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The Damned has often been regarded as the first of Visconti's films described as "The German Trilogy", followed by Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973). Henry Bacon (1998) specifically categorizes these films together under a chapter "Visconti & Germany". Visconti's earlier films had analyzed Italian society during the Risorgimento and postwar periods. Peter Bondanella's Italian Cinema (2002) depicts the trilogy as a move to take a broader view of European politics and culture. Stylistically, "They emphasize lavish sets and costumes, sensuous lighting, painstakingly slow camerawork, and a penchant for imagery reflecting subjective states or symbolic values," comments Bondanella.
The film centers around the Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family who have begun doing business with the Nazi Party. On the night of the Reichstag fire, the family's conservativepatriarch, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck, who represents the old aristocratic Germany and detests Hitler, is murdered. Herbert Thalmann, the family firm's vice president who openly opposes the Nazis, is framed for the crime. He escapes the grasp of the Gestapo, but his wife Elizabeth and their children do not. The empire passes to the control of an unscrupulous relative, the boorish SA officer Konstantin. Waiting in the wings are his son Günther, a sensitive and troubled student, and his nephew, Martin, an amoral, sexually deviant playboy who is secretly molesting his young cousin as well as a poor Jewish girl. Martin is dominated by his possessive mother, Sophie, the widow of Baron Joachim's only son, a fallen World War I hero. Martin's drag performance as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel at his grandfather's birthday celebration, notorious at the time of the film's release, has since become an iconic image in cinema history.
Friedrich Bruckmann, an employee of the family firm and Sophie's lover, ascends in power despite his lowly social status, thanks to Sophie's support and the SS officer and family relation Aschenbach, who pits family factions against each other to move their steel and munition works into state control. Friedrich kills Konstantin in the SS coup against the SA during its 1934 meeting to deal with its dissatisfaction with Hitler. Known as The Night of the Long Knives, the SA meeting and the subsequent executions of its leaders by the SS is portrayed as ahomosexual orgy and bloody gangster-style massacre. Aschenbach now dismisses Friedrich, who now controls the family fortunes, as a weak social climber and not a loyal Nazi. Herbert Thalmann now returns to the family table. He reveals that his wife and children were sent to Dachau concentration camp where his wife died; he is handing himself over to the Gestapo in return for the freedom of his children. Aschenbach makes a deal with the discounted and ignored heir, Martin, to remove Friedrich and Sophie from control, so that Martin may get what is owed him. Martin sexually assaults his mother, who falls into a catatonic state. Now in the SS, he allows Friedrich (who has been decreed the name and title of von Essenbeck) to wed his mother, and then hands them the poison to commit suicide.
- Dirk Bogarde as Friedrich Bruckmann
- Ingrid Thulin as Sophie
- Helmut Griem as Aschenbach
- Helmut Berger as Martin
- Charlotte Rampling as Elizabeth Thalmann
- René Koldehoff as Konstantin
- Renaud Verley as Günther
The film opened to worldwide acclaim and is considered one of the best foreign films of the 1960s. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and was named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review. Among the international cast, Helmut Berger was singled out for his performance as Martin, a vicious sexual deviate who uses his amoral appetites to his own twisted ends. Filmed in both Italy and Germany, the film was given an "X" rating by the MPAA and was heavily edited when shown on CBS television late night.