The Cursed Gods

George Grosz, The Eclipse of the Sun, 1926, Oil on canvas, 207.3 x 182.6 cm


Commentary on the film by Luchino Visconti

“From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death.” (Shakespeare, King Richard III)

In the interview he gave to Stefano Roncoroni about the genesis of The Cursed Gods, Luchino Visconti confessed some of his sources of inspiration, such as The Buddenbrooks, whose influence on the opening scene of old Essenbeck's birthday dinner is soon identified by readers of Thomas Mann. He also confessed to other readings of information about the historical period, meticulous, patient, as demanded by his temperament as an archaeologist, who only knows how to take off when he has already crossed the structure of the work and planted it solidly in the ground. To create the ideological atmosphere of the time, he says he thought of Hegel, an author that Aschenbach cites at one point; but it silences the influence of Nietzsche's theory of resentment, that the film is, to some extent, a romanticized exposition.

Nor did he refer to Shakespeare, who nevertheless provided the dramatic tone of the narrative, as Greek tragedy had provided that of. Rocco and his Brothers. in fact, the reference to Macbeth, where he sought the tense and passionate relationship of the two lovers united by crime, the admirable analysis of ambition and its correlate, the unhappy conscience. It is from these borrowings that artistic creation is nourished, and the mystery of the work of art consists in offering, magically, through an old body, shredded, sewn, its ever new face.

At the beginning, Visconti's film seems to apprehend Nazism from the side, attentive only to the repercussions. We do not see History ready and ordered, because we are inserted in the events, looking at them from the inside. The official semiology of films of the genre has accustomed us to a Germany of parade, goose step and stupid officers who speak at the top of their voices. In The Cursed Gods Luchino Visconti meticulously avoids these commonplaces. He even avoids characterizing Nazism as an anti-Jewish phenomenon and makes only a few allusions to it, occasionally, in the episode of the girl who kills herself and in the wedding ceremony, when Sofia and Friedrich declare the “cleansing of blood”.

The first impression is that he prefers to tell the story of the Essenbeck family, dwelling on realistic details, on the characterization of the environment, on clothing, on manners, demonstrating that perverse fascination for nobility that only finds a parallel in another great creator of cinema: Stroheim. But The Cursed Gods is not a realistic film, but a mythology, in the sense that Roland Banhes gives to this word; not only have an apparent sense of language, they are a speaks, and this can only be understood if the constant point of reference is Nazism.

Its reading therefore requires deciphering, where “each object can pass from a closed, mute existence to an oral state”, to a message. Images exist with an autonomous meaning, but they can cover another, latent, and much deeper meaning. For example: at the birthday dinner the SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Aschenbach brings to his lapel tuxedo a small cross dappled with gold; however, this is not a mere badge, but the goldenen partei abzeichens, to which only prominent militants were entitled.

Another case: the fatness and the very physiognomy of Konstantin von Essenbeck already suggest a certain similarity; but it is a certain syntagma – the raincoat combined with the felt hat broken on the forehead – that brings him closer to Goering, who appears dressed like this in several photographs of the period. In the same way, those who recognize the massacre of the SA in the episode at the hotel in Wiessee read the dark Mercedes, which arrives slowly at dawn, among silent guards, as the presence of Hitler in the place.

The process of infusing the elements of the plot with countless additional meanings, which constantly challenge the attention of those who decipher them, extends in a curious way into the choice of names, where it takes on the playful form of a jigsaw puzzle. Thus, the name of the protagonist family of the drama, Essenbeck, was not chosen at random: the radical Essen evokes the city in the Rhineland, cradle of the famous Krupp family of gunsmiths and great center of the steel industry.

As for Aschenbach, it is the name of the main character d'Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann, a beloved novel by Visconti, who has just transposed it to celluloid. In the novel, Aschenbach represents decadence and is, in a sense, the bringer of death; his namesake plays (under this single aspect) a similar role in the film, which may also, due to the importance it assumes, be close to Satan. Bruckmann, surname of Friedrich, the factory manager, is also that of an important family in Munich, linked to Nazism; in their Memoirs, Speer speaks of a Mrs. Bruckmann as mentor to Hitler's artistic taste.

Finally, one must not forget the anti-Nazi character Herbert Thalmann, the almost perfect namesake of Ernest Thaelmann, who led the German Communist Party when Hitler came to power. The association is actually suggested in the dispute that broke out over dinner, shortly after the news of the Reischstag fire, when Konstantin replied to his cousin, who denounced Goering for having promised to hang the enemies of the Third Reich: “You are losing your mind, Herbert . Goering was referring to the communists… Or maybe you are a communist too?”

We could say, in summary, that beside a first layer of resonance, like the small cross on Aschenbach's lapel, we have a second, more subtle one, like the syntagma of Konstantin's clothes and physique (to this layer, as we shall see, belongs to transvestite of Martin); and, finally, a third, like that of names – fluctuating, remote, without a precise meaning, but crisscrossing the text with the will-o'-the-wisp of its possible meanings.

Visconti's knowledge of Nazism thus takes on an extraordinary documentary precision, but later this is partially removed, in favor of a skilful game of signs and meanings. Hence the importance that the correlation between civil clothing, uniform, insignia, flag, music, decoration, gestures, names, places acquires. These elements, which allow a kind of condensation of the story – as they are articulated as a general symbolic system, present throughout the film – are also organized into three particular systems, forming the three main narrative blocks, which we will describe below.

Each constitutes a significant moment in the evolution of Nazism: the pact with big capital, which subsidized it and made it possible for it to come to power; the liquidation of the SA, which eliminated its populist aspects and guaranteed the support of the military, allowing Hitler to succeed Hindenburg; the absolute predominance of the SS, characterizing a kind of “pure Nazism”, which effected the destruction of the Jews and unleashed the war. Furthermore, on the narrative level, there is an articulation of recurrent elements that ensure the continuity of the general symbolic system throughout the three blocks — such as the fact that the three are parties, tragically ending and rhythmically marked by the sinister arrival of the SS; or the constancy of transvestite, whose differential analysis will be made later.

The first interpreters of Nazism from an economic point of view, such as Daniel Guérin and Juergen Kuczinsky, already showed that it was accompanied by an astonishing industrial concentration, allowing the great German capitalism an unprecedented predominance in the country's economy. Visconti seems to adhere to this point of view, giving an interpretation that we could call radical in the etymological sense of the word, that is, that goes to the root, to the economic foundations.

The Essenbeck family functions as a standard structure, reflecting the different stages of relations between Nazism and capitalism. Luchino Visconti shows, in the very semiological structuring of the film, that Nazism was in fact a “plebeian guard of big capital”, as Konrad Heiden said; but the guard never ceased to involve and determine him, from the contract symbolized in the opening dinner scene to the absorption of the last family members by the party organisations.

At dinner, we actually witnessed, symbolically, the pact between the National Socialists and heavy industry. Baron Joachirn von Essenbeck represents the aristocratic and predatory tradition of the great magnates of steel and weapons, and although he despises the careerism of Hitler – whom he refers to as “that gentleman” – he capitulates for reasons of interest. Political pressure is represented by two individuals: his nephew Konstantin, a truculent and rude member of the SA, who aspired to succeed his uncle, and his distant relative Aschenbach, an impeccable SS officer. of the family, and which manifests itself in the diversity of the uniforms they wear, is the struggle between two rival groups of Hitler's minions.

Konstantin adheres to the plebeian activism of the movement in its phase of conquest of power, representing a stage to be eliminated. Aschenbach, spokesman for the doctrine in the state control phase, is the driving force that promotes events: the murder of old Essenbeck; the removal of liberal and anti-Nazi nephew Herbert Thalmann; the preponderance of the ambitious manager Friedrich Bruckmann through his mistress Sofia, the Baron's widowed daughter-in-law; the murder of Konstantin by Friedrich in Wiessee; the destruction of Friedrich and Sofia, now unnecessary and inconvenient; finally, the advent of the perfect Nazi instrument, the young Baron Martin von Essenbeck, homosexual, pedophile, drug addict, incestuous, sadistic, absorbed and transformed into an automaton by the SS, who probably also absorbed his cousin Guenther.

Martin is defined with intentional exaggeration, because the aim is not psychological verisimilitude, but rather to accentuate, through the characterization of the character, the breakdown of the family and the monstrosity of the new order that is emerging. The pact between Nazism and big capital is effected when the resistance of the old patriarch yields to the interest of the group – the industry of which he is head. But the Essenbeck family is already undermined on all sides by political differences and infighting interests; the birthday dinner is your last moment of equilibrium.

The party is anticipated by a long preparation that starts in the rooms, as the show begins in the actors' dressing room. Before going on stage, each extra goes over the number they will soon perform on stage and in life: the two girls repeat verses, assisted by the governess; Guenther (son of Konstantin), rehearses his Bach piece on the cello; Herbert Thalmann accuses his class of compromising with Nazism while his wife Elizabeth fixes his tie and asks for calm; Konstantin bathes and considers how to draw Guenther to her cause; the old Baron remembers his son killed in the war – while in the car that drives towards the castle, Aschenbach and Friedrich draw up the battle plans.

The castle displays its splendor intact. It is a perfectly functioning mechanism, with the impeccable service of the servants, the cordial relations between boss and employee, the gestures of affection that surround family life. In this peaceful environment, the form of aesthetic expression that emerges is the theatrical representation in honor of the old Baron. Seen in isolation it can have a sentimental and even thanks to ; but it is a form perfectly suited to the environment in which it takes place, a commemorative show conceived in the traditional way, with a stage, recitation by children, musical audition by renowned authors, which is attended in formal attire. This harmonious atmosphere is abruptly broken by two elements of shock: Martin's imitation of Marlene Dietrich and the news of the Reichstag fire.

The allusion to Marlene in the role of Lola, in the blue angel, is an extremely ambiguous sign. Its apparent meaning is erotic and points to the equivocal cabaret woman, with a relaxed pose, black stockings, blond hair and top hat, but which the milieu has already incorporated as a symbol of permitted freedom. Covered by this, however, there is another sense of flaw and abnormality in the image – because the woman we see on stage is not Marlene Dietrich, but the transvestite of Martin von Essenbeck, heir to the powerful dynasty. His inclusion in the quiet order of the castle is an affront and the old Baron expresses his displeasure.

But, superimposed on this disturbing element, the news of the false plot explodes like a bomb. The proximity in which the two signs of rupture occur is not accidental and the director marks through him the parallelism with which, from then on, the two lines of the plot will develop: Martin's anomaly and the regime's anomaly. It's the most important moment in the plot, because it's the fall of the masks, when the family begins to disintegrate and the action descends into brutality. Visconti is not concerned with realistically preparing for the turn of events; he makes them rush suddenly, in a time shorter than the novel, using a condensation that we would say is rather that of theatrical duration.

During dinner, all the cards are already dealt: the old Baron announces his industry's understandings with Nazism, Herbert Thalmann resigns as vice-president, leaving the room with his wife, Konstantin takes his place at the table and on the Council administration. The struggle between the latter and Sofia-Friedrich is already outlined. Soon we will witness the arrival of the SS, Herbert's escape, the murder of the old patriarch, the rape of little Thilde. It's too much for one night, but not too much for a Shakespearean first act.

The second fundamental episode in the structure of the film – inspired by the liquidation of the assault troops, the SA, commanded by Roehm – is the massacre in the Bavarian village of Wiessee, near Munich, where Konstantin loses his life. The assassination of old Joachim, following the beginning, just after Hitler had received the support of capitalism, is the first cheat after the pact. The death of the Nazi Konstantin in Wiessee symbolizes the beginning of the destruction of the puppets that controlled high industry. The episode, built according to the same rhythm as the birthday dinner, begins in a festive and careless way, in the noisy joy of regattas, to go progressively downhill, as dawn advances, in a deep feeling of sadness and, finally, in tragedy.

There is also an aesthetic manifestation here, a representation, which means one more step on the Nazi path. But now the artistic emotion is awakened by the partisan chants and culminates in the scene in which the SA drunkenly chant the Horst Wessel Lied — pendant degraded from the opening scene in the castle, when, in formal dress, Guenther played Bach and the cousins ​​recited verses. The equivalence between the two sequences continues in the profanation of women, because the girl brutalized by Martin, under the table, corresponds to the waitresses stripped naked and thrown into the air by the militiamen.

In this symmetric scheme, the transvestite reappears. But it's no longer the transvestite of an individual, acting as an element of shock and rupture in an environment that is not his; is that of a whole group, received with applause. Instead of an exception, we have normality, a perfect adaptation of this low and coarse aesthetic manifestation to the military brutality of the milieu, marked by the ambiguous male camaraderie.

Perhaps a marginal note would be in order to clarify how, in the technique of composition, fidelity to events and freedom of creative interpretation are fused. In the terrible “Night of the Long Knives”, in the early hours of June 30, 1934, when Hitler decided to liquidate Roehm to capture the definitive support of the Army and the Conservatives, what happened in the small seaside town of Wiessee was the arrest (directed by the Führer in person) of Roehm, his assistants Uhl and von Spretti and the driver who slept with the S.A.. obergruppen-fuehrer Heines, the latter, performed on the spot. Apparently, it was the only death, as there is doubt as to the driver, who would have been taken with the others to Munich, where they were liquidated with dozens of others, while more people were massacred in other parts, above all in Berlin and Silesia, in a a total that Hitler declared to be 76 in his apologetic speech in the Reichstag, but which experts estimate, some at around 400, others at more than 1.000.

So the Wiessee sequence was completely invented, except for the presence of Roehm, the arrival of the SS and the motorcade. Mas Luchino Visconti rode, in a concentrated foreshortening, all the elements of the great drama: the attitude of the SA against the Army (which they aspired to replace, as a "people's army"), the more or less open opposition to Hitler, the noisy customs of bambochata, the very homosexuality widespread in its ranks, the presence of Hitler in the place (although hidden by an ellipsis), the summary of the massacres that, that morning and throughout the day, bloodied Germany. In the real story, the SA chiefs were to gather in Wiessee on June 30th for a visit from Hitler. Visconti anticipated what could have happened, bundling what happened dispersed in space and successively in time.

In the third episode, the action is again located in the Essenbeck castle, so that, returning to the place where the narrative began, one can feel concretely that time has passed. The aesthetic element is then expressed by the dramatic opposition of the two environments, as clear as the one that separates Sofia's beautiful face, in the first part of the film, from Ensor's mask that she wears at the wedding ceremony. Nothing remains of the old castle: no servants, no pomp, no protocol. From the bare walls hang, as in a burial chamber, the Nazi emblems.

The refined characters of the first environment had been replaced, in the scene of the massacre, by noisy vulgarity, by the sense of popular corporation of the SA; now, a dirty rabble, carried by Nazism, forms the backdrop against which Martin's sinister ritual preparations stand out: the marriage of Friedrich and the mother he desecrated, followed by the murder of both in the form of imposed suicide. From the ancient world, which began to disappear with the death of the old Baron, only a few survivals remain, such as the bride and groom's formal attire, the kindness and the mechanical smile with which the crazed baroness thanks the guests for their presence.

Like the previous two, the sequence will end, symmetrically, with a crime. But this too has evolved. It became less and less individualized, it passed from the direct relationship between the criminal and the victim, in the murder of the old patriarch, to the collective slaughter where Konstantin's death dissolves, until the last crime, impersonal, without weapons, without blood, without scratchs. A murder from a distance, which did not even require the presence of the criminal at the place of execution. And that crime, absorbed by the system, has become routine.

What became of one of the constant elements of the plot, the transvestite? Will it have disappeared? No; remains, but as a value that has changed sign. From the beginning Martin was treated as an ambiguous being, half man, half woman; and this kind of neutrality of meaning, which is his essence, is already reflected in the delicate face of an adolescent, an empty mask that Visconti expertly disposes of, according to the expressive need of the plot.

At the beginning, the feminine aspect is accentuated, when Martin reacts fearfully in front of his mother and relatives, biting his nails insecure, excluded from the dispute in which the others fight each other, segregated in a marginal terrain, where he can only communicate – even if it is through tara – with children and those less favored by fortune. Confined in empty spaces, in dark corners, he sneaks under the furniture and is symbolically imprisoned in the attic by his uncle, like someone driven away, elusive and lonely. When he practices the three strokes of the mand, imitating his grandfather's authority, he is alone at the large table in the deserted room. Alone, shut up in his room, he awaits his mistress, struggling with secret tendencies.

Visconti underscores Martin's isolated and subterranean existence in various ways, making the significant element depend, sometimes on the role of the character in the plot, sometimes just on the rhetoric of the image. In the scene that takes place in the factory office, it is the situation that defines Martin's marginality, showing him impatient and inattentive, while Friedrich and the members of the General Staff of the Army toast a new model of machine gun. Soon, on the way to his lover's house, he acts like a criminal, looking around furtively, changing cars to mislead the direction he is taking.

Sometimes, however, wanting to express his constant vocation for crime, the director limits himself to relying on the plastic image. The fluid rhythm of the sequence is then interrupted by a particular shot: for example, the close up of your eyes. Twice he uses the image of the eyes: as an ellipse in the desecration of the cousin and as a prologue in the desecration of the mother. In the first moment, the use is, in fact, more complex, as it is part of the admirable montage with which it suggests Thilde's rape: we hear the piercing scream in the middle of the night, synchronized with the image of the old Baron rising from the bed inquiringly; and the sentence ends with a shot of Martin's eyes, phosphorescent like a panther's.

Martin and crime are coextensive. But in the beginning, crime is deviance, unhappiness, defect, abnormality. Martin emerges as a marginal degenerate, who does not fit into the dominant ethical frameworks; a man disguised as a woman, dressed as Lola-Marlene.

Nazism, however, created a state of affairs where the degenerate, far from being out of character, fit in normally. Martin's available personality, his absent humanity, will henceforth be fulfilled in an inverse sense: his last transvestite it will be the SS uniform Hence the symbolic importance of the gesture with which he puts the cap on his head, the final chord in which he ends the coherent evolution that transformed him from a scared little woman into a tough and implacable officer.

He is in SS uniform, from head to toe, who, integrated into the new order, presides over the definitive destruction of the old order, to which he belonged but which never fully welcomed him. Martin's final crime throws a retrospective light on the previous crimes he committed: they then cease to be faults, to become the successive tests of a long initiatory ritual, the macabre equivalent of the selection that Himmler thought was necessary for this kind of chivalric order, quintessence of Nazism – the SS trained in the Ordensburgen.

The director's flagrant intention, creating the character, was to show, parallel to the formation of Nazism, to its definitive constitution as the only force of the State, crushing antagonisms, divergences and insufficient adhesions, the emergence of a monstrous individual, like the ones he generated. The film is at once the anatomy of Nazism and the story of a standard Nazi, namely Martin von Essenbeck.

The Cursed Gods they therefore manifest an acute political knowledge, made uniquely effective by the strength of their hidden structure, which analysis reveals. But if we didn't know the facts and couldn't assess the rigor with which Luchino Visconti transfigures them, carrying out a very skilful structural reduction, the film would still retain its impact as a work of art, due to the coherence of the first level of meaning, that is, the history of the struggle for economic power within a family.


Net profits of the Krupp firm as Nazi rearmament accelerated (in millions of marks):




*Gilda de Mello e Souza (1919-2005) was a professor of aesthetics at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of reading exercises (Publisher 34).

*Antonio Candido (1918-2017) was Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP. Author, among other books, of The Albatross and the Chinese (Gold on Blue).

Article originally published in the magazine Speech nº 2, []


The Cursed Gods (La Caduta Degli Dei)

Italy, 1969, 156 min.

Directed by: Luchino Visconti

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Helmut Griem, Helmut Berger, Renaua Verley, Umberto Orsini, René Koldehoff, Albrecht Schönhals, Charlotte Rampling, Florinda Bolkan.

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