#209: The Damned (1969)

A horror movie where the monster is Nazism

june gloom
4 min readDec 3, 2023

This review was originally posted to Twitter on January 7, 2020.

Initial release: October 14, 1969 (Rome)
Director: Luchino Visconti

Most people think of “spaghetti westerns” when you talk about Italian cinema, but Italofilm, especially during the 1960s and 70s was a much broader tapestry than that, a circus of transgression and pushing the envelope. Few films are as good an example of this than The Damned, an early Nazisploitation flick with dreams of being a serious drama in the manner of Macbeth.

On the night of the Reichstag fire, the wealthy Essenbeck family, whose steel firm has begun doing business with the Nazis, is torn apart by the murder of the family patriarch. In the months that follow, the family turns on each other as they fight for control of the company. On one side is the loud, brutish Konstantin, a high ranking SA officer; on the other is Martin, a dashing young pervert struggling to get out from under his mother Sophie’s domineering influence as he inherits a controlling share of the firm. In between is Friedrich, Sophie’s lover and a rising star in the company ranks. He has befriended Aschenbach, a cousin of the family who happens to be in the SS, because he plans to use the Nazis to further his own ambitions — but Aschenbach has an agenda of his own.

It’s a complex mix with all the makings of a powerful family drama, driven by excellent camera work to really show off the handsomeness of this family as it eats itself from within. Martin in particular is loathesome; the film is mostly about him, and his slow transformation from slightly creepy femboy to SS thug. It stands as a stark contrast to the 1940 MGM flick The Mortal Storm. We see an incredibly wealthy family (based on the real-life Krupp family who built weapons for Germany in both world wars) with their disintegration already in progress, and the final destruction even more horrifying.

While later Nazisploitation films were lurid Z-grade shockers with a very loose sense of propriety when it came to sex and violence, this is a smartly produced arthouse film that could be great if not for its own transgressions. Martin is a pedophile (pedocon theory is real, folks) and the way he grooms first his cousin, then a poor young Jewish girl is shown in detail, though thankfully we’re spared any actual sexual assault. Not so for when he gets his revenge on his domineering mother, however. In between we’re treated to a large meeting of SA troops which devolves into a drunken mess of carousing, song-and-dance numbers in drag, and a gay orgy that’s interrupted by the SS showing up and slaughtering everyone in the night of the long knives. The whole thing smacks of the kind of weird mixture of family/political intrigue and sexploitation that Game of Thrones built a media empire on. That martin is a pervert and a rapist well before he joined the SS is meant to evoke the reaction of “well there’s a shock.” But it’s the debauchery of the SA meeting that really makes me tilt my head. While Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA, was openly gay, I do have to wonder why Visconti, who himself was openly gay, would draw a direct line between homosexuality and the SA. Perhaps he was trying to make a point about what the SA was like prior to the purge; many of them were Nazis in name only, attracted by Hitler’s cult of personality but previously members of the Communist Party. (The nazbol meme is older than we thought, I guess.) They were angry, young, anti-intellectual bully boys who liked to break things, burn books and work out their aggression on people they didn’t like. At some point political ideology stops informing that type of personality — see the Red Guard for a left-wing example. Whatever the reason for his depiction of the SA, it’s hardly the most offensive thing in the film compared to the shit Martin does. I found myself fast-forwarding through certain scenes as Visconti lets the camera linger for no reason I can see except to shock and/or titillate.

I don’t completely regret my time with this film. It’s a chilling, unpleasant, occasionally incoherent ride throughout most of its two and a half hour runtime, beautifully rendered and acted in places, a stark portrait of how ambition and Nazism can destroy lives. But at the same time it goes too far in drawing connections between the depravity of a soulless, hateful ideology and the kind of people who sign on with that ideology, of nihilism and perversion and amorality. It’s a troubling mix that I have difficulty recommending.

Compared to later Nazisploitation films this is ironically one of the more reserved, competently-produced works. But it’s an early hint of the worst excesses of 70s exploitation cinema, especially by Italian filmmakers. Sure, there’s much worse — but there’s better, too.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]