Visconti, like so many other Italian artists of his generation, spent a great deal of his career attempting to make sense of fascism and the terror it wrought on Europe. The Damned is the ultimate expression of that struggle in Visconti’s work. A tale of depravity, sensuality, wealth, and social decline, this film depicts the liberal political climate which birthed Nazism through the exemplar of one wealthy, bourgeoisie family. Like many Visconti films, The Damned finds connections between sexual depravity and moral vacuity, as the family’s descent into backstabbing and incest is connected to their relationship with the ascendant Nazi government. This metaphor is refigured and re-expressed throughout the film’s plot.
Stylistically, The Damned shares many features in common with the Giallo genre, a school of Italian horror-thrillers well known for its expressionistic use of color and lush, sensual images combined with unflinching depictions of violence. The Damned‘s score is moody and foreboding. This moodiness is reinforced by Visconti’s glacial camera movements which bear witness to the many of varieties of perversion which entertain the Nazis and their collaborators. The set dressings are highly stylized and minimalistic, almost Brechtian in character. Overall, the film is one of Visconti’s most singular visions of Europe in decline.
The Damned is a fantastic piece of cinema. Its story is full of enticing reversals, but it does not become blogged down in plot-heavy, expositional sequences. Similarly effective is Visconti’s vision of the Weimar Republic–acutely surreal, like a waking nightmare. It works well as a proto-Giallo thriller in which the horrors of the Holocaust are foreshadowed in the moral failures of the industrial class who enabled it.