The most savagely subversive film by the iconoclastic auteur Luchino Visconti employs the mechanics of deliriously stylized melodrama to portray Nazism’s total corruption of the soul. In the wake of Hitler’s ascent to power, the wealthy industrialist von Essenbeck family and their associates—including the scheming social climber Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde), the incestuous matriarch Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), and the perversely cruel heir Martin (Helmut Berger, memorably donning Dietrich-like drag in his breakthrough role)—descend into a self-destructive spiral of decadence, greed, perversion, and all-consuming hatred as they vie for power, over the family business and over one another. The heightened performances and Visconti’s luridly expressionistic use of Technicolor conjure a garish world of decaying opulence in which one family’s downfall comes to stand for the moral rot of a nation.
The Criterion Collection presents Luchino Visconti’s The Damned on Blu-ray, delivered in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. Criterion’s 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a new 2K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Compared to Warner’s 2004 DVD Criterion’s Blu-ray is the clear winner, offering a far sharper and cleaner looking image, the restoration work appearing to be far more thorough in clearing out the debris that remained in Warner’s presentation. Film grain is present and rendered well, looking clean and natural a majority of the time, only a handful of instances looking a little noisy. It's a fairly minor concern, though, and outside of one fade-to-black early on that shows some minor macroblocking I can’t say there were any other noticeable artifacts, the image looking photographic.
Where the image ends up being a bit frustrating is in its colour grading: it leans very warm, layering everything with a yellow/green tint. It can vary from scene to scene, with one scene looking not-so-bad only to have the next take on a that heavier, sickly green look. Even if it's not a blanket layer, at its best, skin tones always look jaundiced, whites never look white (at their best they come off beigey) and blues are very rare: outside of the jackets of household servants and maybe the lighting during Helmut Berger’s Dietrich tribute, cyans are usually the norm. Reds look great, though, and there are some wonderful pops of it, especially during that drunken orgy leading up to the “Night of the Long Knives” sequence.
The colour grading also appears to have damaged the black levels to a degree, though the good news is that the impact is mild compared to what was found on Criterion’s Blu-ray for Visconti’s Death in Venice, where blacks were completely flattened, destroying shadow detail and depth. There can still be a murkiness to the blacks here, and I’d still say they rarely look a true black, hovering more around a dark, warm gray, but shadows are still present and there are faint details visible within them. This is a dark looking film and thankfully we can still see it.
Based on the restoration’s look I assumed this was a Cineteca/Ritrovata job since a lot of the usual signs were there, yet much to my surprise that’s not the case: the restoration was undertaken by Cineteca de Bologna and Institut Lumière. Criterion’s notes also point out that a 1969 print was used for colour reference, and mention that Daniele Nannuzzi, son of the film’s cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi, supervised, those last items suggesting that this is how the film is supposed to look, or at least is close to how it’s supposed to look.
Whether that’s the case or not I don’t know for sure, but the murky blacks and jaundiced skin push me to thinking the yellow/green tint is a bit too heavy. At the very least the rest of the presentation looks sharp and film-like, and is again a big bump over Warner's old DVD.
Criterion includes two audio soundtracks, one in English and one in Italian, both with splashes of German. Each track is delivered in lossless PCM 1.0 monaural. The Italian soundtrack doesn’t synch as well with lip movements compared to the English one (I’m under the impression most of the actors were speaking English during filming), and dialogue can sound a little flatter, but the soundtracks sound to be of about the same quality otherwise. They’re clean, free of damage, deliver a decent level of range, and sound sharp without being edgy.
Warner’s DVD only included one feature around the film, a 10-minute program called Visconti on Set, which is more along the lines of a behind-the-scenes promotional piece on the film disguised as a profile of the director. Criterion carries that program over and for what it is it’s fine, more useful for some of the on-set stuff, but this new release packs on some other great material including a wonderful Italian television program from 1970 featuring Visconti participating in a sort of Q&A session with an audience. Accompanied by journalist and author Giorgio Bocca (who apparently just published a book about fascism and the war around the time of this show's airing), Visconti explains his reasons for setting his story in Nazi Germany as opposed to Mussolini’s Italy, and talks about various plot points and characters in the film. He ends up explaining why his recreation of the “Night of the Long Knives” isn’t accurate, explaining that he was using it as a pretext to insert his own story, and he addresses a number of criticisms lobbed at him, from not contextualizing why the Nazis couldn’t just nationalize the steel plant central to the rather complicated plot (which would have of course made for a far shorter film) and how it’s felt he isn’t properly showing what Nazism is, seeming to focus on linking it to “perversions” rather than address the economic and social conditions that created it. From all of this Visconti even manages to talk about the current generation of Italian filmmakers, more in response to when the film is called old fashioned. Amusingly, he’s pretty blunt with his opinions.
This is a solid find on Criterion’s part, one of my favourite features from them this year, so far at least. It not only serves to help contextualize the film but it also allows Visconti to clearly explain his reasoning behind a number of his decisions. If you only view one feature on here this is the one.
Criterion next includes a collection of shorter interviews. They’ve recorded a new 15-minute one with scholar Steffano Albertini, who talks about the film in the context of it being the first of a loose “German Trilogy” from Visconti (the film followed by A Death in Venice and Ludwig) before talking a bit about how the script was developed, with the casting of Helmut Berger changing things substantially; apparently Bogarde’s character was to be more of the driving force in the original script. Albertini also talks about some of the influences behind the film’s central family, which included Visconti’s own family and the Krupp family, and he touches on his one big criticism with the film, which is how Visconti portrays homosexuality within it. And of course, what analysis of a Visconti film would be complete without comments around the costumes, which Albertini provides, pointing out how the film fetishizes the Nazi uniform. It’s a decent analysis and overview, though short; I’m still rather surprised Criterion didn’t record a commentary for this edition.
The rest of the interviews are all from the archives and feature the actors. A 10-minute 1969 Cannes interview with Ingrid Thulin is first, the actor talking about how directors differed in how they worked with their actors, mentioning Visconti, Ingmar Bergman, and Alain Resnais. A 4-minute excerpt from a 1990 interview with Charlotte Rampling has her going over how she ended up being cast despite a small amount of experience prior. And finally, Criterion digs up a 5-minute interview with Helmut Berger from 1969, Berger going over the nerve-wracking experience of his first big production. They’re not terribly in-depth but they all share some interesting details and are breezy enough.
The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer and the included large fold-out insert features an essay by author D.A. Miller, writing about Visconti’s portrayal of Nazi Germany through a more classical style, writing early on that the story is “as convoluted as any opera libretto.” Admittedly I’m disappointed this edition isn’t packed with more material, but the Visconti interview manages to cover a significant amount of ground all on its own.
The end results are a little frustrating due to the questionable colour grading yet, even then, Criterion's edition is still a significant upgrade over Warner's near-featureless DVD.