December 10th, 2004


So farewell, Helmut or is it tschüss? Tschüß even (mit Störklappen)

I was watching Visconti's The Damned last night in bed. Reading the background to some of the film this morning, I noticed the actor Helmut Griem, who plays the SS Officer Aschenbach [note - also the name of the character played by Bogarde, who stars here also, in Visconti's subsequent Death in Venice, a further meditation upon a German theme. Griem returned in Visconti's final panel of the triptych, Ludwig. Also - The family in The Damned, subtitled on the English-language print as Götterdämmerung, is loosely inspired by the Krupps. Genug!], died quite recently [German - here]. Griem was one of those actors whose career collided with the final peak of Nazi-centred filmmaking in the 70s. He's best remembered for his role as Maximilian von Heune in Cabaret. Although I can also, just about, remember The McKenzie Break, Voyage of the Damned and his appearance in the [please get on with the DVD re-release] Fassbinder TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz [The Damned was apparently Fassbinder's all-time favourite and he described it as as "perhaps the greatest film, the film that I think means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theater", but he was possibly high as a kite at the time, I wouldn't have said that while he was alive though!] These are the only films I can remember, his blond vizog does seem to have been around rather more according to memory.

I can see him sitting at home, the phone rings, "Darling, it's London/Rome/Paris/etc". Griem sighs, another bloody Nazi role to play. It pays the bills. "Helmut? It's just the role you've been waiting for. You're playing a officer in the SS with blond hair and a ruthless line in Hegelian logic..." He cradles the phone on his shoulder and reaches for the bottle.

The Damned is still a good film, but I noticed creaking around the edges. We're used to a digitally smooth edit these days in film, not the physical clunk of one slice attaching to another and that jarring of time. Film here is still film, it's not colour-graded to death in some digital suite. Maurice Jarre's score isn't so good to my ear: the cello piece played by the son Gunther is an abysmal piece of music that must have taken all of two minutes to write. What does it represent? As, for that matter also, the heaping of deviant behaviours on the other son Martin [Helmut Berger - who returns as Ludwig - has his own Nazi acting career of sorts] is risible: transvestite cabaret artist, murdering paedophile, drug addict, Muttersoehnchen, Nazi... Visconti overplays this element of 'deviancy/decadence equals National Socialism'. Hmm, or is it that opposing that tendency is the issue?

Another scene featuring cross-dressing and naked men is when the SA are on some lakeside away-break. This involves drinking, occasional song, more drinking, grumbling about Hitler, more singing, young soldiers dolling up in boa and basque, and then devolves into an orgy of German physique around the tavern. Young SA man stands on the jetty in cami-knickers and hears the approaching SS... Either, the film is suggesting that the vestiges of transgressive Weimar polysexuality died with the SA (colourful streamers, young men who do their make-up rather too professionally to claim it's a one-off, debauchery) to be replaced by the repressive/repressed SM black of the SS. Unavoidably, the film makes the SA look rather sympathetic. Just men having a good time together. All in all, it's a rather Reich-by-numbers approach which I can see having more cultural weight in the early 70s than it would now.

So, perhaps, Visconti is suggesting that the repression of sexual desires - deviancy growing through cracks in the pavement (of course, Death in Venice again) - is what leads to fascism. The SA in suspenders are too tied to this former world. They are evaporated so the next stage of that vile chrysalis can hatch. In the end, this sexualised analysis of power is an unconvincing argument for the totality of the horror inflicted in that time, but it makes a decent film. I suspect Peter Tatchell might just be standing with a megaphone outside the cinema were it to be released now.

Nevertheless, recent pronouncements by Alabama's Gerard Allen, however unlikely to be adopted nationally, make me shudder with The Damned fresh in mind. There's a scene in the film where a list of proscribed authors is read out prior to a burning [Apologies, if anyone is offended by that linking, it's just the best I can find in terms of contemporary account]. Gide, Proust, Jack London, Thomas Mann...

Anyway, Helmut, Grüß Gott!