Luchino Visconti (Luchino Visconti di Modrone) will forever be part of world cinema ‘royalty’, and that has more to do with his cinematic genius than his genuine aristocratic credentials. Tad ironic perhaps for an avowed communist and a life-long member of the Marxist party!
If I had to compare him alongside three of his other great contemporaries in a single word, it would be, Fellini – the magician, Antonioni – the intellectual, Pasolini – the poet, and Visconti – the classical painter. Okay I give up – I’m really not good at these things, but you should get the idea. Visconti spends extraordinary effort in making sure each of his scenes feel as authentic as possible, be it the set design, props, costumes or make up, be it the stars or the extras, looking at the overall frame along with its associated historical context much like a classical painting – a trait at least partly attributable to his deep involvement in opera and theatre. I will however leave it at that, and instead let you guys learn more about Visconti from proper film historians.
Visconti’s drama, “La Caduta Degli Dei” [better known as “The Damned” or “Götterdämmmerung”] is a period piece set in Germany during the rise of Nazism and the Third Reich, and the consequential downfall of an industrialist family. He uses their downfall as a parable to illustrate Nazism’s impact on Germany itself. Among his late films, it can be considered one of his masterpieces. Featuring big stars of the day like Dirk Bogarde and Ingrid Thulin, it is a lavish production in every sense, one that also got it nominated for Oscar the following year. I’d first wondered why Visconti chose Helmut Burger over, say a Malcolm McDowell for the role of delinquent son Martin Essenbeck – surely it can’t just be for the German accent or looks – and only later learnt that Visconti and Berger were actually lovers at the time and may be that played a part in the choice. But he of course wouldn’t compromise the overall film effort because of the choice, and had to bear down heavily on Berger to extract whatever we see of his performance here. And behold, Helmut Berger was even nominated for a Golden Globe for this film – and he improved and went on to make several more films for Visconti..!
It is a tragedy of betrayal and skulduggery among family members as they try to gain control of the family fortune. Frederick Bruckmann, an ambitious executive at Joachim Von Essenbeck’s steel plant is finding his way to the top, thanks to his friendship with an Essenbeck family member who’s also an SS officer, but no less his soon-to-become fiancée Sophie, the widowed daughter-in-law and third-in-line to the Essenbeck fortune. People including family members forego all sense of moral fortitude as they try to wrest it from others, and one after the other, they perish. It is not exactly a pleasant film to watch, in fact some scenes will certainly make you uneasy – not for what it shows, but for what it implies. It is also embellished with loaded dialogues, partly because of the difficult subjects dealt with. It is nevertheless a powerful film, and therefore, Recommended Viewing.
Note: The new DVD is a beautifully restored version from the original, and a worthy addition to anyone’s film library. The film is shot in English to reach a wider audience (“lest anyone forgets”), but because of the strong accents of some of the actors, it helps to leave subtitles on if you’re watching it on DVD. Amazon DVD Link.