This piece was nominated for The Best of the Net.
“He was soon to become the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany,” reads the tagline for Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned. It’s an improbable caption for the image below it: a man in drag. He wears a spangly camisole, garters and stockings, with a platinum blonde wig and top hat on his head. He smiles a toothy showbiz smile while extending one leg provocatively and holding a feather boa in his hands, as if he has been captured in the middle of performing a jazzy number. The juxtaposition of words and image is a lurid, pulpy tease. It connects two powerful taboos: Nazism as the ultimate evil and drag as a queer challenge to the “authenticity” of sexuality and selfhood.
The man’s appearance here quotes an iconic cinematic image: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. The film, which stars Dietrich as a femme fatale cabaret singer, has a louche, amoral sexuality. This made Blue Angel a symbol of the Weimar Era, the historical period preceding the Third Reich. The era’s reputation for cultural and sexual licentiousness is sometimes simplistically blamed for Nazism’s rise. Yet The Damned’s camp citation of Dietrich’s persona presents a more complicated image: The actress herself resisted the Nazis’ attempts to make her the poster girl for Aryan female beauty and then spent the war tirelessly entertaining Allied troops. The poster’s text, image and context pose complicated questions about the film they promote. Is it accurate, or ethical, to depict and “explain” fascism in these sexualized terms? Do the images and iconography associated with fascism automatically reinforce its messages, or can they be subverted and used as signs of resistance? Is this trash, or is it art?
The Damned is a chillingly alluring, highly fraught depiction of the rise of Nazism. It argues that evil can take hold not just through capitalism’s unstoppable venality, but also through domestic resentments and intimate cruelties. It is a complicated family portrait, where personal and political interests trap individuals and encourage complicity and ruthlessness. The film depicts Germany’s capitulation to fascism through the story of the Essenbeck family, who owns a major steelworks. The patriarch, Joachim, reluctantly decides that cooperating with the Nazis is necessary to protect the family’s business interests. Meanwhile, Aschenbach, the Essenbecks’ Nazi cousin, seeks to gain control of the steelworks by manipulating the family’s discontents and ambitions.
Joachim’s widowed daughter-in-law, Sophie, is in a relationship with Friedrich Bruckmann, a middle-class executive at the steelworks. He resents being passed over for promotion, and Sophie wants him to rise higher so he is more her social equal. Spurred on by Aschenbach, Bruckmann and Sophie kill Joachim and pin the murder on their leftist cousin, Herbert. Sophie’s weak, petulant, pedophile son, Martin, is named the head of the steelworks. Friedrich and Sophie manipulate Martin and begin cooperating with the Nazis by illegally producing weapons. Friedrich and Sophie slowly destroy the Essenbeck family, murdering or imprisoning any member who threatens their power.
But when Friedrich and Sophie start to refuse some of the Nazis’ demands, Aschenbach works on turning Martin against his mother and blackmails him after a Jewish girl Martin abused dies by suicide. Aschenbach preys upon Martin’s Oedipal resentment of his mother and her love for Friedrich. Martin finally takes an interest in the steelworks, wresting control from Sophie and Friedrich. Martin rapes his mother, and then forces both her and Friedrich to die by suicide. By the end of the film, all of the Essenbecks are either dead or full-fledged Nazis.
The Damned is part of a much larger cinematic tendency to sexualize Nazism and fascism. This began almost as soon as the war was over: Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City features an SS officer who gets sexual thrills from torture. Rossellini’s later film Germany, Year Zero links Nazism with pedophilia. This trend ramped up in the 1960s, coinciding with a larger movement in European cinema wherein filmmakers turned away from heroic, patriotic stories of resistance and focused instead on Nazi collaborators who committed or enabled atrocities in order to survive. In 1960, director Gillo Pontecorvo made Kapò, the story of a Jewish woman who, through a sexual relationship with an SS officer, gains the relatively privileged position of a supervisor of other prisoners in a concentration camp.
Through the 1970s, Italian auteurs (including Lina Wertmüller and Pier Palo Pasolini) would continue to explore the relationship between sexuality and Nazism in a series of arthouse films. The most famous example is Liliana Cavani’s eternally controversial The Night Porter, which depicts a sadomasochistic relationship between a camp survivor and her former guard. Critical opinion remains divided: Did these films just exploitatively exaggerate half-truths and peddle sensationalism to draw in larger audiences? Or did they have something intelligent to say about sex and power, complicity, and moral ambiguity?
This debate was complicated because at the same time, sexualized depictions of Nazism proliferated in exploitation cinema. (Exploitation films, which often combined political “issues” with hardcore violence and lurid sex, became a juggernaut in the 1960s as censorship laws were loosened.) In 1969—the same year The Damned was released—Lee Frost made Love Camp 7, in which female camp prisoners are subjected to rape and torture. These scenes are pornily cringe-inducing: naked young women writhe around the floor in piles of ecstatic agony while smarmy jackbooted men look on with gleeful relish. The burgeoning “Nazisploitation” genre would go on to generate infamous cult classics like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, in which a Dietrich-esque cruel Aryan woman, clad in full SS regalia, performs torturous medical experiments on nubile young women and bound, screaming men.
The Damned is an example of how explorations of Nazism’s relationship to sexuality often blurred the boundaries between high and low art. Art cinema and exploitation cinema often borrowed from and capitalized on each other. Explicit sexual content helped art cinema lure in a wider audience. (The Damned was the highest-grossing film of Visconti’s career, probably because of its explicit sexual content.) Likewise, exploitation cinema borrowed avant-garde visual styles and political concerns from art cinema, acquiring a patina of class that legitimized the films for both spectators and censors. It is no easy task to neatly separate the artistic from the exploitative, and it is more useful to ask if the genre’s most exploitative tendencies could be put to political uses. The Damned straddles this line: With its decadent atmosphere and glamorously amoral characters, it clearly seeks to lure the viewer in with sex, but it takes these signs of sex seriously as means of understanding a pivotal, evil moment in history.
It is understandable to be wary of, and sometimes outraged by, the impulse to eroticize Nazism, or to explain it in sexual terms. These approaches run the risk of making Nazism itself sexy and thus glamorizing it. Many critics, including Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, argued that Nazi aesthetics were themselves inherently erotic. Sontag cited the eroticism of Leni Riefenstahl’s depiction of the masses’ frenzied, orgiastic reactions to Hitler in her film The Triumph of the Will, as well as the sensual celebration of athletic physical perfection in Riefenstahl’s Olympia. If we acknowledge that eroticism was a big part of Nazi iconography, then sexualizing Nazism would mean repeating and reinforcing its own propaganda. The second danger of framing Nazism in terms of sexuality is the risk of overly personalizing fascism and an individual’s choice to collaborate with it, oversimplifying it as a political phenomenon created solely by individual bad actors.
Depicting Nazis as sexual “deviants” or “perverse” runs the risk of “otherizing” them. It makes Nazis avatars of evil rather than normal, fallible people who choose to participate in an evil cause for political reasons or material gain. Sexualizing Nazism thus often obscures more than it reveals. The Damned complicates this tendency by providing nuance, and even a disturbing sense of vulnerability, to the sex criminals coerced into Nazism.
Nevertheless, there are significant ways in which exploring the links between Nazism and sexuality can be revelatory. It can do more than just tell a story of individuals and their relationship to a monstrous political movement. On a more meta level, it challenges the possibility of understanding Nazism at all, especially as we move farther away from it in time. How can we perceive it through layers of iconography, or through the limits of staid, “realistic” representations of Nazism in the war? Categorically dismissing films that explore the sexuality and erotics of Nazism ignores the very real ways that fascism did intersect with sexuality. Sexuality may, if we follow Benjamin and Sontag, help us understand the political ideology and its appeal. But it might also tell us something about complicity and trauma as seismic and reverberating experiences both during and after the war. Kriss Ravetto-Biagoli argues that the sexual politics in films about fascism from the 1960s and 1970s emerge from a kind of representational crisis: The personal, intimate and sensory experiences of the war could not fit into the standardized tropes and iconography that had been established as the “official story” of the war. The visuals and the narratives of this official story needed to be challenged and repurposed.
The Damned challenges this common imaginary in layered and nuanced ways, representing sexuality both as a personal experience and a political phenomenon with an eroticism that disarms the spectators. The personal motivations and characteristics that draw people into Nazism are always tied to other things: family, business, status, criminality and class. The film’s atmosphere of sex and seduction first emerges from the twisted love story between the glamorous Sophie and Friedrich; the spectator is overwhelmed by their sexual passion and how easily this can be channeled into ambition and barbarism. At the same time, they are the pawns of the calculating Aschenbach, who turns their banal greed into true destruction. The film’s depiction of Martin the pedophile—the man in Dietrich drag on the poster, destined to become “the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany”—does not otherize or casually tie sexual crimes to Nazi evil. The film does not condone his actions. In the deeply troubling and uncomfortable scenes where Martin grooms his victims, actor Helmut Berger is creepily soothing and suave as he manipulates their innocence and discomfort. However, Martin is not a one-dimensional villain, like the jack-booted and sadistic Ilsa of the sexploitation films, who takes pleasure in her crimes and the suffering she inflicts. Martin is tortured by his urges; he tries to fight them after he first sees Lisa, frantically pacing along in circles, trying to distract himself by listening to the radio, biting down intensely on his fist. Berger (who was Visconti’s young lover) was often dismissed as just a pretty boy, an empty shell of Aryan male perfection, with his high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. But he plays the notes of Martin’s wounded animal nature with a haunting pathos that does not negate or overwhelm his petulant, privileged entitlement and nasty, petty cruelty.
Ravetto notes that the Italian films that sexualize fascism are interesting because they “disavow the moralistic reading” and challenge the “discourse of purity” that tells the story of World War II in a realist-tragic style, with black-and-white morality. The Damned disavows stark moralism by putting us in the deeply troubling position of feeling some sympathy for Martin. This is, in part, made possible because Martin’s sexual crimes are not a manifestation of an inherent Nazi evil. It is a vulnerability that Aschenbach exploits to coerce him into joining the Nazi cause. More complicated is the depiction of Martin’s sexual obsession with his mother. It is here where sexual urges are most directly tied to Nazism: Martin’s sexual jealousy of Sophie’s relationship with Friedrich spurs anger that can be channeled into a pure hatred that Nazism’s will-to-power can use for its own purposes. While The Damned doesn’t deny that some genuinely believed in and willingly participated in the Nazi cause, it is focused on those who acquiesced and let it happen. It’s a way of understanding the personal weaknesses and sins that made people willing to go along with it. Nazism did not flourish simply because of political fanaticism. Many who were opposed or ambivalent toward Nazism participated in order to hide their secrets or to survive.
The film comes closest to equating sexuality with villainy in its portrayal of Martin’s mother, Sophie. Visconti modeled Sophie and Friedrich after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and Sophie is often portrayed as a kind of cool, scheming femme fatale who uses her sexual power to manipulate both her son and her lover. Playing Sophie, Ingrid Thulin has the Aryan ice queen act down pat but is also writhing and grasping (and sometimes sexually excited) when consumed by the flames of ambition. There is little of the milk of human kindness in her, but her passion is also something strange and wild that makes her seem vulnerable at odd moments. The dualities of Thulin’s performance are appropriate: Sophie’s story is both misogynistic and an indictment of misogyny. Like Lady Macbeth, Sophie goes mad and dies. Unlike Lady Macbeth, this does not happen because she is wracked by guilt, but because men decide to destroy her once she gets too much power. Aschenbach, who has encouraged Sophie’s ambitions when it suited the SS’s purposes, starts to turn Martin against her when she reaches too high. She is raped by her son, who hopes to symbolically punish her for giving more attention to her lover than to him.
The message is terrifyingly clear: All her manipulations of Martin’s weakness can be quickly overturned by his hatred and superior strength against her. Many critics initially saw this rape scene as a consensual sexual encounter (though Sophie clearly says no). This is a convenient misreading: it allows us to continue to vilify Sophie as feminine evil incarnate. Instead, her reactions are much more complex and once again belie any simplistic notion of Nazisploitation. She chooses not to fight back when it is clear she cannot escape. All of her gestures and facial expressions speak to the war within her: on the one hand, fear and anger toward Martin, the perpetrator; on the other, tenderness for her son. The Nazis’ patriarchal imperatives—which famously wanted women in the church, in the kitchen, or bearing children—destroy her, leaving her a catatonic shell of herself before Martin forces her to die by suicide. Again, The Damned places us in a complex moral position towards someone whose sexuality fueled her complicity but was ultimately crushed by the regime’s misogyny.
What makes The Damned complex and morally and intellectually interesting is that it doesn’t stop at looking at sexualized Nazism as an individual phenomenon. It also zooms out and looks at Nazism and sex as a sociopolitical relationship. This is evident in the film’s most iconic sequence, which depicts the historical event commonly called the Röhm purge, or the Night of the Long Knives. Between June 30 and July 2, 1934, members of the paramilitary group the SA (or “brownshirts”), were extrajudicially killed, mostly by the SS, or “blackshirts,” to consolidate and legitimize Hitler’s hold on power. These killings were, in part, wrapped up in questions of illicit sexuality: Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, was gay, as were many of its senior members—a problem for a regime that condemned homosexuality and would end up sending queer people to the camps.
Visconti renders these historical events and their implications in a lyrical style, with a dark beauty that both illustrates and problematizes sex as Nazi propaganda. The Röhm purge sequence (which was considered so shocking that it was cut out of The Damned’s original US release) begins with an almost pagan celebration of Aryan beauty, as we see a phalanx of male bodies, golden in their Apollonian nudity, running into a lake as part of the revels of an SA rally. Here, Visconti comes closest to what Sontag calls Nazi’s eroticism of physical strength and perfection, which she saw in Riefenstahl’s Olympia. But there, the similarity ends. Visconti subverts the tropes of Nazi erotics.
In Nazisploitation, it is traditionally the SS (with their sleek black uniforms and reputation for ruthless cruelty) who are the fetishized sexual figures. The SA, with their drab brown uniforms and penchant for street brawling—Sontag called them “beefy, squat, beerhall types”—did not project the same dark glamor that can be so easily made the stuff of erotic fantasies. Yet Visconti’s particular way of sexualizing the SA reveals more about how sexuality works in political organizations and what it can and can’t tell us about their power.
In the sequence, Visconti places a sexy-gauzy cast over the crude, sometimes fratty ways that eroticism plays a part in rituals of male bonding. In the twenty-minute, almost-wordless sequence, the spectator watches as SA members wrestle with one another and chase after barmaids and try to strip them of their clothes. The sequence reaches a fever pitch when some of the young men dress up in drag and dance a cancan. In slips and camisoles, makeup and wigs, they are a more disheveled version of Martin’s appearance on the film’s poster. After the dance reaches its raucous conclusion, the dancers collapse on the floor and start to fitfully and drunkenly wrestle one another while one of the older SA officers grabs and kisses a few of them. The sequence reaches its apex in the languor after the dance, when the assembled groups unite in singing Nazi songs. The camera slowly moves and zooms out to reveal a pyramid of male bodies, a soft-lit tangle of beautiful limbs, hats and feather boas clinging loosely to one another. The camera then moves around the room to rest on the faces of the men, still in their messy drag, as they sing about Germany conquering the world. We zoom in quickly on a photograph of Hitler, then continue to focus on these strangely eroticized men voicing their professed political ideology in this moment of burlesque. Sexuality is a kind of masquerade that hides the SA members from themselves as much as it does from us.
Ultimately The Damned’s dark sexual glamor is necessary because it helps illustrate the appeal of Nazism itself. Visconti himself spoke of the “decadence” of the Third Reich and the necessity of representing it accurately to make it feel truly dangerous. But doing so also highlights all of the ways that sexuality makes us pathetic and unremarkable, vulnerable and disposable. Far from oversimplifying Nazism by “explaining” it as sexually motivated, Visconti uses sexuality to illustrate the very difficulty of representing and understanding Nazism, its appeal and the reasons people went along with it. Sexuality is an ambivalent, ambiguous sign in The Damned: The emerging sexualized images of Nazism are, in Ravetto’s words, “both erotic and repugnant.” The audience, oscillating between titillation and revulsion, is drawn into complicity. In mixing scenes like the Night of the Long Knives with the lurid heterosexual melodrama of Sophie and Friedrich’s rise and fall, as well as the tragic stories of their victims, Visconti uses sexual aesthetics as part of a larger project to, as Ravetto-Biagoli suggests, “confound the contextualization of fascism itself.” The notion that fascism is slippery and not easy to read is part of the warning Visconti wanted to give his audience.
Writing six years after The Damned’s release, Sontag feared that Nazi iconography and imagery were becoming sexual fetishes because the passage of time had detached those signs from their original meanings and implications. This really can’t explain Visconti’s position; he fought with the Resistance during the war and probably only escaped death due to his aristocratic title. Likewise, subsequent Italian directors, who had not only lived through the war but were experiencing political violence in their own time, knew all too well what those signs and symbols meant. Visconti was inspired to make The Damned because of the left- and right-wing terrorism that was beginning to take hold in Italy by the late 1960s. He feared that another war was imminent and that rendering this “decadent” appeal of the Nazi party was integral to showing its dangers. In The Damned, the allure of sex and its enticing perversions are meant not just to titillate, but to engage political analysis and debate. The insistence that the two are not incompatible—and that they may be mutually enhancing—is the film’s bold aesthetic gambit, an insistence on the inseparability of art, sex and politics.
JULIA SIRMONS writes about style and excess in film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, Crooked Marquee, Another Gaze, and The Brooklyn Rail. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.