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Damned: The Criterion Collection, The
Directed by Luchino Visconti , 1969's The Damned is set in the Germany of 1933. Here we meet Joachim Von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schönhals), a very wealthy man who has made a fortune in the steel business. The company has been doing business with the Third Reich despite Joachim's extreme dislike of Hitler. At a birthday celebration where Joachim's grandson, Martin von Essenbeck (Helmet Berger), puts on a drag show, Joachim winds up being murdered on the very day of his birth. This also happens to be the day that The Reichstag in Berlin was set ablaze. All of this is set into motion by an executive named executive Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) who intends to take advantage of Essenbeck's death and, with some help from his girlfriend (and Joachim's daughter-in-law), Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin), make a play for control of the company. Sophie has ties to Aschenbach (Helmet Griem), a relative and ranking S.S. officer. Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini), the company's Vice President and another who opposes the Nazis, is framed for Joachim's murder.
With Joachim out of the picture, Aschenbach puts in place some power moves of his own that he hopes will bring the Von Essenback steel company under control of the Nazi Party. Joachim's nephew, Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff), inherits the company after Joachim's death but his son Gunther (Renaud Verley) and Martin both have ideas of their own and are keeping very close eyes on the constantly evolving situation. Konstantin, however, is not above using some tricks of his own to keep Martin in line. As the Nazi Party's power continues to grow, Konstantin finds himself in deeper trouble as Friedrich and Sophie continue to work to gain control.
A fascinating film about manipulation and family power grabs set against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early days of the Second World War, The Damned is a decidedly strange picture that is as interesting to watch as it is skewed. The cinematography is, at times, quite lush and impressive and then at other times, intentionally soft in focus and very dark (literally). It is, at times, remarkably claustrophobic and intentionally made to make its audience feel uneasy. It plays with ‘taboo‘ subjects such as gay sex, child molestation, and it does so with glee, the increasing decadence of the Essenback's, Martin in particular, serving as an interesting (and admittedly pretty effective) metaphor for the arc of the Nazi Party itself.
Performances are very good. Helmet Berger plays Martin perfectly, really making us believe he's as twisted his character is meant to be, but at the same time bringing some genuinely sick charisma to the part. Dirk Bogarde is also very good here, sharing some interesting scenes with an equally impressive Ingrid Thulin. These two have an interesting chemistry together in the film that Visconti is wise to exploit. Helmet Griem also does good work in the picture and Charlotte Rampling, cast here as Thalmann's wife Elizabeth, is likewise very good in her supporting role.
With all of that said, this will be, for many people, a challenging film. Despite the impressive production values, it is often times laboriously dark in how it is lit. It can be tough, at times, to tell certain characters apart and that can make following the many and different threads that weave together in the picture a little harder to follow than some will want. There are also subplots that go unresolved and a few storylines that don't necessarily wrap up the way maybe they should have. If you enjoy and/or appreciate challenging art films, however, The Damned should prove to be a pretty compelling watch that offers a lot of food for thought.
The Criterion Collection presents The Damned in an AVC encoded 1080p 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The feature takes up 41.4GBs of space on a 50GB disc and is taken a "new 2K digital restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna and Institut Lumière" of the original 35mm negative and it looks excellent despite leaning a little green sometimes. Depth and texture are consistently impressive and color reproduction always looks great. Black levels are deep and strong and there isn't much in the way of print damage to note here at all. The image looks very clean without appearing to have been overly digitally scrubbed, and as such there isn't any obvious noise reduction here. The picture is also seemingly free of any obvious edge enhancement or compression problems.
Audio options are offered in 24-bit LPCM Mono tracks in English and Italian, with optional subtitles provided in English only. Again, no complaints here. The single channel mixes are clean, balanced and properly authentic. Dialogue is always easy to understand and follow, the score sounds nice and crisp and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion.
Extras on the disc start off with an archival Interview from 1970 with director Luchino Visconti about the film. Originally shown on Italian television, in this forty minute piece he speaks quite openly and eloquently about what inspired him to make the movie, the obvious politics of the film, the dangers of fascism and how they're reflected in the film, how the movie was received when it first played theaters and quite a bit more. Interesting stuff to be sure.
Criterion has also gathered together some archival interviews with a few cast members. Helmut Berger speaks for five minutes about his work on the picture and his feelings on the film. Ingrid Thulin spends ten minutes talking about her character and experiences making the picture. Charlotte Rampling spends a quick four minutes following suit and talking about her work on the picture.
Also well worth checking out is the nine minute Visconti: Man of Two Worlds featurette from 1969. This piece actually takes us behind the scenes of the movie as it's being made so it offers a rare opportunity to see Victonti et al at work.
Exclusive to this release is a new interview with film scholar Stefano Albertini about the sexual politics of The Damned. He does a pretty deep dive into a lot of the imagery and metaphors used in the picture and he makes some interesting points and observations about the film's effectiveness in this regard.
A theatrical trailer is included as well. Menus and chapter selection are provided on the disc, which comes packaged with a color insert booklet/poster that contains an essay by on the film written by D.A. Miller titled Damned If You Do It as well as credits for the feature and the disc and some technical notes on the presentation.
The Damned may not be the most historically accurate film ever made but it's never-the-less quite an engrossing picture with some impressive performances and strange, unique art direction. Criterion's Blu-ray release won't likely win over those who don't already appreciate Visconti's bizarre epic but for those who do appreciate the film, this is an excellent release and comes highly recommended not just for the improved presentation but for the interesting supplements as well.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.