Movies have been called the art form of the twentieth century so often that it has become tiresome to refute the claim. Especially since this most degenerate of hybrids meshes the worst of all worlds into predictable pastiches of sentimental melodrama geared toward the mummification of the world’s weakest minds. Despite the occasional outburst of brilliance (and there have been over a thousand such cases over the last century) the format of the Hollywood picture is as dumb and as dense as the most trivial soap opera or comic strip. The mere suggestion of movies as an art form negates that which truly is art. Take something as abhorrent as Sam Goldwyn’s 1939 treatment of Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights. With director William Wyler and screenwriter Ben Hecht as his henchmen, Goldwyn has transformed Bronte’s wicked masterpiece into a sentimental puffball, with Laurence Olivier playing the demonic Heathcliff as a spurned romantic, his travails pretentiously and inappropriately underscored by Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Major. So already we have seen a great book and a great piece of music destroyed by the Hollywood hacks that would have us believe they were creating the new art of the twentieth century.
But don’t get me wrong. If Hollywood failed to elevate their product to a new art form, in Europe the movies were possibly the last breaths of art itself as the continent was nearly swept into oblivion by the Second World War. As Phil Ochs wrote in his lovely eulogy to Western civilisation, “The holy works of love and reverence/ Have fallen to the floods of Florence.” And so it is in Italy that film erupted into an art form. If not a new art form, then surely the final chapter of the Western Canon. And mostly, I suspect, in Italy.
The Germans were in denial. The French were in their second childhood. Poland was traumatised. Britain continued in their boring and pedantic ways. Sweden had Bergman, who, in upholding the traditions of Strindberg and Sjostrom, successfully welded theatre and cinema into a worthy, if reactionary, art form. But Italy, for thirty years in the wake of World War Two, gave rise to Rossellini, Pasolini, Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci, and Visconti, whose collective work might be the swan song of European art.
Of these six masters, Luchino Visconti is both the most accomplished and the least appreciated. Although The Leopard (1963) is his masterpiece, it is the direction an artist takes after such an accomplishment that holds the most interest for me. The Wild Bunch (1969), for example, is Sam Peckinpah’s most perfect hour, but I would rather have one Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) than a dozen more ofThe Wild Bunch. So it is with The Leopard and the German Trilogy (The Damned, Death in Venice, and Ludwig).
Some say that the overuse of the zoom lens is the sign of a very bad director. In The Damned (1969), Visconti’s zoom is a curious poltergeist, constantly rushing up into faces looking for the soul behind the façade. Often, this seeking camera finds nothing. In The Leopard, on the other hand, Visconti uses the zoom only once, and it is magnificent, capturing Claudia Cardinale’s entrance with such exquisite perceptions from both the outside and the inside. It is a moment to savour, yet it passes all too quickly. And when we remember the beauty of that actress, it is likely this shot that we remember, not the attributes of living flesh that she carries with her from picture to picture. In her first close-up as Sandra (1965), she gave the appearance of a common, mean-spirited bitch.
This brings us to one of Visconti’s dominant themes, in which the attractive young in whom the ageing place their faith for the future will grow into horrible, selfish creatures. In The Leopard, Tancredi (Alain Delon) and Angelica (Cardinale) are the hope of a future that Prince Don Fabrizio Salina ( Burt Lancaster ) will not live to see, an idealised young couple who carry the seeds of deceit, hypocrisy, pride, and compromise, and thus shall provide no continuation of the prince’s noble legacy.
But even though the Sicilian aristocracy is dying, Sicily will endure. This does not seem to be the case with the Germany that is changing under the Reich. At one point inThe Damned, a fleeing character is warned not to expect, at some future time, to return to the Germany she has known as a child, because that Germany will not return. Furthermore, the new Germany will spread across Europe and eventually the world.
When the Baron Joachim Von Essenbeck announces his successor, he knows there is nobody worthy of carrying on as president of Essenbeck Steel. He also knows that the prize must go to the man he most despises, because that is the man most capable of holding onto the reins as Europe is consumed in the flames of the Third Reich. The first third of The Damned takes place at the Baron’s birthday celebration, during which three important events transpire: The Reichstag is burned, Martin does a Marlene Dietrich imitation, and SA man Konstantin Essenbeck is named as the new president of Essenbeck Steel. These 45 minutes are directed with such perfection that one almost wants to walk out of the movie at their conclusion.
The intrigue commences in the second third of the picture, and Visconti proves livelier when introducing character relationships than when setting up his plot devices. The most lively scenes involve Martin’s games of pedophilia, one of which results in a little Jewish girl hanging herself, a complication that Martin is assured shall create no problems, as pedophilia against Jews is not even a crime. Helmet Berger’s Martin is emblematic of all that is evil in the new Germany, and the diversity of his perversions makes him impossible to define in simple pathological terms. In literary terms, he is an incarnation of bastard Edmund from King Lear and bastard Mordred from the Arthurian legends.
Other literary effigies include Ingrid Thulin’s Baroness Sophie Von Essenbeck, a Lady Macbeth figure, and Dirk Bogarde (of the perpetually perspiring upper lip) incarnates the banality of evil with the passive exterior of his Macbeth. But the literary homages are submerged in the intensity of the present. The viewer does not lean over, as might be the case during a Coen Brothers picture, and whisper to a companion, “Ah, an allusion to Edmund. A tragic negation indeed!”
Although there are parallels to the members of the Krupp family who owned the steel works in Essen, Germany, it can only lead to confusion if one attempts to impose a historical blueprint upon the characters. The burning of the Reichstag and the Night of the Long Knives were more complicated in real life than here, where they serve little narrative function other than to purge the Reich of the SA. Visconti takes an unusual tactic in prolonging the debauchery preceding the slaughter of the latter, throwing the purpose of the assassinations into question, but does so while deftly alluding to the presence of certain characters that will profit by the dissolution of the SA.
With The Damned, Visconti proves he can give up control without losing control. His directing is every bit as precise and assured as in The Leopard, but the characters do not suffer from the constraints of being overly directed. Yet indeed they are overly directed. There is not a free movement to be found. Yet they swelter and squirm in the furnace of their damnation. The phantom has reclaimed his opera and all hell is breaking loose.
The final half hour of The Damned is a slow and deliberate series of power plays that will shape the future of the Essenbeck’s steel works within the structure of the new Germany. Although the motivations behind Martin’s actions may seem more Oedipal than political, he goes Oedipus one better, and it is not fate that leads him, but purely evil intention.
Death in Venice (1971) brings about the return of tidiness. Seldom has the prose of a brilliant writer been so exquisitely rendered in cinematic terms. And with his countenance enhanced by Mahler’s music, Dirk Bogarde hardly needs to act. The musical score by Maurice Jarre for The Damned, while frequently effective, is pathetic when compared to the use to which Visconti puts Mahler’s music. It is so perfect that many reviewers have erringly mistaken Gustav von Aschenbach (Bogarde) for Mahler himself, rather than the writer who is the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novella.
Many books and essays have been written that impute the rise of the Third Reich to a revival of German romanticism, which is predicated upon the conflict between ordinary life and the desire for artistic perfection. This conundrum will be fully explored in Ludwig (1972), the final film of the trilogy, but is set forth quite simply in Death in Venice, with von Aschenbach’s pursuit of ideal beauty as his own diseased body rots in the heat of a Venetian plague. The object of his obsession is Tadzio, an adolescent boy who traipses around in a sailor suit casting ambiguous glances at his stalker. The second half of the picture becomes so weighed down by this dance of unspoken desire that Mann’s philosophical edge is blunted by intimations of a sexual motivation that was neither Mann’s point nor intent. Visconti’s involvement in this aspect of von Aschenbach’s pursuit is, on the other hand, rather too intense, causing the film to lapse into camp when it should be tearing out your heart. True as his images are to Mann’s prose, the director’s personal obsessions override those of the novella.
The wildness contained within the almost boring control Visconti commands over his madness reminds me of Robert Frost, a poet serene on the surface but mad in his soul. Compare his measured, traditional verse to the free effusions of William Carlos Williams, and you will see what a conventional shell-head Williams is, covering it all up with mad verse. So it is that Death in Venice, despite its passages of near-inertia, is Visconti’s maddest work, revealing a self-hatred equal to that which Alfred Hitchcock exposed in The Birds (1963).
As a gay man, Visconti was unable to perpetuate his blood line, but was still desirous of an heir. Failing to find that protégé who could understand him and carry on his legacy, he often chose young men of inferior rank, most notably the actor Helmet Berger with whom he spent the final twelve years of his life. The man seeking a remarkable boy is present in many of his films, although not usually in the guise of homosexual love, but as instances of adopted son-ship. And it is the sadness of the failure of these son-ships that cast a morose spell of mortality over an excommunicated universe. This search for the splendid amid the vulgarity of everyday life is what drove King Ludwig insane, just as the acceptance of its impossibility helped guide Prince Fabrizio gently into that not-so-good night.
Ludwig begins on the opposite track, with the young King seeking a mentor in composer Richard Wagner, and finding himself exploited by a rascal whose objective is to loot the national treasury. Ludwig believes the greatness of Wagner’s music is worth all the mundane glory of an empire, but finally listens to his advisors and expels the mooch when he realises Wagner doesn’t esteem him as the one who has made such creation possible, but has only been a money tree to pick dry.
Perhaps of more significance than the homosexual implications of the betrayal of the adopted father by the pseudo son is Visconti’s fear that the underclasses will never be able to pull off a revolution that will successfully replace the old order. As both an aristocrat and a communist, this paradox was to haunt him throughout his life. Historically, there was always the hope that a people’s revolution would not be co-opted by the remnants of the deposed powers, but by the time of the Third Reich, it had become all too evident that the fantasies of the underclass in replacing the poverty of everyday life with the grandeur of deluded superiority that such ascension through violence would lead only to the end of civilisation. Even in its failure, it brought about the end, not only of Germany, but of all Europe.
To transcend the boredom of common life, Ludwig promoted Wagner’s music and brought the work of many European dramatists to Bavaria. Instead of attending meetings of State and the administration of his kingdom, he built castles that were landscaped with sets from Wagner’s operas and had a close relationship with an actor who was employed to recite dramatic scenes with the King as his non-speaking but emotionally re-active acting partner. Does following such artistic impulses as an escape from the dead materialism of daily reality lead to madness? Leo Tolstoy thought so, when he wrote, in his Confessions, that the explanation for so many suicides among his literary friends was their rejection of god, family, and all those other things that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people. And they were left with nothing but despair and the pages of their so-called great books. Not enough to live for. He thought his own Anna Karenina was a wasteful piece of crap.
Norman Mailer wrote that a saint might not be the best choice to write the story of a construction worker, but that it would be preferable to a construction worker trying to write the story of a saint. I would add that none of the characters in Les Miserables could have written the novel. Only Victor Hugo was capable of such an achievement. In today’s populist world, it is not fashionable to claim that art is the province of the aristocracy, but I am not aware of too many people with day jobs who are writing the next War and Peace on the side. After Sam Peckinpah screened The Wild Bunch for his son, he cruelly and disdainfully told the boy that he would never be able to achieve something like this. Was he wrong? I don’t know, but I haven’t seen much of any use coming out of the untrained directors of today with their digital cameras and volunteer crews made up of baristas and retail clerks.
But let us return to Ludwig. There are some telling similarities between his life and Visconti’s. Both had an interest in directing operas, although there is no evidence as to the quality of the King’s productions while Visconti’s successes in the field are well documented. Both were homosexuals who lived in times when such proclivities were criminally prosecuted, and developed paranoias as a result. Ludwig had it much worse than Visconti, though, as he had been free to do as he pleased until Bavaria was forced to join the unification of the new Germany under Prussia, which had criminalised homosexuality. He may have feared meeting an end such as Edward II suffered, since he pursued wanton activities in lieu of attending to matters of State, which led to his own government judging him as a dangerously weak leader.
Ludwig was the prototype of the German romantic, one who rejected materialism for soulfulness, preferring to ride his sleigh through the snow under the midnight moon rather than face the challenges of governing a country. He was a fairy tale king who dreamt himself a great artist, but was an artist only by proxy. He was the type that is drawn into personality cults, those masses of swayable ignoramuses who put maniacs like Stalin and Hitler into power. It was Ludwig who suggested Prussian King Wilheim I become Kaiser of the new Germany.
Ayn Rand does not write fascist books, but a certain type of person may become a fascist by reading them and identifying too completely with a heroic ideal that is beyond their own capabilities, which leaves them despising other people to whom they feel superior. Both Ludwig and Hitler believed their response to Wagner’s music made them soul brothers to the composer. But neither of them was capable of composing the Ring Cycle, any more than a Peter Keating could design the Wynand Building .
When Ludwig was released, critics scoffed. Moviegoers certainly did not want to sit in a theatre to watch a king go mad on candy and castles for four hours. When I finally got hold of a VHS copy last year, it looked like crap and I thought Visconti must have lost his wits and descended to the mediocrity of a British television director. Then I got the DVD, and boy was I wrong. The film was designed and directed with such perfection that I couldn’t stop watching it for a month. This led to my re-watching all the Visconti I could find, and now to this article where I try and fail at the impossible task of summing it up.
I can marvel at Visconti’s strokes, but that doesn’t make me Visconti. I have none of his skills. Yet I am able to delight in his genius without deluding myself that my love of his work somehow makes us soul brothers. This is the crux of the peril of German romanticism. Regardless of the position the neo-German presents today, the Nazis were all little Hitlers running around with their brains cut out, believing they were part of the master race on the brink of world domination.
In The Leopard and Death in Venice, Visconti shows us two ways to die. We can go out sadly but with some pride in the knowledge that our time and times have ended, or rot heroically in the sand while ogling the people of tomorrow, those who feel no obligation to give continuity to that which is already in the past. In The Damned and Ludwig, he offers the option of suicide. But he who suicides rarely dies alone. Ludwig murdered his doctor before murdering himself. Hitler murdered Europe.
About the Author
Bill White frittered away his early years as a rock musician in Seattle WA, then moved to Boston, MA, where he wrote, acted, and directed for the theatre, and made experimental films. Returning to Seattle, he became a film and music critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer until its demise in 2009, after which he wrote a novel and a memoir before retiring to Peru, where he married the beautiful and intelligent Dr. Kelly Edery. Currently, he is making anthropological films in Ilo. Peru, and is writing a volume of short stories inspired by popular songs, as well as continuing his work with Washington historian Paul Dorpat on the chronicling of Seattle’s 1960′s counter-culture through commentary on each issue of its underground newspaper, Helix.