The Damned (1969)
Again and again, I return to the films of Luchino Visconti. Sure, they’re over the top and operatic, but they speak far enough from the past to prove informative. What I love about The Damned is that it is the best artistic summary of some tussles that get overlooked in mainstream Anglophone narratives of the Third Reich.
From the get-go, the plot includes an exploration of the place of homosexuality in the early Reich. Two characters stand out, pointing to a forgotten dichotomy which arose towards the end of the German Empire and took hold during the Weimar Republic. On the one hand, we have Martin Krupp, the fictional gay son of an industrial millionaire who dresses up like Marlene Dietrich to perform cabaret numbers; and on the other, we have General Ernst Röhm, a real historical figure, famous for being the openly gay leader of the Sturmabteilung until 1934. These two figures typify two strata of thought concerning the meaning of what is was to be homosexual in the 1920s to 1930s. Magnus Hirschfeld’s work, popular among the urban upper middle classes in the 1920s, promoted the idea of a “third sex,” whereby homosexual attraction was a psycho-sexual embrace of gender androgyny or sexual inversion. But contemporary with Hirschfeld was Adolf Brand, who saw the value of homosexuality as being a form of comradery so strong that it eschewed any influence of femininity. Brand’s magazine Der Eigene fused art, poetry, nudism and pieces on sexual hygiene to promote the notion of gay men as fitting a Nietzschean paradigm of the Übermensch. Masculinity and virility were cast in social and hygienic terms, finding resonance among racialists, eugenicists and other pseudo-scientific progenitors of National Socialist thought.
One might also view Röhm and Krupp as symbols of their respective classes. Röhm was a hero among the lower-middle class and working class brownshirts which comprised much of the SA’s membership, an organization whose leadership is now thought to have been as much 70% ex-communist and perhaps even 25% homosexual by 1933. Meanwhile Krupp’s fictional character hails from minor aristocracy who largely look down on National Socialism’s promotion of economic justice and class equity (for Germans, that is) in the aftermath of World War I and the 1929 financial crash. The SS drew most of its membership from the more affluent end of society, insisting on standards of breeding rather than behavior as the ultimate standard of Aryanism.
The struggle for power between the SA and the SS came to a violent climax, depicted in the middle of the film. Röhm and his men are purged by the SS after a night of orgiastic revelry, murdered in their beds as they hold their lovers. The Night of Long Knives was a watershed, kicked off the formal policy of intolerance of homosexuality in the Reich, despite having previously turned a blind eye. In the film, the double standard is completely apparent, as Martin Krupp is chosen by the S.S. to spearhead the production of armaments for the German military apparatus while Röhm and his lovers are slaughtered. Krupp also reveals himself to be a pedophile who abuses a seven-year old Jewish girl who eventually hangs herself, as well as a sociopath, willing to pull sexual strings with his own mother to take over the family business.
Music plays an important role in any Visconti film. While Krupp’s seediness is expressed in singing a jazzy cabaret tune on the night the Reichstag burned, one of Röhm’s men sings a karaoke rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde as his orgy winds down (simultaneously foretelling his demise the next morning). In the minds of some, this ought to be the other way around. Our kitschy Netflix and Amazon shows love to show that Cabaret culture was the property of outsiders, and that opera has been and will always be some symbol of economic elitism.
Visconti rightly alludes to a more complicated picture. It’s true that Wagnerian culture held resonance among the upper classes for its advocation of racial purity and visions of totality, but it also had resonance with socialists and those further down the totem pole. Heroes such as Siegfried and Parsifal overcome the circumstances of their births, breaking the shackles of systems which might hold them back, and the neo-Pagan backdrop opts for a reframing of Christian values into something more modern and nativist. But homoeroticism brims beneath the surface as well. Brünnhilde’s femininity is not revealed until after Siegfried has consummated their love (technically, she’s an ungendered Valkyrie). In Parsifal, women’s voices are perpetually peripheral so as not impinge on the Nicodemite fraternity of the Grail Knights. And who can ignore the fact that when Parsifal kisses Kundry, he withdraws in shame only to scream the name of Amfortas?
Visconti has been accused by historians and critics of being “ambivalent” or “indifferent” about his sexuality, though he himself was gay. But if anything is revealed in The Damned, it is a reminder that homosexuality is (and continues) to be indifferent to values, and is mutable and variable to the cultures in which it flourishes. This if course makes us queasy today. Who among us would be proud to acknowledge that Kristallnacht was undertaken by the Sturmabteilung, an organization which aided the rise of National Socialism through the promotion of a politicized interpretation of gender and sexuality? In my mind, it’s importnat to remember that Hitler’s gay purge didn’t start in the bars or brothels, but in his own paramilitary forces. No member of the SA need be memorialized, but the tragedy of the Night of Long Knives can serve as a lesson. Visconti’s voice is one of conscience, reminding us that if we act like sheep, we leave ourselves open to the to the likelihood of being eaten by the shepherd, gay or straight.