Meet the Essenbecks: Reflections on The Damned, Nazi films and fiction writing

Konstantin2

“Very good, Groggy. You’ve even made a crowning speech!”

Hello! This is Groggy Dundee, whom you may recognize from my film blog. I’ve maintained a few fiction blogs in the past, but those were lighthearted adventure stories. This one deals with weightier, potentially controversial subject matter. Hence I feel a need to justify this blog’s existence before plunging in.

Like many great projects, Twilight of the Clods is born of insomnia. Last Saturday night, stomach filled with bad burrito and monstrous amounts of caffeine, I could not sleep. What better way to induce coma than watch a film?

So I poured another glass of diet soda and grabbed a favorite off the shelf: Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969). For the fifth time in the past year, I immersed myself in the Essenbeck family’s machinations and perversions. It didn’t help me sleep, but it did inspire thought and creativity. I typed about 25 pages of jumbled thoughts into Microsoft Word before my brain imploded.

Why The Damned? For those not familiar with the movie, it’s an epic depicting the downfall of a German steel family during Hitler’s rise to power. But The Damned is no sober drama; Visconti mixes Buddenbrooks, Macbeth, Oedipus Rex, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Dostoyevski’s Stavrogin’s Confession with the Krupp family’s backstory for a perverse spectacle of backstabbing, murder and sordid sex. It’s The Godfather with Nazis, if Michael Corleone were an incestuous, transvestite pedophile.

Martin Damned

“I was in The Godfather, Part III!”

On one level, The Damned is artistically accomplished: Visconti’s direction is utterly spellbinding, from the period costumes and sets to the lurid horror movie colors. There’s an incredible international cast, including heavyweights like Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger (to name but three). And the centerpiece, a depiction of the Night of the Long Knives (re-envisioned as a gay orgy/gangland massacre) is as hypnotic a sequence as ever put on film.

Yet as drama, The Damned is pretty lousy. The convoluted plot dissolves about halfway through, devolving into sordidness without drive or purpose. Martin Von Essenbeck (Helmut Berger) embodies Visconti’s overreach. He commits endless depravities at the expense of narrative focus, not to mention more interesting characters like Dirk Bogarde’s Frederick or Helmut Griem’s SS chief. It’s not enough that Martin’s a pedophile, he must also rape his mother.

What a beautiful dichotomy between highbrow artistry and bad taste melodrama! It’s the closest thing I’d consider to a guilty pleasure.

Visconti’s movie provides a springboard for broader discussion. I’ve always been fascinated (or irritated) by pop culture’s abuse of Nazi Germany. Not only as a convenient “politically correct” villain, but as a cheap way to invest banal, vulgar stories with pathos. You can give your superhero movie, video game or cartoon show gravitas by invoking Hitler. Not to mention truly repulsive trends like Nazisploitation, which turns National Socialism into a kinky turn-on.

"Charlotte, after this movie, you get The Night Porter and I get Salon Kitty. Who wins?"

“Charlotte, after this movie, you get The Night Porter and I get Salon Kitty. Who wins?”

But I’m equally irritated by lackluster dramas that use the Third Reich, with its unthinkable genocide and apocalyptic imperialism, as spice for otherwise mawkish or lurid stories. Art Spiegelman dismissed it as “Holo-kitsch” and Susan Sontag as “Fascinating Fascism.” Swastikas, jackboots and mass murder become fetish items, whether literally or as casual, lazy invocations of evil and “depth.”

Besides The Damned (which is an entertaining example, anyway), obvious flicks include The Night Porter, The Reader and more recently The Book Thief. Would anyone care about these awful, lousy movies if Nazis weren’t involved? Surely Dirk Bogarde in Night Porter, proudly presenting Charlotte Rampling with an inmate’s head in exchange for sex, represents some kind of low point in cinema history.

Opinions differ. Some people consider The Night Porter and The Reader high art; I consider both pretentious trash. Others hate Schindler’s List, Downfall and Kapo for similar reasons, while I enjoy those movies. And some may say: this blog is nakedly hypocritical. Either way, it’s a genre ripe for parody so long as art house crowds and Oscar voters alike devour it.

I’ve tried addressing this problem in essay format. But ridicule or satire seems more productive. Our story, then will try to cut the pretentious Nazi drama down to size. Hopefully it will turn out more funny than angry, but I can’t promise anything!

"You will answer for everything you post here. Remember that!"

“You will answer for everything you post here. Remember that!”

And Twilight can exist on a less elevated level. Over the past few months I’ve started and failed numerous fiction ideas: a Crimean War comedy, a phantasmagoria about fascist film-making, a more modest autobiographical story. All begun with great enthusiasm and then unceremoniously abandoned to watch King of the Hill reruns. I’m better writing a blog than a word processor.

Let Twilight of the Clods stand in for (and possibly incorporate) all the overreaching projects and ideas I’ve started and abandoned. Friends who might otherwise be traveling to weddings or charging with Lord Cardigan might find themselves battling Nazis instead.

Anyway, you’ll see lots of Visconti in this story. Other films, novels and media about Nazi Germany will undoubtedly inform this blog, too. Whether you consider it parody, homage or ripoff lies with the reader. Either way, I hope you enjoy.

I will post the first chapter/section within the next few days. Thank you for reading.

Regards,

Groggy Dundee

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