humans can do and that there are always new evils to surprise you. By the climactic finale you are fully disgusted. This isn’t a movie about good, it’s a movie about evil and sometimes we need to witness real evil to know what it looks like so we don’t start pretending that simply our dislike of a person or country or culture is justification to condemn. To accuse someone of true evil they need to have committed Essenbeck-like acts, not just imagined, yet uncommitted acts.