Visconti’s lyric autopsy of German history, restored again

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Revered Italian director Luchino Visconti was openly gay but devout Catholic, ostensibly Communist but uncompromisingly aristocratic. In short, he embodied the contradictions that haunt many of his films, in which criticism can sometimes be confused with reverence, or obsessive detail with insipid excess.

Nowhere is this more evident, with sometimes frustrating and sometimes impressive effect, than in his so-called German trilogy of “The Damned” (1969), “Death in Venice” (1971) and “Ludwig” (1973) . These films are hard to love and not as widely adored as his previous masterpieces, like “Rocco and his brothers” and “The Leopard”, but they are the culmination of his preoccupations and his paradoxes: Visconti in his more lyrical, confessionally queer and questioning the present through meticulous reconstructions of the past.

In this triptych, this past is the history of Germany, told in what amounts to an autopsy that traces the apocalyptic 1930s to the romantic nineteenth century. And now with the The recent release of “The Damned” by Criterion Collection all three films are available again, in new restorations that not only improve picture and sound quality, but also come closer to Visconti’s controversial intention.

His previous films – even his first, “Ossessione”, from 1943 – allude to a strange sensibility; and he had already started to develop opera sets that were always lavish with a historical sweep, as in “Senso” and “The Leopard”. But with “The Damned,” Visconti embarked on a series of films that quietly struggled with his own conflicting feelings about sexuality and class, and at the same time portrayed the twilight of monarchy, aristocracy and ultimately , from Germany itself.

But backwards: it starts at the end, as if the trilogy were a thriller, influenced from start to finish by Thomas Mann and Richard Wagner. (It is not for nothing that the Italian title of “The Damned” “La Caduta degli Dei” – “The Twilight of the Gods”, the same name given to the finale of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.) The gods here are members of the von Essenbeck family, industrialists whose decline simultaneously paved the way for World War II.

They are presented – after a sequence of coppery melodrama credits and images reminiscent of Wagner’s fiery Nibelheim, where the ruinous gold ring is forged – in 1933 at a birthday party for the Patriarch in their ornate family home. and expansive, first shown through the eyes of the lower class folks who make it work.

Between the sets and the sounds of Bach floating from a distant room, an old German way of life takes hold, followed by a drag performance in which a grandson, the young Martin (Helmut Berger, the lover by Visconti), channel Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel”, much to the family’s disgust. But he was interrupted by the announcement of the Reichstag fire. Selfishly and unconsciously, it continues until it is cut again. “They could have chosen a better day to burn down the Reichstag, right, Grandpa?” ” he answers.

This grandfather is murdered that very evening, and what follows is a Macbeth-style melodrama of opportunism, murderous machinations, and sexual deviance; Martin, though coded as gay, also assaults young girls and, in the film’s appalling climax, rapes his mother in a catatonic state. In the end, the management of the von Essenbeck company goes to Martin, who is all too ready to cooperate with the Nazi regime, while his mother and lover marry and then take cyanide together – a scene reminiscent of death. Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.

But among those horrors is a sequence that ended up being censored and presented in its original form in the release of Criterion: a dreamlike, homoerotic tale of The Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s purge of the paramilitary brown shirts. At a Bavarian lake hotel, they spend an orgiastic evening of folk songs, beer, and growing nudity before retreating to rooms for gay sex, but only in the depths of the night – as if they were the lovers. by Wagner, Tristan and Isolde. Indeed, the camera shifts to one of the von Essenbecks, Konstantin, barking through the “Liebestod” (“death of love”) of this piano opera. When they are all slaughtered in the morning, an SS member remarks “Alles tot” or “all dead”, a line that also appears in the final scene of “Tristan”.

A kind of liebestod ends “Death in Venice” (also available from Criterion), an adaptation of Mann’s short story that makes his forbidden desire more literal. Visconti changed the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), from writer to Mahler-like composer. The Adagietto of this composer’s Fifth Symphony is the musical soul of the film: “Death in Venice” is practically a silent film, an opera of Aschenbach’s facial expressions and the shy gazes of the boy he obsesses as that beauty personified, Tadzio. (He is played by Bjorn Andresen, a Swedish teenager handpicked by Visconti in a disturbing audition shown in the recent documentary “The most beautiful boy in the world”).

‘Death in Venice’ both satirizes and relishes early 20th century Venetian high-society tourism, with a patient camera that uncomfortably and even nauseably settles over an over-decorated hotel and overly-decorated guests. dressed. However, the sequences also carry a trace of elegy for a world soon erased by the First World War, the kind of nostalgia for the “Grand Budapest Hotel” by Wes Anderson.

Aschenbach’s desire, like all homosexuality in the German trilogy, is doomed to failure. In an opera madness scene, he visits a barber who dyes his hair, phantom white makeup powder, and flushes his cheeks. His unbridled passion compels him to follow Tadzio until his death, from cholera, as he watches the boy from his lounge chair on the beach, black dye running down his cheek in the heat. But it is an ecstatic death, that of Isolde, not consumed but transfigured.

Wagner’s influence on “Ludwig” is even more explicit. He is a character in this sprawling psychodrama as a biography of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (again Helmut Berger) – a film featured in various cuts over the years and in restoration released a few years ago by Arrow Academy more complete than ever, spanning four hours. The imagery of night versus day in “Tristan” also runs through the reign of Ludwig, who made this opera possible while also funding Wagner’s spending habits and extravagant ambition.

Ludwig seems to behave with childish petulance – hiding, after Wagner’s expulsion from Munich, in a dark room with a toy that projects spinning stars from the ceiling to a music box interpretation of “Song to the Star.” evening ”from“ Tannhäuser. “But he looks more like Tristan, hiding in the night world from what is actually expected of him: monarchical duties, the expectation of marriage.

Visconti’s film is mainly nocturnal, or shot in rooms with closed curtains and, in one case, an artificial cave inspired by “Tannhäuser” Venusberg. The instrumental arrangements of this opera follow Ludwig, like Mahler with Aschenbach, until the music fades, revealing, after the death of his beloved Wagner.

The king becomes more and more isolated, eating at a table in his chamber which is raised and lowered across the floor so that he does not have to see his staff, even though they are also the outlet for his cheerful desire. In a scene that echoes “The Damned”, Ludwig’s men gather for folk debauchery in a hut modeled on the “Ring”.

Here again, the sequence is long: elegiac, immersive and ultimately tragic. It’s in scenes like this that Visconti is most outrageously queer. But it also relegates gay desire to this kingdom of night and inextricably ties it to romanticism and decadence – the same genre that the autopsy of the three films has found put Germany on the inevitable path of destruction.


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