revered italian director Luchino Visconti Openly homosexual yet devoutly Catholic, apparently communist, yet fearlessly aristocratic. In short, he embodied the contradictions that haunt many of his films, in which criticism can sometimes be confused with reverence, or details obsessive with tasteless excess.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the so-called German trilogy of “The Damned” (1969), “Death in Venice” (1971) and “Ludwig” (1973), the effect at times depressing and at other times awe-inspiring. These films are hard to love and not as widely loved as his previous masterpieces such as “Rocco and His Brothers” and “The Leopard”, but they are the culmination of their preoccupations and contrasts: Visconti at his most operatic. of the present through careful reconstruction of the past in confessional queer and questioning.
In this triptych, he chronicles Germany, described as an autopsy that traces the apocalypse of the 1930s back to the 19th century. and now, with The Criterion Collection’s recent release “The Damned,” Three films are available again, in new restorations that not only improve picture and sound quality, but more closely embody Visconti’s controversial intent.
His earlier films—even his first, “Ocean” from 1943—point to a strange sensibility; And he had already begun developing the ever-gorgeous, operatic set pieces with historical sweeps like “Senso” and “The Leopard.” But with “The Damned,” Visconti began a series of films that quietly wrestled with his own conflicting feelings about sexuality and class, and at the same time that of the monarchy, aristocracy and, eventually, Germany. Painted twilight.
But on the contrary: he begins at the end, as if the trilogy were a whodunit, influenced by the whole Thomas Mannu and Richard Wagner. (Not for nothing “The Damned” is the Italian title of “La caduta degli dei”—”Twilight of the Gods,” the same name given to the conclusion of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.) The god member here is Vaughan. The Eisenbeck family, industrialists whose decline together paves the way for World War II.
They are introduced – after the credits sequence of brassy melodrama and imagery reminiscent of Wagner’s fiery Nibelheim, where a ring of ruined gold is forged – during the patriarch’s birthday party in 1933 at his ornate and spacious family home. , first shown through the eyes of the lower class people who run it.
Between the scenery and the sounds of Bach from a distant room, an old way of German life is established, then a drag performance takes place in which a grandson, the young Martin (Helmut Berger, Visconti’s lover), Marlene Dietrich in the channel “The Blue Angel”, So much to the displeasure of the family. But he is interrupted by the announcement that the Reichstag is burning. Selfishly and unconsciously, he continues until he is cut again. “They could have chosen a better day to burn the Reichstag, right, Grandpa?” He answers.
That same evening the grandfather is murdered, and is followed by a “Macbeth”-like melodrama of opportunism, murderous conspiracy, and sexual diversion; Martin, though coded as gay, also molests young girls and, in the film’s horrific climax, rapes his mother in a horrific situation. In the end, the leadership of the von Eisenbeck company falls to Martin, who is all set to cooperate with the Nazi regime while his mother and her lover marry, then take cyanide together – a scene which Commemorates the deaths of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.
But among those horrors lies a sequel that is censored and presented in its original form in the Criterion release: a dreamy and homophobic reenactment of the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s purge of paramilitary brownshirts. At a Bavarian lake hotel, they spend an orgasmic evening of folk songs, beer and increasing nudity before heading into the rooms for gay sex, but only deep into the night – as if they were Wagner’s lovers Tristan and Isolde. In fact, the camera cuts one of von Eisenbeks, Konstantin, barking through that opera’s “Libestode” (“Love-Death”) on a piano. When they are all massacred in the morning, a member of the SS remarks “All’s hat” or “All dead”, a line that also appears in the final scene of “Tristan”.
A Kind of Lie ends in “Death in Venice” (also available from criteria), An adaptation of Mann’s novel that makes its forbidden desire more literal. Visconti transformed the protagonist, Gustav von Eschenbach (Dirk Bogard), from a writer to a musician resembling Mahler. That composer’s adagiato from the Fifth Symphony is the film’s musical soul: “Death in Venice” is virtually a silent film, an opera of facial expressions by Aschenbach and Coe from the boy he sees as the aesthetic personality, Tadzio. (He’s played by Björn Andresen, a Swedish teenager selected by Visconti in a disturbing audition featured in a recent documentary.) “The most beautiful boy in the world”)
“Death in Venice” satirizes and enjoys upper-class Venetian tourism of the early 20th century, with a patient camera that uncomfortably, if nauseatingly, at an overpriced hotel and its overpriced guests. resides. Yet there’s also a trace of mourning in the scenes there for a world that will soon be wiped out by World War I, a nostalgia like Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Like all homosexuality in the German trilogy, Eschenbach’s will is doomed. In an operatively insane scene, he goes to a barber who dyes her hair, powders it with ghost-white makeup and puffs up her cheeks. His unrestrained obsession forces him to follow Tadzio to his death from cholera, as he watches the boy from his lounge chair on the beach, black dye dripping down his cheek in the heat. But it is an ecstatic death, that of Isolde, who is not yet fully transformed.
Wagner’s influence on “Ludwig” is even more pronounced. He is a character in this expansive psycho-as-biography about King Ludwig II of Bavaria (again Helmut Berger) – a film presented in various cuts over the years, and in restoration. Released by Arrow Academy a few years back More full than ever, running over four hours. The night versus day imagery in “Tristan” also dates from the reign of Ludwig, who made that opera possible while controlling Wagner’s spending habits and extravagant ambition.
Ludwig appears to be dealing with childish petulance—hidden, after Wagner is expelled from Munich, in a dark room with a toy that plays the music of “Song to the Evening Star” from “Tanhauser”— The box swirls the stars on the ceiling to sing. But she is, like Tristan, what is expected of her in reality, hidden in the world of the night: monarchical duties, the expectation of marriage.
Visconti’s film is primarily night, or shot in a room with closed curtains and, in one case, an artificial grotto inspired by “Tanhauser” Weinsberg. Instrumental arrangements from that opera follow Ludwig, as with Mahler Aschenbach, until the music fades, apparently, after the death of his beloved Wagner.
King becomes increasingly isolated, eating from a table in his bedroom that is raised and lowered through the floor, so he doesn’t have to see his staff members, even if they are for his homosexual longing. Have an outlet. In a scene that echoes “The Damned”, Ludwig’s men gather for a folk-fueled corruption inside a hut modeled on the “ring”.
Again, the sequence is long: beautiful, immersive and ultimately tragic. It is in scenes like this that Visconti is at its most brazenly queer. But he also imputes homosexual desire in that realm of the night, and associates it with Romanticism and decadence—in the same way that the autopsy of the three films put Germany on an inevitable path of destruction.