On the night of 30th June 1934, Nazi troops moved against Ernst Rohm’s paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung) in a putsch that lasted three days and saw over 85 deaths. Hitler’s antagonism against the SA owed to their continued independence; the putsch was also an excuse for striking at his critics, demonstrating the force and deadly efficiency of his own SS troups, and consolidating his power base.
The carefully orchestrated coup was called Operation Hummingbird, but has gone down in history as the Night of the Long Knives.
This nefarious moment in German history provides the 20-minute centrepiece to Luchino Visconti’s ‘The Damned’. Subtitled ‘Götterdämmerung’ (trans. “twilight of the gods”), the Wagnerian reference is apposite. Visconti’s film is operatic to the point of being overwrought, particularly in its increasingly melodramatic last half hour.
The stage upon which this opera of Nazi-ism, power struggles, sexual ambiguities and compromised morality plays out is the Essenbeck Steelworks, owned by a powerful industrial family whose political allegiance is important to Machiavellian SS officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). ‘The Damned’ opens with a birthday party for the ageing Baron von Essenbeck who announces his retirement, leading to instantly fractured interrelationships inside and outside of the family as the appointment of the new director of the company hangs in the balance.
The rank outsider* in all of this is Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde); however, he has two aces up his sleeve: his relationship with the Baron’s widowed daughter, Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), and the backing of Aschenbach.
Through Aschenbach’s machinations and Sophie’s borderline erotic manipulation of her sexually confused son Martin (Helmut Berger) – whose predilections range from cross-dressing to paedophilia to mother-fixation – Bruckmann is appointed director of the steelworks. But it’s not long before his obsession with complete control over both firm and family – not to mention his reluctance to take the political hard line that his deal with the devil (or rather his suave earthly representative Aschenbach) requires – leads to his downfall.
Bogarde excels as Bruckmann: a vivid, complex study of ambition, fear, moral cowardice, desperation and, finally, abject defeat. Ingrid Thulin goes a wee bit ‘Lady Macbeth’ towards the end, but by this point Visconti’s shovelling on the theatrics like there’s tomorrow. Helmut Berger, Visconti’s homo-erotic camera clearly favouring him over the rest of the cast, gives a memorable performance if sometimes for the wrong reasons; but there’s no doubt that he gets across Martin’s vicious amorality.
Further down the cast list, Umberto Orsini and Charlotte Rampling deliver compelling turns.
But it’s Helmut Griem who eclipses even Bogarde. “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” to quote ‘Hamlet’. Aschenbach smiles, and smiles, and soothes, and coerces and chills. Martin’s demonic ascension and engineering of Bruckmann and Sophie’s fate is nothing but the movement of Aschenbach pulling the strings. Griem plays him with infinite charm and assured understatement. Amidst the emotional excesses of Visconti’s lurid epic, he’s the calm centre of stillness, composure and complete ruthlessness.
*Readers of Sheridan Morley’s book on Dirk Bogarde’s early career will, I hope, forgive the pun.