On April 15, 1944, in Rome, Fascist soldiers captured Luchino Visconti di Modrone, the Count of Lonate Pozzolo. Since the late thirties, the Count had been a loyal Communist, sheltering party members in his mansion and even selling family jewels to fund Mussolini’s defeat. As Peter Bondanella explains in “A History of Italian Cinema,” Visconti was jailed for crimes against the state and beaten three times a day. His dossier bore the words “TO BE SHOT,” a fate he narrowly avoided when the Allies invaded Italy in early June. A few months later, when Visconti was at the beginning of his glorious career as a director, the Allied tribunal tasked him with filming the execution of the prison warden who’d ordered his torture.
In the autumn of his life, preferably with a glass of champagne in hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips (he smoked well over a hundred a day), the Count would reminisce about his days as a convict. The tale, complete with its O. Henry twist, seems fitting for a director whose reputation has risen and fallen too many times to count. Once regularly grouped with Rossellini and De Sica in discussions of Italy’s most promising young directors, Visconti by the late sixties had been eclipsed by the hipper, more overtly avant-garde likes of Godard and Antonioni. And while New Hollywood auteurs like Scorsese continue to claim him as a major influence, many of his films (“The Stranger,” “The Leopard,” “Ludwig”) are almost impossible to watch in the United States or are available only in mutilated ninety-minute cuts.
At this point in the essay, the writer usually says something like, “It’s just the right time for a fresh look at [director]‘s long career” — but in Visconti’s case, the time is never quite right or wrong. His features — all of which play in a career retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York until June 28 — often take place in long-vanished epochs and seem indifferent, if not openly hostile, to the supposed virtue of topicality. This is particularly true of the films Visconti completed in the last decade of his life — taken together, they’re a kind of middle finger aimed at his critics, with every insult that had been leveled against his earlier work — “melodramatic,” “bloated,” “indulgent” — embraced and raised to the nth degree.
“It’s in later years,” the critic Richard Brody wrote, “that artists tend to be freer, to give less of a shit than they did when they were younger, to affirm their ideas and their passions with less inhibition.” The films Visconti made between 1969 and 1973 — “The Damned,” “Death in Venice” and “Ludwig” — are fascinating examples of what happens when a great director with almost limitless money and prestige stops giving a shit what people think of his work. They’re also — quite appropriately — unmatched meditations on the theme of excess: its ecstasies, its anxieties, and its frightening consequences.
In setting out to make these sorts of films, which tend to be slower and denser than their predecessors, the Count had the massive advantage of not needing the money. The Viscontis had ruled Milan in the early Renaissance and remain politically and financially influential in Italy to this day. Their coat of arms depicts a serpent swallowing a man, complete with a Latin motto — in English, “I will not violate the customs of the serpent” — that suggests how the family got its filthy lucre in the first place. In any case, no expense was spared in the young Visconti’s upbringing; opera and classical music played a big part in his childhood, as indeed they do in many of his films. In his twenties, he won acclaim as a breeder of racehorses before leaving for Paris to try his hand at filmmaking.
It was here, under the influence of the great director Jean Renoir, that Visconti began a lifelong romance with Marxism, a stance that earned him his fair share of sneers—Salvador Dali once dismissed him as “a Communist who only likes luxury.” Like other great artists accused of hypocrisy, Visconti won the only argument that mattered by directing a string of extraordinary films, many of them about the working classes and still celebrated as milestones of Neorealism. The first of these, “Ossessione” (1943), an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” set a template for his mature work: sensational (the plot revolves around two lovers trying to kill the woman’s husband); attuned to the tempos and textures of everyday life (key scenes play out in seedy hotel rooms or in the kitchen while characters fix food); long (two and a half hours tell basically the same story Cain got across in a hundred pages); for many years shown exclusively in censored, clumsily edited versions.
“Ossessione” belongs on a list of Visconti’s early masterpieces, along with “La terra trema” (1948), his epic account of Sicilian fishermen struggling for economic freedom, and “Senso” (1954), his Technicolor debut. His most beloved films may be the two he completed in the early sixties: “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960), the story of a working-class Milanese family torn apart by lust and ambition, and “The Leopard” (1963), about a 19th-century nobleman trying to protect his own family from being torn apart by the Risorgimento (the formation of the modern Italian state). This quintet has tended to get the bulk of the attention from critics and audiences—though, for a vocal few, it’s overshadowed the challenging but ultimately more compelling trio that followed soon after.
“The Damned” (1969), “Death in Venice” (1971), and “Ludwig” (1973) — known collectively as the German Trilogy for their Teutonic settings, characters, and themes — are hard films to love. To begin with, there’s their sheer scale: the vast, imposing sets; the blasts of Mahler and Wagner; the interminable running time (altogether the trilogy clocks in at eight and a half hours; “Ludwig” by itself is nearly four). Like the cavernous rooms in which they play out, the three films can feel nauseatingly ornate, full of thrice-gilded surfaces and mazelike passageways. The dizzying too-muchness of the trilogy’s aesthetic is matched only by its tone, somehow tragic and giddy and grotesque and funny and horrific and stickily sentimental all at once, like an old geezer smearing his face with makeup to hide his wrinkles. Call them Visconti’s problem films: late, Baroque works frequently in danger of drowning in their own artifice.
Visconti makes almost no effort to get us to like the protagonists of these films — they’re ciphers, prisoners of obsessions we can’t possibly share. In “Death in Venice,” there is sickly composer Gustav von Aschenbach, drooling over an adolescent boy; Ludwig II of Bavaria, blowing fortunes on opera houses while the Prussian army prepares to invade. Finally, there’s the whole, sorry Essenbeck family, which functions as the collective protagonist of “The Damned.” Visconti dispenses with the most likeable of the bunch before the half-hour mark, leaving the rest to collapse into murder and incest in the shadow of the Third Reich.
So why, then, are we so drawn to these characters? In part because they’re all we’ve got — we cling to them, in the vast depths of Visconti’s films, for want of any better companion. But they’re also possessed of a perverse charisma, alluring even when we find them repulsive. Minute to minute, Visconti seems to be struggling to work out his own feelings towards his characters and his material — and, by extension, toward the life of luxury he’d known since the day he was born.
Openly gay for nearly his entire adult life, Visconti was nearly fifty when he first laid eyes on the young Austrian actor Helmut Berger. For the rest of Visconti’s life, he and Berger were locked in a passionate, sometimes maddening romance. (Shortly after Visconti’s death in 1976, Berger attempted suicide.) Berger took major roles in four Visconti films, including Martin, the most fascinating and despicable of the Essenbecks in “The Damned,” and the titular Ludwig. Visconti, otherwise prone to long, restrained takes in the German Trilogy, captures his muse’s pretty face in breathtaking, enigmatic closeups. In “The Damned,” the camera lingers on Berger’s pale skin, penciled eyebrows, and dark, gaping mouth (several times I found myself thinking of David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth”). He’s a kind of perverse puppet, content at first to follow the script that’s been written for him, then spiraling out of control in the film’s apocalyptic final act.
Something similar could be said for the narcissistic Wagner addict Berger plays in “Ludwig,” or for Aschenbach, brought to life by onetime English matinee idol Dirk Bogarde. In Visconti’s version of “Death in Venice,” as in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novella, Aschenbach heads to Italy for R&R but quickly finds his plans derailed by a young, gangly kid named Tadzio, who seems to satisfy the composer’s aesthetic and erotic thirsts, even though they never speak to one another. (Mann’s Aschenbach is a writer. Visconti, ever the classical music enthusiast, changed the character’s profession.) The film’s ending features another sublime closeup, this one of Bogarde’s puffy face covered with half-melted rouge. Striving in vain to recapture his youth, Aschenbach dies of a heart attack, contemplating Tadzio and the future the boy will grow up to inherit.
Other moments marking the passage of time, and power, show up throughout the German Trilogy. Both “Ludwig” and “The Damned” begin with coronation scenes in which an older patriarch hands off the torch to an untried heir. And this points to one of the oddest things about these exceptionally odd films: they revolve around troubled, alienated characters who seem cut off from the world at large, but they’re also deeply concerned with how the world at large — the modern European world, that is—came to be. Over and over again, Visconti’s films use a small, close-knit group as a microcosm for society, a way of understanding how one historical era gave way to the next. The German Trilogy finds him focused on the decades leading up to the rise of Fascism in Western Europe, trying to understand how things went so wrong.
It’s a well-worn cliché that the late Romantic, early Modernist period was a self-indulgent time, full of gross economic excess and wild sexual experimentation, and the German Trilogy includes plenty of both — homosexual orgies are the centerpiece scenes of both “Ludwig” and “The Damned.” But Visconti has something more than sensationalism in mind: the orgy in “The Damned” ends in a massacre, with the erotic red light of the beerhalls giving way to the red insignias of the Nazi executioners’ armbands. Whenever Visconti foregrounds Dionysian decadence he keeps half an eye on the horrors that would follow.
The link between, on one hand, decadence and sexual experimentation of the far Left, and, on the other, the rise of the Fascist Right, is one of the key themes of postwar cinema, from “The Conformist” (directed by Visconti’s protégé Bernardo Bertolucci) to “Cabaret” (featuring a scene in which images of cross-dressing dancers are intercut with goose-stepping stormtroopers) to “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (whose director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, thought “The Damned” the greatest film he’d ever seen). What, precisely, that link consists of probably will be debated forever, but these works all seem to point to a disturbing kinship between the two ideologies.
“It was our fault,” says Herbert Thalmann, one of the few characters in “The Damned” who categorically opposes the Nazis. “All we have done is give Germany a sick democracy … Nazism is our creation.” One disturbing theory that the German Trilogy raises is that blithe fin de siècle permissibility — on the surface, the farthest thing from the Third Reich imaginable — was the true cause of Hitler’s rise; that by opting to inhabit a gossamer world of opera and champagne, European elites paved the way for an inevitable resurgence of brutal, tyrannical force.
That gossamer world may sound a lot like the one Visconti lived in, and he knew it. Throughout the German Trilogy, he’s torn between celebrating and excoriating the luxuriant lifestyle he knew only too well. These two impulses collide midway through “Ludwig” when the king completes his infamous “Grotto of Venus,” an underground pleasure palace complete with a scallop-shaped rowboat. In one sense, you’d expect Visconti to be sympathetic to his protagonist’s quixotic project—building costly, elaborate sets was, after all, the Count’s stock-in-trade. But the sight of the king paddling around, feeding his pet swans, is also unmistakably absurd—he might as well be strumming the harp while Rome burns.
The crucial difference between Count Luchino Visconti and King Ludwig II is that Ludwig sponsored artists while Visconti was an artist, a great one. In the German Trilogy, he found ways of exploring the contradictory halves of European history, as well as the conflicting parts of his personality — his Marxism, his aristocracy, his sexuality — for which Dali had mocked him years ago. The result, for some viewers, is a muddled contradiction and nothing more. For others, it’s something like the famously discordant opening notes of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”: a tension that’s unresolvable, and all the more alluring for it.
Jackson Arn’s writing has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Public Books, The Point, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.