With the release of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film La caduta degli dei aka The Damned, Italian cinema of the 1970s developed an unusual preoccupation with the convergence of WWII themes — particularly the effects of fascism and brutality — and sexual perversion, a leitmotif that began with Italian neorealism in the 1940s and continued through to German arthouse cinema of the 1980s. This loose movement became popular in cult and exploitation cinema, primarily through the subgenre known as Nazisploitation, but reached its cinematic heights with a handful of films that came in the wake of The Damned: namely Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista (1970) aka The Conformist, Liliana Cavani’s Il portiere di notti (1974) aka The Night Porter, Lina Wertmüller’s Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975) aka Seven Beauties, and, most of all, Pasolini’s Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975) aka Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Though these themes of war trauma and sexual perversion began to appear in earnest in the ‘60s with films like Vittorio De Sica’s I sequestrati di Altona (1962) aka The Condemned of Altona, Roger Vadim’s French production Le vice et la virtu (1963) aka Vice and Virtue (1963) — itself an early precursor to Salò — and Visconti’s Vaghe stelle dell’orsa… (1965) aka Sandra, they reached an erotic, exploitation-fueled fever pitch in The Damned. Visconti returned to Sandra’s themes of corrupt industrialists and perverse sons, but on a far grander scale. Set during the Nazi rise to power in the early ‘30s, The Damned follows the internal drama of the family of Baron Joachim Von Essenbecks (Albrecht Schoenhals), the head of a steel dynasty who struggles to bring his company into the rapidly changing world.
His squabbling heirs complicate matters; his self-indulgent daughter-in-law Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) allows her son Martin (Helmut Berger), the company’s primary heir, to explore his passions — which include transvestitism and pedophilia — unchecked, while her fiancé Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde) is a factory manager for the family angling for more power. A manipulative SS officer, Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) convinces Friedrich to murder the Baron and frame the company’s liberal vice president, Herbert (Umberto Orsini), who is forced to go into hiding while his wife and children are sent to Dachau.
Sophie, meanwhile, hopes to get the upper hand on Aschenbach by fingering her own brother, Konstantin (Rene Kolldehoff), a homosexual SA officer who is subsequently murdered on the Night of the Long Knives. The sudden imbalance of family power allows Martin to become truly monstrous: he rapes his pre-pubescent cousin, as well as a young Jewish girl who lives in his apartment complex, and eventually attacks his own mother. He forces Sophie and Friedrich to marry and then kill themselves, so that Martin is left as the primary heir to the family fortune along with his cousin, Günther (Renaud Verley). The two are united in thoughts of power, violence, and revenge, and are utterly transformed into puppets of the SS.
The Damned was a transformative moment in WWII-themed cinema and subsequent films borrowed unmercilessly from its blend of baroque style, perverse sexual elements, factual historical details, Shakespearean tragedy, and epic melodrama. Its lengthy running time — of more than 150 minutes — parallels the increasingly bloody family drama with moments of violent triumph in the early years of National Socialism: the Reichstag fire in February of 1933 and the Night of the Long Knives in June of 1934 elegantly bookends the von Essenbach squabbles for power. Visconti said, “What has always interested me is the analysis of a sick society” (Peter Bondanella’s A History of Italian Cinema, 203). He certainly had no shortage of real-life examples from this time period. For the von Essenbachs, he was loosely inspired by the Krupp family, an Essen-based steel and ammunition dynasty whose patriarch, Gustav, and heir, Alfried, were initially skeptical of Hitler but became avowed, almost obsessive Nazis. When Alfried took charge in 1941, the company became Germany’s primary arms supplier and began taking control of similar corporations in occupied territory. Alfried consolidated power, ousting any rivals and fellow heirs, and began to use slave labor from concentration camps. Despite being found guilty of war crimes, the company survived and Alfried managed to hold on to most of his assets.
The von Essenbachs are an obvious mirror for the Krupp family, but Visconti used them as a cross-section of the kind of German society that flourished under Nazi rule: upper class opportunists (Sophie), well-positioned perverts (Martin and Konstantin), angry young men in need of direction (Günther), and ambitious mid-level managers (Friedrich). As a result, one of Visconti’s pet themes — the fall of the aristocracy — is brilliantly melded with the Nazi’s rise to power, nationalistic fervor, and reactionary fascism. Herbert, the company vice president and politically liberal fall guy, says Nazism is a monster of their own creation, born in their factories and flourishing with their money. Visconti proves that it is also spread by men like Friedrich, who serves as a Macbeth-like figure driven to monstrous acts by his ambition, but who remains one of the few characters capable of self-reflection and moral insight.
All this is orchestrated by Helmut Griem’s Aschenbach, undoubtedly inspiration for the contemporary cinematic Nazi. He’s a charming, sociopathic, blond Satan who carefully manipulates individual family members to his own ends, turning them against each other until only the young heirs Martin and Günther remain. And perhaps curiously, it is Helmut Berger’s fastidious yet devious Martin who serves as the film’s unforgettable protagonist. A figure of debauched beauty and nearly unchecked perversion, Martin acts as a transformative, corrupting agent throughout the film.
He turns the Baron’s high class birthday dinner into a cabaret drag show, where he dresses as Marlene Dietrich and sings “Kinder, heut’ abend, da such’ ich mir was aus” (known in English as “A Man, Just a Regular Man”) from Der blaue Engel (1930). The other characters’ plotting and misdeeds are contrasted by his multiple acts of pedophilia — his own uncle blackmails him over this — and his coup de grace once again returns to the theme of incest. He finally overthrows his controlling mother, the Lady Macbeth-like Sophie, and rapes her in an act that seems at least partially consensual. She is reduced to a near-comatose state after this, and Martin forces her to go through with a wedding to the almost equally subdued Friedrich. Their nuptials are consummated with an act of double suicide, leaving a coiffed Martin in a freshly-pressed SS uniform to his fate as head of the family.
While Martin’s acts nearly landed the film with an X-rating, his scenes are far from the only moments of perversion. Visconti devotes a lengthy, extended sequence to a recreation of the Night of the Long Knives, when the SS purged the ranks of the Sturmabteilung (SA), murdering and arresting most of their number, including their leader and one of Hitler’s closest associates, Ernst Röhm. Over a thousand people were arrested and though the final death total is unknown, it is believed to be in the hundreds.
The SA were known for their fearsome street violence, rowdiness, and drunkenness, as well as for their alleged homosexuality. While Röhm and a few of the SA leaders were more or less openly gay, this fact was manipulated by Hitler and the SS for purely political reasons; they wanted the German public to believe they were taking steps to destroy a corrupt, unruly branch of the Nazi party. Visconti also played up this aspect of the SA’s reputation and presents them as rabble rousers who carouse in an idyllic lake setting — the spa town of Bad Wiessee where the purge actually occurred — with the night increasingly descending into drunkenness and a mass orgy before the morning’s operatic bloodshed.
As WWII became an increasingly prominent theme in mainstream cinema in the ‘70s, other art house directors began to borrow from Visconti’s extravagant use of sex and violence. Then up-and-coming director (and Pasolini protege) Bernardo Bertolucci explored homosexuality and fascism from a new angle with what is arguably his masterpiece, 1970’s aka The Conformist. Based on a novel by Italian journalist Alberto Moravia, The Conformist jumps forwards and backwards in time as it follows the murky career of Marcello Clerici (the divine Jean-Louis Trintignant), an employee of the Fascist secret police in Italy, who is set with the task of assassinating his former professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), in Paris.
Though the film is incredibly disjointed, it becomes clear that Marcello took a position with the government and married his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) in order to fit in, to conform. In Millicent Marcus’ Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, she wrote, “Marcello seeks to obliterate his sense of deviancy by conforming to the social mores and political ideology of 1930s Italy” (287). Everything in his private life seems in disarray. As a boy, he was teased at school and molested by a chauffeur (European cult treasure Pierre Clémenti), who he believes he murdered after the incident. He resents his family’s wealth and privilege, though his father (Giuseppe Addobbati) is confined to an insane asylum after years working as a torturer for the previous government. His mother (Italian singer Milly, sister of Toto) is in a morphine-soaked prison of her own making at an isolated estate and spends her few waking hours in sexual bliss with her Japanese chauffeur. Marcello’s only friend is the blind Italo (José Quaglio), whom he inevitably and violently betrays.
Seemingly nothing is sacred to Marcello and he repeatedly sacrifices even his own sexual desires. He uses his honeymoon with Giulia as a convenient ruse to travel to Paris to murder the professor. And though he seems to fall in love with his ideological opposite — the professor’s young wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda) — he sits passively by while she is murdered. Anna is the film’s most complex character and is the key to its revolving door of mutable identity and fluid reality. Dominique Sanda actually appears in the film three times: not only as Anna, but as a secretary in an Italian fascist office and as a prostitute in a French brothel, seemingly haunting Marcello throughout the film’s various settings.
At first she appears to reciprocate Marcello’s affections, but is possibly just playing an elaborate game with him. She allows him to see her partially naked and flirts with him, but aggressively bites his lip when he kisses her and sets out to seduce his wife. This culminates in the film’s most erotic scene, a slow tango between Anna and Giulia, and also in its most claustrophobic moment. Anna leads a room full of drunken revelers to dance inexorably towards Marcello in an undulating, oppressive spiral that traps him at the center of the room, making it clear that Marcello does not actually want to fit in, but merely wants to maintain the appearance of doing so.
The film’s sexual politics make much of this ambiguity — whether or not Anna and Marcello are homosexual, bisexual, or merely opportunists — and even Marcello himself seems uncertain. Despite being an avowed atheist, he submits to Giulia’s demands that he confess his sins to a Catholic priest before marriage, boasting of acts that include homosexuality, murder, and premarital heterosexual intercourse. Marcus explains, “Marcello is marked from the outset by a love of violence and by a feminine sultriness which leads him to be seduced and to react with homicidal vengeance time and time again” (287). He admittedly selects Giulia because she is mundane and boring, but she is hardly less damaged than Marcello himself. In a parallel with his own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of the chauffeur, Giulia admits that she began a sexual relationship with her 60-year-old uncle when she was only a teenager, the very man to give her away at their wedding.
But Bertolucci makes it clear that Marcello’s most perverse act is not his nebulous sexuality or even the murders he has committed, but his desire to conform above all else. He is neurotic, self-loathing, and admits that what he wants most is to appear normal. He discusses what he wants with his friend Italo, stating, “I don’t know. The impression of normalcy. Stability, security. In the morning when I’m dressing in the mirror I see myself. And compared to everyone else, I feel I’m different.” He is a strange amalgamation of repulsion and attraction. Marcello is never completely presented as a victim, but as a sort of cowardly predator, waiting for opportune moments to reveal his true nature: one devoid of personality, scruples, or even real desire.
The film’s tragedy, which culminates in Anna’s death, is at once muted and enhanced by Marcello’s skewed views of identity and reality. In the middle of the French woods, she escapes the car where her husband is being murdered and perhaps could have fled to safety with Marcello — who is located in the rear car — but when she sees his face, she begins to scream uncontrollably until the other fascist agents gun her down. This is the film’s only truly emotional sequence, brutal in its intensity, and it serves as a sort of ultimate climax that counters the repeated acts of denial throughout.
It is tempting to view The Conformist as a film about the evils of sexual repression, but this interpretation is too simple. Marcus says, “Far from insisting that underneath every Fascist lurks a repressed homosexual, Bertolucci presents Marcello’s idiosyncratic sexuality as one example of the general need to deny personal differences, which would lead an insecure, threatened individual to identify with an all-powerful state” (307). Both political and sexual, The Conformist is a deeply psychological reading of fascism and makes a number of important parallels to the contemporary understanding of fascism as a death cult. Marcello’s attempts to conform can be understood through Freud’s writings on the death drive. In On Metapsychology, he wrote, “the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state” (380). His actions — to join the secret police as a potential, if failed assassin — are not the attempts of a man to embrace “normal” middle class life, but the complete erasure of self. Marcello attempts to shed the upper middle class excess symbolized by his parents, but what he views as “normal” it is easy to see as violent, destructive, sadistic, and perverse, hinting at the true core of his identity.
His level of detachment is almost existential and it is easy to draw parallels to Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment and Camus’ Meursault of The Stranger. But unlike these other fictional murderers, Marcello is symbolically impotent, unable to commit real acts of murder on his own. One of Bertolucci’s biggest changes from Moravia’s novel is that he moves Marcello to the scene of the crime. Where in the book, other agents carry out the professor’s murder while Marcello is safely miles away, Bertolucci places him in the car behind the assassination, calmly witnessing the deaths of the professor and his wife. This theme of the car or the vehicle is a powerful one throughout the film and there is almost constantly the sense that Marcello is being passively driven through the events of his life, beginning with the chauffeur who brings about his initiation into sex — and violence.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Moravia said of Marcello, “He was a pitiable character—pitiable because a victim of circumstance, led astray by the times, a traviato.” Traviatio, meaning “led astray” or “corrupted,” takes on a further layer in the film, as Bertolucci makes Marcello a wholly unreliable narrator. Where the novel moves from Marcello’s childhood trauma linearly through the anti-fascist uprising at the end of the war, Bertolucci’s moves backwards and forwards in time at will, making multiple viewings almost a guaranteed prerequisite to comprehending the director’s vision as a whole.
Bertolucci also subverts conventional reality at every turn — not just with the film’s dizzying sense of time, but with its overwhelming visual style and unexpected camera angles. While there is perhaps more than a touch of upper-class decadence that also fuels the other war-themed films from the period, The Conformist attempts to capture the surreal or hallucinatory qualities of life in a fascist regime. This Italian-French-West German affair was shot by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storraro and, unlike similar efforts from the decade, makes brilliant use of the fascist stylistic palette. In particular, Bertolucci and Storrarro focus on the art deco favored in the ‘30s, wide open spaces — such as Roman ruins that double as an outdoor asylum — cluttered sittings rooms, and starkly white design and architecture. Though Bertolucci explored somewhat similar themes in the same year’s Strategia del ragno (1970) aka The Spider’s Stratagem, The Conformist is undoubtedly one of his finest achievements and it remains one of the greatest films of the ‘70s.