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June 09, 2007

The Damned: Luchino Visconti. Nationalism as Regression

Viscontis The Damned (La Caduta degli dei ) 1969:

Representing Nazism and Nationalism

Switzerland / Italy / West Germany

(The film was shot in English at the insistence of Warner Brothers)

(Return to Visconti webhub

Visit other Visconti historical films: Senso and The Leopard



SA Orgy on Night of the Long Knives

SA Orgy on the "Night of the Long Knives" from Visconti's The Damned







Introduction: Visconti, History & Nationalism

Through an analysis of The Damned (1969) with some comparative work of Visconti’s The Leopard (1962) this article argues that the work of Visconti is overdue critical revision in terms of the sophistication of his oeuvre regarding the nature of history related to two critical turning-points in modern European history namely the Risorgimento and the accession to and consolidation of power of the Nazis. These two films represent the major triumphs of nationalism of the 19th century often seen as progressive Garibaldi for example was greeted by massed crowds when he visited London hailed as being very progressive by British radicals. The closure of this era of nationalism, which by the 1930s can be seen as highly regressive in all European countries, was represented by The Damned. It represents the corrupted coming to power of the Nazis and the heinous activities they undertook to maintain and consolidate their hold on Germany. The massacre of the Night of the Long Knives is a direct echo of the off screen execution of Garibaldian radicals as the Prince of Salina returns home from the ball at the end of The Leopard.

Post First World War nationalisms had led to the establishing of several reactionary governments across central and Eastern Europe as well as in Italy and later Spain. For Visconti Nazi Germany represents the nadir of this wider reactionary nationalism. Historically Nazism was to play out the end of this nationalist urge movement in the most melodramatic of ways. The Damned functions as a film about the few critical months between February 1933 - June 1934 which saw the installation and consolidation of a regime that would bring Europe crashing to its knees and end the period of liberal nationalism the Risorgimento symbolised as it mutated into reaction. For Visconti The Damned is nothing less than a representation of an attempt to turn back the tide of history.

The argument presented here seeks to show that Visconti’s notion of anthropomorphic cinema, which combined a unique blend of Gramscian and Lukacsian Marxism, consistently and successfully uses some great European realist works of the 20th century to represent the trajectory of history through cinema in ways which have yet to be matched by any other director. This posting draws upon recent scholarship of the Nazi period to cross- reference Visconti’s approach. As a result the article takes issue with Nowell-Smith’s (2003) suggestion that Visconti shifts his interest in history towards culture. I argue that for Visconti they are intimately intertwined. The article also takes issue with the other main critical work in English on Visconti by Bacon (1998). Bacon’s otherwise interesting and insightful work also fails to grapple fully with Visconti’s understanding of history which as a result leads him to re-inscribe Visconti as a Liberal democrat. The argument here is that a careful reading of Visconti’s work reveals a very profound and decidedly Marxian approach to history and representation.

The Damned




Helmut Berger cross dressing as a cabaret artist


Helmut Berger cross dressing as a cabaret artiste in Visconti's The Damned





The Damned has often been regarded as the first of Visconti’s films described as ‘The German Trilogy’ the others being Death in Venice (1973) and Ludwig (1973). Henry Bacon (1998) specifically categorises these films together under a chapter ‘Visconti & Germany’ an approach which is perhaps in need of revision. Previously Visconti’s films had analysed Italian society during the Risorgimento and post-war periods. Bondanella has seen the ‘trilogy’ as a move to take a broader view of European politics and culture. Stylistically ‘They emphasise lavish sets and costumes, sensuous lighting, painstakingly slow camerawork, and a penchant for imagery reflecting subjective states or symbolic value[i] comments Bondanella. He also notes that much critical discourse has confused the examination of decadence in Visconti’s later works with a recommendation for its continuation. Visconti himself has commented that he was interested ‘in the analysis of a sick society’, and there is a marked difference between the representation of rising modernity and its links with the bourgeoisie in The Leopard compared with the stasis of Europe. This stasis is examined through allegory encapsulated by a sick fin de siecle Venice and a moribund Bavarian monarchy. Both are studies of decadence which Visconti considers is an outward symbol of a society entering into its death throes. These represent issues raised by the construction of the Bismarckian strong state and aspects of the weakness of the old empire of Austro-Hungary and its former ally Bavaria.

The Damned takes as its subject matter the relationships between the heavy industrialists in the late Weimar Republic on the cusp of Nazi success. There was a clear need for the Nazi leadership to discipline, and revise its approach should it wish to reach the heights of power with the blessing of the powerful industrialists as well as win over the army. This manufacture of consensus – albeit temporary – precisely illustrates the workings of hegemony as understood by Gramsci. This case study seeks to analyse The Damned through the lens of Visconti’s notion of ‘anthropomorphic cinema’. Nowell-Smith defines this notion as a situation where ‘the movement of social forces is reflected in the actions and passions of individuals expressed through the representation of character’ (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 151). Furthermore anthropomorphic cinema within The Damned relates the historical processes in which Visconti develops Gramsci’s notions of ‘Hegemony’ as a political process which can emerge as a regressive not just a progressive force.

Critics have commented that Visconti has been strongly influenced by William Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ and also by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It is also noted that Visconti read other historical publications apart from Shirer. Shirer was an American journalist covering events in situ which he later turned into a book. It was certainly a widely influential book, however historiography of the Nazi period has moved on considerably since then [ii]. Visconti might well have been strongly influenced by Italian historiography of the time which in general has been viewed as ‘ethico-political’ by Martin Clark (1984) in a standard British text of Italian history. Clark notes that the ‘mainstream Marxist’ historians of Italy who were members of the Communist Party were strongly influenced by Gramsci. Gramscian ideas certainly helped formulate one of Visconti’s main theoretical lenses in constructing his historical films. Nevertheless it is stressed below that Visconti was not trying to construct a conventional drama-documentary of an historical event, rather, I argue, he was trying to bring to the fore the notion of underlying historical processes at a deeper and more universal level through his cinematic practice.

The search and attempts to represent universals is currently deeply out of fashion as critics, theorists and practitioners tinker with post-modern ideologies such as ‘the end of history’. Nevertheless ‘Great Art’ has usually been identified as a matter of seeking universals from specifics and the wheel of intellectual fashion may well return to this approach in due course.. Artistic licence is precisely bending situations, not being concerned with representing the specific moment naturalistically but transforming it into the universal. Many consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth to have been influential upon Visconti in preparing for this film. Macbeth is a dramatic version of an historical event a real Macbeth in Scottish but worked over so that it has become a classic interpretation of power and desire leading ultimately to downfall. Shakespeare’s tragedy is modelled upon Greek lines in that fate plays a part. Where Visconti has improved artistically upon Shakespeare is by removing fate and destiny and its role over the individual actor from the realm of individuals to a representation of historical processes by developing his concept of anthropomorphic cinema. Viscontian tragedy is thus an inversion of Greek classical tragedy through his understanding of historiography.



Visconti’s Anthropomorphic Cinema and Gramscian Hegemonic Theory

The breaking down of Visconti’s work into differing categories is a critical construction which vitiates against other interpretative structures. What is argued here is that The Damned can be seen not simply as a ‘German’ film but as a film about the role of nationalism within modern history. Thus it can be argued that by linking this film with The Leopard for the purposes of critical analysis at the level of historical theory Visconti can be seen to be using the processes at work within the Risorgimento as a representation of progressive liberal nationalism. The progressiveness is limited for as the character Tancredi famously points out, everything does change in order to re-establish stability and embed the reconstructed social elites. Often, as Clark (1984) notes, the leaders of disaffected groups are perfectly willing to become absorbed into new social formations but it is the troops who remain recalcitrant. In The Leopard the troops were the Garibaldian hard-liners who are executed off screen at the end of The Leopard. The Damned acts like a mirror of The Leopard in a misrecognition in which the recalcitrant leadership of the SA fails to become absorbed into the new consensus which Hitler needs to construct in order to develop his project.

It has been traditional to view the nationalisms of the 19th century as largely progressive whilst the 20th century nationalisms, at least within Europe, have been viewed as regressive by post Second World War historians. Both Senso and The Leopard provide a critical historical background to the process of the Risorgimento but the cinematic approach of the former is closer to that of The Damned. The Damned uses the methods of ‘anthropomorphic cinema’ to show how German nationalism was doomed to failure. Visconti is careful to choose key historical turning-points to develop his ideas of history. These are times when historical changes requires a reconfiguration of the ruling elites to contain more progressive elements and form a stable social structure capable of meeting the change as in the case of the Risorgimento films. The difficulties and price of reconfiguration amongst the elites in Nazi ruled Germany leads to disaster as in The Damned.

The compromises and self-seeking attitude of the aristocracy was examined in different ways in the two Risorgimento films. In The Damned Visconti shows the failure of liberal democracy and the industrial imperative of capitalism to forge a progressive agenda. Other major industrial countries France, Britain and the United States at the time had, through a variety of different paths, established liberal democracies albeit with problems. Germany by comparison did not: the founding moment of the Weimar Republic was a poisoned chalice which was handed over by a militaristic leadership facing defeat in 1918. These elites were trying to save themselves and regroup. Consequently the old Prussian elites were never comprehensively defeated. Throughout the time of the Weimar Republic they exerted a strong reactionary influence refusing - unlike the Prince of Salina in The Leopard - to engage constructively with the formation of a new hegemonic social formation which could provide a stable ruling elite. Bacon quotes Visconti as saying ‘...but Nazism seems to me to reveal more about a historical reversal of values.’ (Visconti cited Bacon, 1998 p 145 my emphasis) but Bacon doesn’t follow this insight up.

The inability to become involved in the construction of a new hegemonic order by the older elites in Germany is represented in a very persuasive way by Visconti. The opening scenes of the film follow Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde) being tempted by the SS into a murderous plot amongst scenes from a family celebratory gathering which ends in murder and mayhem. At the gathering, the head of the Essenbeck family and the overall controller of the steel company, Baron Joachim, clearly displays his dislike of the new order as does one of his vice chairman Herbert the husband of his niece. Joachim’s second son Konstantin has clearly decided to back Hitler through his membership of the SA.

Visconti’s The Damned is analysing Gramsci’s notions of hegemony applying them to an emerging historical conjuncture. A new elite will, if necessary, be created by force and will create a cultural and social order to match. In Italy the previous ruling elites, whether in Piedmont or in Sicily, backed the new constitutional monarchy and the liberal constitutional apparatus which was attached to this. By comparison Joachim’s failure to take a fuller political stand earlier is highlighted when Herbert notes that Joachim was only concerned about adapting the company to external circumstances not in seeking to change the circumstances themselves. Joachim went along this collaborative path by sending people - including his own son - and weapons into the front-line. In the first instance this attitude can be compared with the Prince of Salina in The Leopard who, at the expense of his immediate family, recognises the need to play the long game thus supporting Tancredi. Short term profit ruled over long term political insight for both the elder Krupp in reality and Joachim Essenbeck in the film.

The failure of Joachim can also be discerned by comparing his attitude to the rising Bourgeoisie exemplified by Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde). In the opening scenes Friedrich is in a car with the SS officer Aschenbach bemoaning the impossibility of being able to marry Sophie the widow of Joachim’s elder son because of Joachim’s unenlightened attitude typical of the Prussian elites trying to freeze the processes of history. In The Leopard the Prince of Salina encourages and supports Tancredi’s marriage with the rising commercial classes. By comparison Joachim is entirely opposed to a similar possibility. That Joachim is murdered by Friedrich could be seen as the outcome of not accepting social change in an ordered way. His refusal to let change happen disillusions and disarms the new commercial classes and also makes a potential power vacuum into which other social forces such as Nazism can emerge. Thus it can be seen that anthropomorphic cinema is working effectively through individual characters.

In Gramsci’s classic analysis of hegemony, state power is used in the last instance to maintain the state and the processes of hegemony allows for a political restructuring of the social orders in a controllable way. However, the Weimar state was disintegrating especially between 1931 and 1933. The breakdown of hegemony necessitated a new power struggle, Aschenbach and Konstantin represent the contenders in the process of re-hegemonising German society. The Joachims, Friedrichs and Sophies have no sense of historical processes in the way exemplified by the Prince of Salina.

Let us take another comparison between the role and function of the marriages in The Leopard and The Damned. In the former marriage symbolises the new vehicle in which the new Italian order will be crystallised. The fabulous ball scene at the end of The Leopard lasts approximately 40 minutes. Visconti shows us a situation in which the officers of the new army will marry into the daughters of the old order who are depicted as interbred and running about like monkeys. Less historical criticism has focused upon the surface sumptuousness of Visconti’s set at the expense of displaying a full understanding of Visconti’s attempt to represent as the culmination of his film the full process of re-hegemonisation.

By comparison, in The Damned, the marriage between Sophie and Friedrich has come far to late. There is no possibility of an easy re-formation of the old orders with the new. Both the older elite represented by Sophie and the rising elite, Friedrich, have in Bridge parlance been ‘endgamed’, it is the Nazis who control the play. It is an empty marriage going nowhere, and held in isolation not at the centre of society. The embittered son Martin has crossed into the camp of the emergent monster which has erupted through a rent in the thin democratic fabric of Weimar society. This was because of the failure of the old elites to combine with the rising mercantile classes. The Weimar collapsed because of the failure to form a consensus amongst the ruling elites.

This astute analysis of historical processes is a fundamental strength of Visconti’s anthropomorphic cinema. In reality the economic desires of the industrialists who have supported the Nazis are stymied by 1936 with the take over of the economy under the second four year plan headed by Goring. Their desire for the creation of a consumer based, highly profitable economy once the communists and unions are brought under control is diverted into the project of total war[i], and Germany’s ultimate damnation is its trial by fire leading to ‘Germany Year Zero’.


Historical background




Helmut Berger is taking control at the Essenbecks

Here Helmut Berger is asserting his newly discovered power within the Essenbeck family. From Visconti's The Damned







I have argued that the Essenbeck family around which the film is centred acts as a synecdoche for German society as a whole. The period covered by the film starts about three weeks after Hitler’s invitation to become Chancellor by Hindenburg at the behest of von Papen at the end of January 1933. Von Papen had hubristically and wrongly ‘guaranteed’ that Hitler and the Nazis were controllable. This way of looking at the film tends to invert the emphasis that the family is torn apart by the pressures of Nazism which often how critics have seen the film. The Essenbeck quarrels represent key conflicting currents and strands amongst the Weimar German elites.

The first section of The Damned shows events leading up to, during, and after an important family dinner taking place on the night of the Reichstag fire. The fire itself was interpreted by Visconti as a pretext - twice underlined by the film’s dialogue - for the Nazis to severely repress the Communists in particular in the remaining days coming up to the last ‘free’ election of the Weimar Republic’ in March. This is probably the case although there is no discovered direct evidence linking the Nazis to the fire according to Richard Evans (2003). The subsequent implosion of the Essenbeck family parallels the collapse of institutions in Germany as the Nazis pursued their policy of ‘Gleichshaltung’ or ‘co-ordination’, which was a reasonably pleasant sounding term for the total repression of potential political opposition within Germany. It also meant the taking over of the political institutions at local and regional level once total control at the centre had been achieved.

Cinematically there is a useful comparison to be made between the way in which family dinners are handled in The Leopard and in The Damned which features two dismal dinners. In The Leopard the dinner at the Prince’s residence in Donnafugata is a vehicle in which the possibilities for the processes of hegemony can take place. Tancredi first sees an adult Angelica (Claudia Cardinale ) and is smitten. Cinematically and socially the dinners in Visconti’s historical films function as a vehicle for integration and progressive change in The Leopard or disintegration and regression as in The Damned.

The Damned takes the viewer to the end of the period of Nazi ‘co-ordination’ finally finished by the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Famously this rally saw the making and release of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The rally was a follow up to the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ which took place at the end of June 1934. This action was centred around the political beheading of the Sturmabteilung or SA headed by Rohm who were agitating for a ‘Second Nazi Revolution’. After the full accession to power by Hitler in March 1933 and the take-over of the constitutional institutions by a carefully contrived fait accompli the SA were in the forefront of the fight against the Communists, Social Democrats and Trade Unionists who tried in the early days to offer some resistance to Hitler. They also played an integral role in the harassment of Jews, informally before April 1st 1933, and in an increasingly organised way afterwards, starting with a boycott of Jewish businesses on this date.

The Nuremberg rally which Riefenstahl filmed was not simply a propaganda stunt, it was a public declaration in the most powerful way possible backed by cinema to fully establish in the minds of the Nazi party itself that Hitler was the ‘Fuhrer’ and that the Germany was now united along its path to an historic future. The film which features the German Army as well as the SA and other Nazi organisations is the outcome of Hitler’s ideological cull. The presence of the German Army and its leader von Blomberg at the 1934 Nuremberg rally was symbolically immensely important for Hitler. The Nazis were reliant upon the army to achieve his long-term aims of ‘Lebensraum’ or colonial expansion mainly directed towards the east. By 1936 Hitler against the desires and advice of most capitalists and his economics minister and governor of the central bank Schacht was determined to pursue economic policies of rearmament. Overy argues that these policies were being carried out with the express intention of preparing Germany for a total war in which it could survive for up to 15 years.

It can now be seen that that Visconti has been very precise in the historical moment that he has chosen to represent. Nowell-Smith (2003) is surely right to note that the film operates on three levels of history, drama and myth. Nevertheless Nowell-Smith’s critical comments, like those of Bacon, do not exam the history closely enough. Instead they focus too closely upon the literary and the critical influences within the film at the expense of the historical process which is being represented. As a result they both tend to glide over an essential feature which Visconti certainly wished to represent. It is also important to note that the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis was itself an operatic trajectory in real life and it was intensely melodramatic. It is worth bearing in mind that Hitler was obsessed with Wagnerian opera. After defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 Hitler then eschews Wagner. For Visconti opera in such films as Senso could be represented as progressive liberal Italian nationalism albeit undermined by the ruling elites. Wagner by comparison was infused with a regressive Germanic 19th century romantic mysticism. Wagner was also intensely anti-Semitic. The Damned is thus open to a thorough reading of Visconti’s ideas on the role of opera in culture considering Verdi as progressive and Kultur through Wagner as regressive. However discussion of this is beyond the scope of this entry.


The Reichstag Fire

Visconti correctly picks the night of the Reichstag fire as an historical turning-point marking the beginning of the final collapse of Germany into its path of damnation - the outcomes of which are well documented by Rossellini’s ‘Germany Year Zero’ (1947). The first dialogue of Aschenbach ( the SS officer) and Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde) gives rise to a hint of something about to happen, in the entrance hall Aschenbach even more strongly signals that on this night in particular it will be important for Friedrich to act. It is clear that Aschenbach is in possession of some a priori knowledge. This is an invitation to murder Joachim the head of the family and the steel company. The prizes for Bogarde are Sophie and effective control of the company. The time for personal morality is dead states Aschenbach. The question at this stage is will Bogarde accept this Faustian pact?

The Reichstag Fire is announced by Konstantin the coarse and vulgar SA member of the family who also announces that the ‘culprit’ a communist has already been captured. The culprit in reality was captured on the site of the Reichstag trying to set alight yet more curtains. Van den Lubbe was not however a communist. He was an unemployed fairly deranged anarchist with bad visual impairment who had several years ago been flung out of the Dutch communist party for promoting arson and other acts of sabotage. As yet there is no precise historical evidence to definitively link the fire to a piece of agent provocatuerism on the part of the Nazis. However, we are asked to believe that this character in his physical state was easily able to break into the Reichstag without discovery only a few days after being released from a police force which was already thoroughly infiltrated by active Nazis as well as being controlled by the Nazis at the top. In reality the Nazis immediately arrested hundreds of Communists in Berlin and this carried on in the following days and weeks leading up to the election. It effectively ensured that the Communists couldn’t make an effective election campaign. By not banning the Communists outright Hitler ensured that their votes were unlikely to go to the Social Democrats. This fire effectively sealed the fate of Germany which Visconti was clearly well aware of.


Night of the Long Knives


The melodramatic themes of the film are carefully interwoven with a clever analysis of real events. The tour de force is the representation of the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, when the SS (Black-shirts) massacred the leadership of Eric Rohm’s SA (The Brownshirts). This was a crucial moment in the rise to power of the Nazis. The Brownshirts represented the mobster populist element upon which the Nazi party was based, this populist element represented the so-called ‘socialist’ element of the ‘NSDP’. It was an element that was unsympathetic towards large capitalist organisations seeing them as exploitative of the ‘little man’ and the petit-bourgeoisie. If Hitler was to take the final step to power then he was going to have to purge his party of these elements and reconfigure the basic ethos of his party. The leader of the SA Eric Rohm had a strong personal power base and had been a colleague of Hitler’s since the beginnings of the Nazi party and had been a member of the paramilitary Freikorps before that. The ‘Night of the Long Knives’ also saw the murder of other leading figures such as von Schleicher who had been the Conservative Chancellor before Hitler was manipulated into power by von Papen. It is important to note that the German army colluded in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Reichenau made the agreement with Himmler to keep the army confined to barracks during the 1934 Rohm Purge. After the event Reichenau even issued a statement justifying the murder of General von Schleicher. It was effectively the last major act in the reformation of the ruling elites but a formation that was now on the road to an even worse fate than befell Germany in the First World War. That was also a war which the Prussian military elites had encouraged.


The final step to power for the Nazi party was based upon a compromise between, on one side, Hitler and his closest allies in the Nazi party underpinned by the rise of the SS as an elite corps answerable only to Hitler. This dishonourable political marriage to gain power was made with the most powerful of the German industrialists many of whom were members of, or sympathetic to, the Nationalist party, which was small but highly influential amongst the upper classes of Germany. A prominent leader of this party was Hugenberg who not only took over UfA after its near bankruptcy but also became the Minister of Finance when the Nazis first won a majority in the Reichstag. Whilst the plot of Visconti’s film initially appears complex, the family of ‘misfits, powers seekers, and perverts’ as Bondanella describes the Essenbeck family which is loosely based upon the Krupps family can be read as a trope for the confused state of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Bondanella would probably not subscribe to a reading of this nature for he asserts that Visconti did not intend the film to be taken as a serious sociological or psychological reading of German culture in Weimar Germany.


Bondanella’s position also runs counter to Nowell-Smith’s final comments in his reading when he argues that ‘Visconti’s focus of interest has shifted from history as such, in the sense of a given set of events of which people are the agents, to culture in the sense of the objects which people have produced in history, to represent or to form part of the world they experience.’ (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 156).



Has Visconti's prior concern with history changed?


More on the issue of culture below, but firstly let us take the assertion that Visconti’s focus upon history as such has shifted. That the film is loosely based upon the Krupp family is important. It is well known that the head of Krupp wasn’t keen on the Nazis coming to power and it is certainly true that that the Krupp family had to make compromises to fit in with the demands of the Nazi regime. However it is important to note that the whole of the capitalist class was forced to do this as well. Visconti’s film is not a history of Nazi Germany it is a representation of the socio-political forces at work in the country in a very tight time-frame. If the Essenbecks are seen as representative not just of the Krupp family but as industrial capital within Germany in general then the perfidy, confusion betrayal and counter-betrayal makes more sense. It is important to note for example the example of Thyssen below and compare that with a brief outline of the Krupp family. In the film Martin can be seen as being close to the character of Alfred Krupp (see box below). The role of Herbert is more difficult to assess. Perhaps he should be seen as a portmanteau character who represents those in the ruling elites who recognise the fate which awaits Germany and leave. That Herbert reappears briefly because his family has been held hostage is also significant. Recent work on the Nazi Terror shows how the Gestapo went to great efforts to track down communists who left the country in the early 1930s, even those who were not especially important. These people were often used as sources of intelligence because their families were threatened with torture and the camps[i] . In reality the ruthlessness of the Nazis against former supporters is shown when the leading industrialist Thyssen and Schacht, the architect of early Nazi economic success both end up in concentration camps


One important concern is how to represent a period in which the KPD on Stalin’s orders had declared the German Social Democrat Party (SPD) ‘Social Fascists’. As much as anything this contributed to the rise to power of the Nazis when they achieved electoral success in 1933. At the time the film was made in Italy the communist party was still strongly allied to Moscow, it was only later in the 1970s that the cracks wrought by ‘Eurocommunism’ began to show. A critique of this nature would not have served Visconti well thus the working class as a class force in a Marxist sense disappear from view. Instead this is replaced by the bitter incestuous infighting in the grab for power by the elites.


By taking this artistic route Visconti was able to focus his critique upon the false hopes of redemption promoted by populism. Populism fails structurally to be a historical force able to liberate the socially excluded. The populists in the SA, like the working class nationalists in The Leopard meet their comeuppance. In The Leopard the bourgeoisie can still be seen a social force moving society forwards - in Marxist terms achieving their historical role. By comparison, at a time when modernity has become strongly installed in Europe and when the Weimar Republic represented one of the most advanced constitutions in the world the liberal bourgeoisie are forced out by a failure to connect socially or politically with the masses. Liberalism is subject to betrayal by unenlightened members of their own class who have tied their fortunes to Nazism as a mythological force doomed to failure. It is here that Visconti’s mise-en-scene described so well by Bondanella acts to signify this historically doomed trail up a one way street. The colour red comes to symbolise a hyperbolic and horrifying vision of a family embodying a corrupt culture that wilfully pulls the world down around its Ears’. (Bondanella, 2001, p 206).

The Role of Culture

Within Visconti’s notions of anthropomorphic cinema it is useful to discuss the role of culture and to consider culture in relation to civilisation. The stock question which always seems to be asked is ‘How can such a “cultured” nation have descended to the depths of such depravity?’ It enjoyed its cultural heritage this even down to enjoying to the greatest icons of European classical music such as the romantic lieder of Schubert and Beethoven symphonies after a busy day offloading Jewish deportees in the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Kultur for Germany has been associated with the ‘spirit of the nation’ unlike France and to some extent Italy which focused on ‘civilisation’ seen through German eyes as superficial and manneristic ‘feminised’ in the view of some. Bacon describes The Damned as a description of the ’utter negation of German culture’. The greatest success of Aschenbach was the winning over of Gunther (the cello playing son of Konstantin) to the evil of Nazism. Gunther can be seen as a synecdoche for the institutional liberal cultural establishment within Germany which makes its accommodation to Nazism. The likes of von Karajan for example spring to mind. Richard Evans 2003 gives a useful review of the cultural turn in post-Weimar Germany discussing some of these concerns. Bacon turns to George Steiner to try and provide some insight into this seeming cultural paradox. Steiner in a footnote comes up with an explanation which argues ‘If your brain, your nervous system, your imagination, your sensibility, your professional skills are completely and deeply invested in the great arts of the imagination and in abstract thought, speculation, instead of becoming more human, you may, unless you are terribly careful become less human...’ (Steiner cited Bacon 1998 p 240). For Steiner the paradox which arises it that there may be a desire for barbarism and also an indifference to barbarism. This, for Steiner, explains the capability of those in charge of the camps being able to play the cultural classics very, very well.

The other aspect of culture / entertainment which is represented is the cabaret. It is seen by all the observers as a culture of decadence which leads into perversion. As cabaret was strongly implicated with Jewish Bohemianism and Bohemian culture was seen in Nazi eyes as the degradation of the country associated with being non-German it was obviously rejected. The interruption of Martin’s performance and the subsequent walking out can be read as the filmic equivalent of marking the end of this culture. The grand walk out by the family could well be read as a marker of cultural pessimism of the kind espoused the likes of Spengler in his ‘Decline of the West’.

Martin is obviously incensed at this development, for it has been his rather feeble raison d’etre as someone entirely decadent. The film sees Martin changing from a lover of Bohemian decadence as a guilty cultural transgression into being able to take his place as a ‘richtige’ man. His paedophilia itself is a repressed desire for power at the start of the film, he isn’t a ‘real man’ he can only sing way about this in a self parodying way, dressed in a woman’s nightclub outfit at the start. By the end of the film he has reversed the tables over his viperous mother exercising his sexual power over her. Having driven her into a state of semi-madness he officiates over the marriage and death of Sophie and Friedrich. The bait of power left by Sophie has shifted from little girls to the capability of exercising any act without any sense of culpability whatsoever for Martin always displayed the amoralism desired by Aschenbach. Aschenbach has found his ‘willing executioner’ who can act with pleasure. This is unlike the purely selfish motives with which ‘the Macbeths' (Sophie and Friedrich ) conduct their heinous crimes. Martin will clearly revel in orchestrating millions of deaths. If Aschenbach is imagined as the ‘banality of evil’ as as Hannah Arendt has mistakenly described the organiser of the Holocaust [i] then the pure nastiness of Martin seems rather closer to that of the Nazi executioner Heydrich. Martin had something to keep hidden but is represented at the end of the film as the face of evil.



Conclusion

Visconti has chosen to represent this important historical period in a very clever dramatised way. The film is neither a historicisation of psychology nor is it, as Micciche argues, a psychologisation of history. That Martin, for example, is an example of the worm that turns is a comment upon how Nazism learned to appeal to the weak through an ‘armoured strength’ propping up masculinity in crisis provided by the unremitting structures of Nazi power [i] . This psychoanalytical approach begins to make sense of the tendency of directors such as Rossellini to over exaggerate the evils of Nazism by de-masculinising them. Roma Citta Aperta and Germany Year Zero feature Nazis as gay, lesbian and paedophilic. These outcasts could become a part of that discourse of power safe in its solidarity. There was no morality except that of service to a greater notion of the Nazi ideal provided by the almost godlike figure of the Fuhrer. Visconti has shown how ruthless the Nazi party was in pursuing its ends. It played upon class weakness, personal weakness and manufactured situations in which it could take advantage at both these levels of weakness.

Visconti of course used technical artifice such as the use of colour and mise en scene to make the film partly a melodrama. But at its heart it never seemed to veer from the position of anthropomorphic cinema. None of the characters were exact representations of real characters of the moment, they were portmanteau characters crystallising certain currents and tendencies in a way which managed to universalise from the specific precisely because the film was removed from the constraints of being documentary realism into an operatic / melodramatic register. Thus, it is possible to agree with Bacon that by interweaving these strands the film shows that the historical forces which led to the rise of Nazism can rise again, a fact witnessed by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Rwanda and during the break-up of Yugoslavia.

When it comes to a question of culture this film is especially interesting for Visconti is exploring the nature of the relationship of culture to politics. High art and culture when it is taken out of its context is no guarantor of civilisation. The Gods (Hitler) are kept in the twilight but are seen as directly responsible for the downfall of society, the Wagnerian dreams far from the trends of modernising society are trashed for they can only be regressive. Visconti doesn’t offer the viewer any pleasant futures for we already know the future of Germany. Instead the film functions as a route towards an explanation provided by history for the possibilities of a dystopian future not only for Germany.

This analysis by taking two of Visconti’s most developed historical films seeks to explore whether there is a clear structural link between Visconti’s explorations of history through culture and culture through history. I have argued that there are strong grounds for rethinking Visconti’s oeuvre as part of a more coherent framework than is currently recognised. By re-categorising his work away from the Risorgimento / German binary which has been critically established this analysis can be pursued further by revisiting his other ‘German’ films Death in Venice and Ludwig. Visconti is trying to explore through the cultural framework how European society managed to implode triggered by start of the First World War leading to a European Thirty Years war. At an international level this war functioned as the completion of a process in which empires as they were previously known largely disappeared in the following few years. They were now clearly redundant and a new dynamic force in the shape of the USA had replaced the old orders. Arguably the USA is the absent other which came to thrive out of the chaos and decadence of a Europe which had gone past its ‘sell by date’. Visconti chose to examine this process using the works of Thomas Mann and the drama of Chekhov through a Lukacsian based filter. Here, the best realist work can be seen to be representative of the processes underlying socio-economic change in society through their characterisations in ways unrecognised even by the authors. But Visconti’s theoretical concerns also lead to a blending of Gramscian Marxism with Luckasian Marxism in ways which will be fruitful to explore further for Lukacs of course made his own famous contribution to thinking about history in History and Class Consciousness however that is a task beyond the limits of this article.

Visconti’s The Leopard and The Damned are probably the two best films ever made about history from a Marxist perspective. More work remains to be done in revising the rest of his later works from this perspective. This article parts company with Nowell-Smith by reading Visconti as being thoroughly imbricated with history. The article also parts company with Bacon by insisting that rather than being a liberal democrat in his later years Visconti‘s primary concern is to be exploring the processes of history at a very deep level. Visconti should be taken at face value when he argued that he was interested in analysing a sick society. That he chose to do so using some of the great works of European fiction within a realist mode should not detract from his project. The analysis here provides evidence that Visconti was working on a great project pursued steadily through his work. This project was driven by combining Gramscian and Lukacsian insights developing his own contribution to critical analysis and artistic representation which was the concept of anthropomorphic cinema.


Extras

Below are some links to separate positings about important historical people in Nazi Germany who Visconti has explicity or implicitly represented in The Damned: 

Heydrich, Reinhard (1904 - 1942). 

Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, Alfred (1907-1967)

Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, Gustav (1870-1950). 

Lubbe, Marianus van den (1909-1934)

Reichenau, Walter von (1884-1942)

Thyssen Fritz (1873-1951)



Bibliography

Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bondanella, Peter. 3rd edition. 2002. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York and London: Continuum

Cesarani, David. Eichman : His Life and Crimes. Heinemann 2004.

Clark, Martin. 1984. Modern Italy 1871-1982. London: Longman

Evans, Richard J. 2003. The Coming of the Third Reich. London: Penguin /

Allen Lane

Fischer, Klaus P. 1995. Nazi Germany a New History. London: Constable

Johnson, Eric. 2002. The Nazi Terror: Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans. London: John Murray

Mommsen, Hans. 2003. Alternatives to Hitler. London: I. B. Tauris

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 3rd edition. Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute

Overy, R. D. 1995. War and Economy in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Taylor, Richard. 1998. Film Propaganda Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. London: I. B. Tauris

Wheal, Donald James and Shaw Warren. 1997. The Penguin Dictionary of the Third Reich. London Penguin


Filmography

Germany Year Zero (1947) Rossellini

The Damned (1969) Visconti

The Leopard (1962) Visconti

Triumph of the Will (1934) Riefenstahl









[i] Bondanella 2001, p203.

[ii] For a review of this see Richard Evans 2002.

[i]See Richard Overy 1995 for a full analysis of the generation of a total war economy.

[i] The work of Johnson 2002 on this aspect of Nazi terror is groundbreaking in its research.
[i] For a recent assessment of Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust see David Cessarani’s 2004 biography Eichmann. Eichmann was an ambitious member of the bourgeoisie being typical of many who opportunistically joined the Nazis after their electoral breakthroughs in 1930 and 1931. As a cousin of the Essenbeck family distanced from the family fortune Aschenbach is surely closer to the Eichmann ‘type’.
[i] The work of Klaus Theweleit Male Fantasies using a psychoanalytically perspective has been influential in developing a range of arguments looking at the crisis of masculinity amongst the Freikorps the predecessors of the SA.


A Webliography

Please note these sites were not used in the writing of this article they are being provided for visitor information only.

THE DAMNED (LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI) BBC 4 Page

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF COUNT LUCHINO VISCONTI . A BBC 4 Arena program it is the best available documentary in English on Visconti. I believe it is available as an extra on one of the BFI Visconti films.

Visconti's Cinema of Twilight by Maximilian Le Cain on the Senses of Cinema site. This is a runmination on Visconti's ouvre in general but has a couple of intersting comments on the Damned. immediately below he comments on the cinematic technique of the constructio of a disorienting cinematic space to emphasise change in the social order. Thiws seems a pertinent reading. 

The disorientating violence of the zooms in The Damned literally pulls the space out from around the characters, enveloping them in a panicky state of alienation from their surroundings which are changing too fast. This constant spatial disintegration reflects the insecurity of the often ruthless characters' scrabble for power in the crucible of a new and very dangerous society. (Maximilian Le Cain).

I am less convinced by another of  Le Cain's comments below. The article above argues that the later films wern't just personal projects and that a deep level of politics THROUGH historical analysis was embedded in all his films. Whilst one might choose to make a reading of The Damned as a comment upon the developing political instabilities of Italy at the time it needs to be argued not asserted as it is in this article: 

the committed communist Visconti was adamant that all his previous films were in some way political. The Damned, although set during Hitler's rise to power, represented a despairing comment on the events of 1968 after which the director gave up political filmmaking to concentrate on purely personal projects. (Maximilian Le Cain)

The sort of comments represented by this review in DVD Times are precisely the ones which this article argues against. Lured by surface and Nazis for Dummies kind of history it can sound convincing until the detail is worked through. It does represent those who feel that soemhow Nazism and the Holocaust have to be treated with a reverential attitude which is entirely linked to naturalism. This ironic given Hitler's propensity to melodrama.


The New York Times review By VINCENT CANBY Published: December 19, 1969. This is lovely review which is refreshing and open to  the experience of the time.  Gaining information about the reception of films in their contemporary settings usually enriches our understandings. 




The Cast

Helmut Berger

Dirk Bogarde 

Chqarlotte Rampling 

Ingrid Thulin another link is available through the Bergmanorama website.






May 28, 2007

The Leopard in Historical Context, (1963): Luchino Visconti

The Historical Context of The Leopard, (1963):director Luchino Visconti


Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned


The Leopard Poster 1963

Preface

Visconti needs to be recognised as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century. Visconti's aesthetic approach is fascinating and other themes such as homosexuality are very important to his oeuvre but it is the way in which Visconti develops these themes within an overarching intellectual framework which I think will ultimately lead to a wider recognition of his greatness. Some of Visconti's greatness stems from his treatment of history itself. Something which Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has commented upon:  

It is in the quality of his meditation on history that Visconti distinguishes himself from all other film-makers, past or present. There have been great film-makers who have occasionally delved into the past for one reason or another... But none of these, not even Eisenstein, applies to his re-creation of the past a serious and thought through theory of history... Perhaps it is because we  no longer expect movie-makers to be profound thinkers that Visconti's greatness is no longer appreciated as it should be. (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 216)

Sometimes it is only in retrospect that true greatness can be appreciated. Even Nowell-Smith one of the most important commentators writing in English on Visconti admits that his original criticism of Death in Venice missed many things of importance. If only all critics could be so honest about their errors accordingly. 



Introduction: The representation of history 

This posting functions only as a brief synopsis and introduction to Visconti’s film The Leopard (1963). a full synopsis will be provided in a different posting. This posting is primarily concerened with establishing the background  history to the film and providing an analysis based upon this. This piece was part of a presentation which argues that The Leopard can be bracketed with The Damned (1979). Taken as a pair of films I argue that amongst other things Visconti is seeking to examine the limited modernising role of Liberalism through its use of nationalism and the contradictory nature of this Liberalism which always has the potential to revert into a non-modernising political formation through nationalism. The Damned and its representation of Nazism epitomises this potential.

Nationalism for Visconti on this reading is therefore within a doomed or even negative dialectic in which the progressive impetus originally embedded within Nationalism as a political force which could overthrow the Ancien Regime will become compromised by that regime and ultimately become a reactionary force within society.

My presentation argued that the two films can usefully be compared as representing the flawed  highpoint of 19th century Liberal / National revolutions The Risorgimento through The Leopard whilst The Damned shows the ultimate dangers of nationalism through the barbarism of Nazism. Thus Visconti has framed an important period of European history in a bracket of attitudes to nationalism. Many of his future films sought to combine a cultural and political historical approach to this period eschewing historical approaches which tend to separate the two strands of history. For Visconti it appears as though they are strongly intertwined. 


Frequently the reviews of these films largely miss the exploration of the mechanisms of history which Visconti was keen to represent and at times are considered firstly as 'heritage' films as in the case of  The Leopard. Heritage films are reliant upon costume drama for their mise en scene set in an historical period different to our own but make little or no claims upon historical authenticity neither do they examine the mechanisms of history.

By comparison The Damned has been understood as a slightly aberrant and 'melodramatic' exploration into the sexual depravities surrounding Nazism in The Damned. This  does the film an injustice by dehistoricising it. 




The Battle of Palermo


Garibaldi's Redshirts at the battle for Palermo

Visconti is renowned for his attention to detail. These shirts were soaked in tea and left in the sun in order to replicate the fading of the originals which would have happened during the course of the campaign.




Historical Background to The  Leopard

Visconti made two historical films about the period of the Risorgimento (This translates as Resurgence / Rebirth) which is the process of the unification of Italy during the 19th century. The first stirrings of nationalism can be discerned as early as the late 18th century during the period when Napoleon Bonaparte governed Italy. The overthrow of Napoleon led to Italy being carved up at the Congress of Vienna (1815) when the great powers allotted the regions of Venetia and Lombardy to direct control of Austria to ensure that France didn’t have an easy invasion route into Italy again.

Before Napoleon Italy had never been a unified state. It was comprised of eight separate regions with their own Princes (The Pope controlling the Papal States) and each area with a distinctive dialect, rather than a regional accent, which many can still speak today. As a language Italian was underdeveloped and certainly didn’t exist as a form of ‘Received’ language and pronunciation.

After the Congress of Vienna a number of secret societies formed called the Carbonari (Charcoal Burners). They weren’t especially well educated, neither was there a clear manifesto, and the elements comprising this movement were fairly heterogeneous. They were loosely linked by a desire to unify Italy and get rid of foreign powers although whether the Italy of their dreams should be a widely enfranchised democracy or just a liberal bourgeois regime united behind a constitutional monarch was an underlying polarisation which was to continue throughout the whole of the unification process. The unification process was drawn out not being completed until 1870.

Historical Perspectives

There are a range of historical perspectives on the Risorgimento which were strongly political. Visconti was well aware of these and was making his films in such a way as to challenge right wing nationalist views on the period.

The key historiographical positions which have developed are usefully outlined by Martin Clark 1984 who also stresses that historical writing in Italy is very clearly ‘committed’ ‘to cheer on their own team’. Much historical writing is then hagiographic, or denunciatory, or ‘Whig’.

The Liberals

They have tended to be dominant within academia. Their major influence has been taken from Benedetto Croce with an ‘ethico-political’ approach. Croce stressed men and ideas and spent little time on either social structures or economic issues. In the 1950s historians like Rosario Romeo opened up the economic history arena challenging the Marxist historians of the time. Liberals like others, suggests Clark, have moved towards an overemphasis upon documents and ‘facts’ rather than interpretation and synthesis.

The Radicals

Another leading school was mentored by Salvemini and Gobbetti. Denis Mack Smith a British historian is their best known exponent. They are anti-Facist, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and to some extent anti-Liberal. This is because they criticise weakness of liberal governments, lack of popular support and a a ready acceptance of Southern corruption. Radicals are ‘delightfully pessimistic’ (whatever that is meant to mean) don’t write ‘total history’ but do reach a huge audience.

Mainstream Marxists

Clark argues that this school has been perhaps the most influential since 1945. Grouped around the journal Studi Storici . The main influence upon this group has been Gramsci whose work was published in Italy in 1945 after the end of the war. Gramsci’s main influence has been on the examination of the development of hegemony and consensus as a governing practice oiling the wheels of social change. Furthermore, the role of the intellectual as a disseminator of ideas of social change was emphasised. Gramsci also focused on the political importance of the peasantry as well.

Clark suggests that this school of Marxist thought had its limitations for they were ‘strangely uninterested in class divisions’. For them working class history usually meant a history of working class leaders. ‘Abstract entities , like proletariats and petty bourgeois, filled their pages; real workers and peasants rarely appeared, much less details of factory work, labouring skills or farming implements’. One can compare this attitude to that of British historians influenced by Marxism such as Hobsbawm and E. P Thompson).

Visconti’s Risorgimento Films: Senso (1954) / The Leopard (1963)

Visconti produced two films about the Risorgimento. At the time he made these the main historiographical perspectives were as outlined above. As a Marxist he was by now strongly influenced by Gramsci but also some of the work of the Radicals such as Gobbetti. His film Senso was strongly attacked by the army and there was a huge battle with censorship as well as with the producers. Even the final product went down as a political storm for it was very critical about the dominant way in which the Risorgimento was being represented.

Between 1949 & 1954 there were twelve films with the Risorgimento as their central theme made. Only Senso made a critique of the dominant position which was that Italian Unification had been brought by a spirit of self sacrifice. That passions were high on this subject as well as an underlying need to represent a united Italy following the take-over by Christian Democrats in 1948 is evidenced by the critical reception by one Italian historian of Dennis Mack’s (Radical) Italy a Modern History (1959) a few years later. ‘ The Risorgimento was not due to fortunate circumstances or to selfish interests ... It was a spirit of sacrifice, it was suffering in the way of exile and in the galleys, it was the blood of Italian youth on the battlefields ... It was the passion of a people for its Italian identity’. (quote taken from an ‘A’ level textbook and naughtily not sourced).

Senso

Senso was about the victory of the Austrians over the Italian army near Custoza (June 1866). Due to general mismanagement and incompetence based upon a story by Boito which recounts the infidelities of a Countess both to her husband and to the nationalist cause by falling for an Austrian officer. Visconti’s adaptation was very different but incomplete because of censorship. The historical reality was that France had made different secret deals with both Prussia and Austria by then at war with each other. In both cases Napoleon III promised to remain neutral provided that the winners passed Venetia firstly to him and with the understanding that it would then be passed to the Italian kingdom which had come about in 1861. In reality the Prussian victory at Sadowa meant that Venetia was passed to France and thence to Italy without the Italians being able to win it, much to the chagrin of the Italians.

This story wasn’t what was required at the time the film was made. It would have had contemporary resonances of the Allies being the primary liberators of Italy and undermine the myths of resistance and national solidarity which were being strongly promoted. As the Communists had been cut out of government by then there were clearly strong underlying political stakes. Senso is probably best seen as a cultural political intervention within the politics of the moment.

The Leopard

The Leopard is a less melodramatic film in the English sense of the term but it is deeply suffused with a sense of history at the meta level. Visconti manages to combine a range of intellectual influences into this film which perhaps will come in due course to gain the full recognition it deserves. It is informed by Marx and Gramsci at the level of history as well as by Lukacs whose sense of realism revolves around the character type. For Lukacs this means a character who is someone entirely of their class but who embodies the contradictions of history most fully.

Without once representing the working and peasant classes as a fundamental force of progress The Leopard combines a deep level of class analysis with an understand of the contradictory forces of history. The Prince understands along with Don Calogero, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) and of course Tancredi (Alain Delon) that Italy is at a turning point. Tancredi’s youth, dandyism and vigour as well as being a nephew from a more impoverished branch of the aristocracy thus slightly outside of the establishment have led him to understand that the invasion of Garibaldi’s 1,000 in Sicily gives him an opportunity to break away from the static society of Sicily where his only hope for the future would be marriage to the shy Concetta his cousin and daughter of the Prince. This would perpetuate the physical and cultural inbreeding of the Sicilian gentry which, Visconti implies, is gradually sapping the elite of its vigour.

Tancredi quickly persuades his uncle the Prince of Salina that everything must change on the surface so that fundamental social relations don’t change. There is no loyalty to the new young King of Naples who has failed to respond positively to the winds of change emanating from Piedmont and who is effectively allied with Austria. Tancredi is attracted to the romanticism and panache of the adventurist Garibaldian ‘Redshirts’. The Prince even gives him some money to help him on his way. The Prince has quickly realised that the fundamental social order will not be changed in a revolutionary manner but that a reordering of sorts is necessary in order for his class to survive.

The Prince has an important discussion with the priest in his study surrounded by telescopes. These function as a metaphor for farsightedness, they are redolent of Galileo and his relationship to the Church, and they establish the Prince as a man of Enlightenment, an intellectual. This is contrasted with the house of another of the Sicilian aristocracy where the ball scene is held at the end of the film. 




Arrival at Donnafugata

Here the Prince and his family are greeted on their arrival by the inhabitants of his summer retreat in Donnafugata.







The film shifts to the fighting in Palermo where the Redshirts win. The film moves to the Prince’s summer residence in Donnafugata away from the hotter Palermo area. They have already gained a travel permit from the Garibaldians. Many of the Garibaldian officers are from a similar class background to Tancredi. Tancredi’s position as a captain in the Garibaldian army allows them to get through a roadblock whilst the peasants are noticeably not allowed to pass. This is a clear indicator of the social limits of the revolution against the Bourbons.

In Donnafugata the processes by which a new social elite is recomposed from a mixture of old and new elements is represented. Don Calogero is the mayor and a scheming businessman who like a Hyena preys upon the needs of a distressed aristocracy, buying up some of their lands when they are desperate for some cash to support their old ways of living. Throughout the film Don Calogero is portrayed as a man who is Dickensian in many ways knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Don Calogero has a beautiful daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) who he introduces into polite society when invited with other petit bourgeois locals to dinner with the Prince. Sexually and erotically Tancredi is swept of his feet much to the disgust of Concetta who wants Tancredi. The prince goes into the background of Angelica’s family and quickly realises that Angelica would be a suitable match for Tancredi and vows to help him.



Angelica and Tancredi together in the old part of the palace


Here Tancredi has been courting Angelica in an old part of the Prince's palace. Angelica is playing hard to get. As a potential member of the rising bouregois class allied to the aristocracy she knows her virginity is a key  part of her road to success. She is clearly not interested in  having an illegitimate child with a member of the local aristocracy. Here mise en scene, in which actor performance is an essential part, has been raised by Visconti's direction to a level in which the history of class and sexuality in terms of power and history is literally embodied in a single scene. 




To do this he has to overcome the protestations of both his wife and don Ciccio the Church organist who is an honest and faithful loyalist to the now deposed Bourbon dynasty. It is he who makes it clear to the Prince that the plebiscite in October 1860 was rigged by Don Calogero. The Prince is determined to make it as easy as possible for Tancredi and overrides these protestations. It is the Prince who has the foresight to be able to act in the interests of his class.

It is important to make a voluntary match of a dynamic couple bringing in new blood as well as money for his fortune must already be split seven ways. A match with Concetta would not be a happy one. The Prince also recognises that a match with another of Sicily’s inbred aristocrats would not be happy or financially fruitful. The other aristocratic families would not think of Tancredi as a ‘good catch’ as he has little inheritance as it was squandered by his father.

Throughout Visconti makes it plain that ‘being in love’ is more of a social mechanism than a permanent state of being. Throughout the film Concetta cannot get over Tancredi although he has never signalled any direct intentions towards her. She turns down other opportunities, and towards the end Angelica tells her that she needs to be more pragmatic and change her views. Concetta is stuck in a demure Catholicised torpor and shows none of the flirtatious dynamism required of Angelica if she is to make the grade in the new society. Concetta represents the fading world of the aristocracy of the past whilst Tancredi backed by the Prince recognises the mechanisms of social change and the need to adapt to survive.

Although many make a point of the Prince’s tiredness and awareness of death it is as a synecdoche of a fading class. The other family members are also highlighted like this at the ball for when the Prince is rejuvenated by his dance with Angelica; Concetta, her brother and mother look on totally enervated. They don’t appear to have the vibrancy to take a full place in the developing new Italy. By comparison just as the Prince is leaving the ball Tancredi tells him that he is going to be a candidate for the new government in Turin.

A role in government of the new order is something that the Prince recognises he cannot become involved in even when he is offered a place in the senate by Chevalley who is a representative of the Liberal regime under King Victor Emmanuel II. The Prince isn’t temperamentally trained or suited to making legislation and he also recognises that he is a part of the old order and someone who is sympathetic to it. Chevalley is disappointed and astounded, he is a Liberal idealist and he doesn’t at all like the suggestion of Segaro (Don Calogero) who he knows to be totally opportunistic and unscrupulous taking a political position. Nothing will change he argues. When Chevalley leaves the Prince famously comes out with the statement that the Lions and Leopards (the Aristocrats) will be replaced by Hyenas and Jackals. This is a reference to don Calogero’s abilities to gradually pick off the weaker aristocracy by gaining their land and then a weaker aristocrat (Tancredi) by marrying into the status (symbolic capital of the aristocracy). It was something that Visconti was familiar with from his own background.

Visconti’s representation of the Risorgimento

The film continuously critiques the myth of the Risorgimento as a homogenous struggle of the popular masses. It was a myth which the Italian centre and rightwing had long promoted and their resistance had led to Senso running foul of the censors. In The Leopard Tancredi and his officer friends who were Garibaldians have by the winter following their victory in Palermo changed their uniforms from Garibaldi’s Redshirts to being officers in the new Piedmontese army. They reappear at Donnafugata after November 1860 when Garibaldi would have entered Naples in triumph accompanying King Victor Emmanuel.

It was at this time that Garibaldi was offered the rank of Major General along with various privileges. These he turned down as he thought that his Redshirts were being badly treated by the Victor Emmanuel. Tancredi now represents the ruling elites who had been incorporated into the official forces. Some critics such as Bacon, have seen Tancredi as opportunistic ‘whereas Tancredi’s portrayal is nothing if not critical , that of the prince is quite the opposite...’ (p 94).

However Tancredi made clear at the outset that his allegiance was to Victor Emmanuel and that he was only a Garibaldian volunteer because there was no other option. The Prince has always understood the contradictions. In historical reality those who marched with Garibaldi were never an homogenous political grouping representing only a loose political alliance. Many Mazzinian republicans fought with Garibaldi working to a more radical agenda than Garibaldi would have supported.

It was another factor which caused the mistrust of Garibaldi amongst the elites as well as his adventurist approach in general. I argue that Tancredi is entirely true to his class position. By recognising that his material position isn’t good he is acting in both his own as well as his class interests this is why the Prince of Salina is supporting him. Concetta is entirely unable to understand the social and class dynamics of events. When Tancredi says that the rabble who deserted to support Garibaldi were justly to be executed Concetta rightly turns on him and says he wouldn’t have talked like that earlier, but no officer of any military force is going to look favourably upon mutiny.

The Prince’s class needs people on the inside and the fact that Angelica recognises the role of the Prince while they are dancing reinforces the point.

Garibaldi’s adventurism is commented upon in the Ball sequence for there the regular officers of the new Army of the now King of Italy, (Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy in 1861), are talking about the Battle of Aspromante which happened in 1862.

The battle was between regular government troops and Garibaldi who had started a march on Rome from Sicily which was still a Papal State outside of Italy. The Garibaldi’s attack was entirely without government approval for they didn’t want France to become involved. Garibaldi was wounded and the few remaining troops were scattered. The officers in the ball sequence discuss the forthcoming execution of several soldiers who had deserted the regular army to join Garibaldi. In the closing shots we hear the volley and don Calogero says that there is a good army in control, the stage is clear for the steady rise of the new class.

This could lead to a false sentimentality for Garibaldi amongst audiences. Garibaldi himself was no radical politically. Despite appealing to the Sicilian peasantry by supporting land reform in the few weeks that he was in direct control of Sicily he put down several peasant uprisings when land reforms didn’t happen. He was very clear that he didn’t want social revolution just national unification. Here Bacon (p 82) for example is mistaken in his historical account where he argues that it was the minister Cavour who turned Garibaldi’s ‘republican victories into royalist conquests’. Furthermore Bacon conflates two separate moments with a considerable gap between them into one. He links Tancredi’s appearance in a new Royal uniform in Donnafugata (1860 winter) with the battle of Aspromante which was nearly two years later.

Where the film functions well is in showing how the state was prepared to act very firmly in the interests of Liberalism which had clear strategic aims and an agenda. Adventurists like Garibaldi tied to an idealist concept of Nationalism were not the people who were going to develop and embed the new political order. A period of stability was required to consolidate and Garibaldi was stopped.




Lancaster as Don Fabrizio Prince of Salina and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica the daughter of the rising bourgeois Don Calogero.

Here the Prince (Burt Lancaster) dances with Claudia Cardinale (Angelica) at the ball which takes approximately 40 minutes of the end of the film. It functions amongst other things as a public recognition of angelica as an arrivant. The scene cuts to the rest of the family watching the couple dance, with Concetta and her mother looking faded and draw. Again it is Visconti's use of mise en scene which encapsulates class relations and the underlying dynamics in an instant. This is part of the genius of Visconti.





Conclusion

Overall The Leopard makes it clear that nationalism as ‘the passion of a people for its Italian identity’ was never a reality. The Sicilian peasants needed deep seated social reforms. Visconti makes it implicitly clear rather than explicit that the rising power of the Jackals would do nothing to change the poverty which was endemic under the Bourbons. Chevalley represents modern social thinking which argues that good quality social administration would increase the lot of the poor. This was a position which was enacted for the first time under Bismarck of course. Visconti when interviewed later is firm on the point that his ‘pessimism’ within the film by not showing the rising peasantry leaves the intellectual space to imagine that something far greater than mere national unification is needed if social inequality is to be eradicated.

Elsewhere I will be posting an analysis of The Leopard combined with Visconti’s treatment of Nazism in The Damned (1969). In this I argue that Visconti has deliberately explored the failures of European Liberalism to be able to deliver the promise of social progress through a route which is dependent upon nationalism. It is nationalism which is ultimately irreconcilable with social progress and in its Liberal formulation is doomed to a failure marked by barbarism. Visconti by treating the Risorgimento as the highpoint of Liberal Nationalism is able to contrast it to the depths plumbed by Nazism. Interestingly  revolutions  of both a progressive and a  regressive nature tend to eat their children, a point made by Zizek in his foreward to the recently reprinted book by Adorno In Search of Wa,gner (Verso, 2005):

Is not the key paradox of every revolutionary process, in the course of which not only is violence needed to overcome the existing violence, but the revolution, in order to stabilise itself into a New Order, has to eat its children.  (Zizek, Slavoj, 2005 p xxvi).

This is something which Visconti clearly seems to understand for the closing scenes of The Leopard feature the sounds of the exectution of radical Garibaldians who have their opposite numbers in the slaughter of the SA in the 'Night of the Long Knives' which he depicts more openly in The Damned.


Webliography 


Link to  Tales of a Festival site with link to live Visconti interview en francais!


Link to Buffalo film Seminar Series on The Leopard. contains extracts from both Nowell-Smith and Bondanella on the film.

For other internal links see:


The Cinematographers of Neorealism and Beyond

Luchino Visconti

Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned




May 20, 2007

Italian Neorealism: An Introduction

Italian Neorealism: An Introduction

Ossessione Poster



Introduction

Immediately after the war Italy was deluged with Hollywood films which controlled between two thirds to three quarters of the Italian market 1945-1950. The importance for a strong relationship with the US government in the post-war stabilisation phase ensured that Hollywood wasn’t challenged by calls for protectionism or other measures to curb the flow. Eventually in 1951 an agreement was signed which capped the level of Hollywood imports to 225 per annum. The same period saw the flowering of  an Italian film movement called neorealism. This movement has become an important part of film history although it was based upon a relatively small number of films. The influence of these films has been out of all proportion to both the numbers of them made and their impact at the box-office at the time, for it was the Hollywood films which were pulling in the audiences. It was powerful aesthetic approach allied to a loose politically left position movement in Italy which has influenced film styles there for decades afterwards but it had a profound influences on other national cinemas particularly in Europe. It influenced French New Wave practitioners such as Godard and Truffaut and it also influenced the makers of the British new wave based upon social realism such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson.


Sitney (1995) has identified Italy as having two intensely productive periods when its cinema earned the respect of the world. He has named these periods as ones of ‘Vital Crises’ after the description of these by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The first period is identified as that of neorealism which is commonly understood as being a movement of the 1940s and is associated primarily with notions of Resistance and solidarity. The second period is associated with reflections upon the Italian ‘Economic Miracle’ which took place in the late 1950s until 1963. Sitney suggests that by 1964 this central vitality was beginning to wane. For Pasolini neorealism was a contradictory phenomenon: It is useless to delude oneself about it: neorealism was not a regeneration; it was only a vital crisis, however excessively optimistic and enthusiastic at the beginning...’ (Pasolini cited Sitney 1995: p 1).

Contemporary films in other coutries 


The Italian contribution to cinema as a whole needs to be set against the best of the American and European films of the time. US films of the time includedspellbound, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lady from Shanghai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. In the rest of Europe Britain made films from Powell and Pressburger such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. But these were based upon a studio inspired professionalism as were films by Bresson and Cocteau The Ladies of Bois du Boulogne and Beauty and the Beast respectively. In France Clement’s Battle of the Railroad bears a direct stylistic comparison as well as one by content but nevertheless the Italian contribution to original cinema:

lies in their stylistic organisation of elements of apparent rawness, their emotional intensity and their focus on current political and social problems. Sitney (1995: p 6)



The Political Background to Postwar Italy


Political background to postwar Italy

Throughout the late 1940s the possibility of revolutionary change from the Communists was perceived of as a constant threat by the incumbents of the Italian government and their backers in the US and GB. The Parri government of late 1945 had seen the Prime Minister also serve as Interior Minister. This was a strong indicator of the primary concerns of the government of the time. Parri was followed by the Christian Democrat leader De Gasperi in December 1945. Initially De Gasperi had a Socialist Interior minister who had suppressed Communist inspired revolts, however De Gasperi took over the job himself in his second government of July 1946 - Jan 1947. In May 1947 De Gasperi was able to form the first Italian postwar government without any participation of the far Left. The post of Interior Minister then went to the Sicilian Mario Scelba through the next 6 cabinets until 1953.

The coalition governments based upon the Christian Democrats as the largest party meant working with a range of right-wing parties including Liberals, Monarchists, and Uomo Qualunque (The Common Man) who were anti-centrist and largely composed of southern ex-Fascists.

Scelba organised a special anti-riot police force armed with sub machine-guns. They were used to good effect during the election campaign of 1948 when left inspired demonstrations were frequently broken up with demonstrators occasionally killed. It was at this time that the Uomo Qualunque movement dissolved itself and the MSI a nationally based neo-Fascist party was formed.

The 1946 elections had seen the socialist and communist parties gain nearly 40% of the vote. For the 1948 election they had decided to pool their resources in a popular front. However the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 lost them support as did a split in the Socialist Party itself. Spiritual threats from the Vatican and rather more materially based ones from the United States served to weaken the communist party's electoral base still further.

Sicily was a case study in its own right. The US had incorporated the use of gangster links through the Mafia to facilitate the invasion putting Mafiosa in political power. Ironically this undid the efforts of the Mussolini government to control and eradicate the Mafia. The Mafiosa tended towards separatism. This was overcome by De Gasperi by offering considerable concessions to them in terms of autonomy. When it was clear coming up to elections that the left still had the majority the Mafia supported the De Gasperi government but at a price of ensuring that anti-Mafia activities were minimised.

The Christian democrats maintained power throughout the 1950s. This had largely alienated the intellectual and artistic forces which had been so prominent during Italy’s immediate postwar period. In parallel the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was also losing the moral standing and respect which they had earned during the Resistance. Elio Vittorini broke with the PCI in 1947 and in 1949 Pier Paolo Pasolini was expelled for his homosexuality. Cultural Stalinism was exercising its grip. Eventually the revelations from Khruschev at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in 1956 lost it a lot of support. This was followed by the suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956. Following that the great writer Italo Calvino left the party in 1957.

The Christian Democrats didn’t benefit from this breakdown in the left. Its habitual use of excessive force to suppress strikes and demonstrations was alienating its own supporters. In 1953 the CD still led by De Gasperi tried to push through what became known as ‘The Swindle Law’. It was designed to allow a simple majority vote at an election to be translated into a two thirds majority at the National Assembly. It was eventually defeated by the slimmest of majorities - a minuscule 0.15%. It was the disturbingly fast growth of the neo-Fascists which helped to defeat this proposal. The CD managed to control Parliament until 1957 without the support of the neo-Fascists. But the price of this was what Ginsborg has described as ‘Immobilism’. This featured on the one hand, steady economic growth as postwar recovery through the Marshall plan came to fruition. On the other hand the ‘Byzantine’ system of public agencies controlled everything from transport and natural resources to culture and sport. This became a fundamental feature of the period. At the same time there was much evidence of scandal and corruption at the highest levels of the CD elites.

The cinema at this time was also a centre of scandal and gossip. In 1950 the pregnancy and subsequent marriage of Ingrid Bergman to Rossellini ‘attracted more attention than any of his films’ suggests Sitney. Cinecitta became an extension of Hollywood with its lower cost labour attracting producers to make extravagant spectaculars like Ben Hur.

The steady economic growth of the mid and early 1950s meant that Italy’s GDP was growing at a rate of 5.5% p.a. From 1959-1963 the years of the ‘economic miracle’ this leapt to a growth rate averaging 6.3 % seeing a doubling of industrial production.

Literary Origins of the Term Neorealism  

The term was coined by Arnaldo Bocelli in 1930 to describe the style which arose in reaction to elegiac introversion of the contemporary Italian letters. By comparison it offered a dramatic representation of a tormented human condition including the conventions of bourgeois life and the emptiness and boredom of existence. Some of Italy’s most illustrious pre and post war writers were associated with this movement including Alberto Moravia, Elio Vitorini, Cesar Pavese, and Vasco Pratolini .

Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted:

‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar, cited Bondanella, 2002, p 34.)




What is Neorealism in Cinema?

The moment of ‘neorealism’ is consider by most critics as a very important moment in the development of cinema. Bondanella (2002 p 31) notes that neorealism is a confusing term and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (2003 pp27-28) notes that to characterise neorealism is very difficult. He argues that critics have settled upon five key characteristics of the films which belonged to the moment of what is described as the neorealist movement.

Nowell-Smith emphasises that few films ‘satisfied all these conditions together’. In summing up the key aspects of neorealism Nowell-Smith locates the resistance movement as the key focus of neo-realism. The conditions are:

  • A realist treatment of the story

  • A popular setting

  • Social content

  • Historical actuality

  • Political commitment

Anna Magnani about to be shot down



Henry Bacon (1998) also highlights that an essential aspect of neorealism was its anti-facist stance in which this new aesthetic movement and the new multi-party postwar government of Italy were linked. Bacon (1998 p 26) cites Alberto Lattuada a leading scriptwriter of the time:

The actor's costumes were those of the man on the street. Actresses became women again, for a moment. It was a poor but strong cinema, with many things to say in a hurry and in a loud voice without hypocrisy, in a brief vacation from censorship; and it was an unprejudiced cinema, personal and not industrial, a cinema full of real faith in the language of film, as a means of education and social progress.

Millicent Marcus prefers to go beyond technical considerations and sees neorealism as primarily a moral movement of the moment which finds a genuine consensus amongst the artists of the period.

However, if we go beyond technical considerations to the ethical impetus behind neorealism , we are apt to discover far more of a consensus among artists of the period and to find ample reason for grouping them together as upholders of a certain school , tendency, or style, broadly construed’. Indeed for many critics, neorealism is first and foremost a moral statement , “una nuova poesia morale” whose purpose was to promote a true objectivity - one that would force viewers to abandon the limitations of a strictly personal perspective and to embrace the reality of the ”others” , be they persons or things, with all the ethical responsibility that such a vision entails. (Marcus, Millicent, 1986: p23)

Marcus notes the neorealism has had vast cultural and ideological reverberations which:

may explain the seemingly disproportionate impact of a movement that lasted only seven years, generated only twenty-one films, failed at the box office, and fell short of its didactic and aesthetic aspirations. (Marcus:1986 :p xvi).



The films which can be described as neorealist have frequently been categorised as a ‘film movement’. The critic Andre Bazin has claimed that the development of the use of deep-focus photography in neorealism allowed a greater democracy for the eye by being closer to ‘reality’. Bazin associated an ontology or ‘beingness’ with the combination of the long take and the use of deep focus. Whilst as early as Visconti’s Ossessione this cinematic technique had come into use there is little evidence of a concerted attempt by the directors to do this. The exception is the scriptwriter Zavattini who wrote several statements espousing realism with its associated use of non-professional actors. Bondanella argues that too much has been made of the relationship to Italian social problems minimising the importance of the artifice that directors had added to the films.


Bondanella draws on the wider cultural milieu particularly in literature to note that there were several major works of neorealist fiction published between 1941-51 including Vittorini’s In Sicily (1945) Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). The novels had in common the resort to an aesthetic of social reality which drew on myth and symbol and used subjective narrators. This was in sharp contrast to the naturalist style of 19th century literary realism. Pavese paid homage to American fiction and its influence suggesting that the American novelists readjusted ‘... Language to the new reality of the world in order to create in effect a new language, down-to-earth and symbolic...’ (Pavese, Cesar cited Bondanella 2002, p 44).

Bondanella argues that neorealism wasn’t strictly a movement although the emphasis has been that the films deal with real problems, with believable characters found in everyday life:

However the great neorealist directors never forgot that the world they projected upon the silver screen was one produced by cinematic conventions rather than an ontological experience, and they were never so naive as to deny that the demands of an artistic medium such as film might be just as pressing as those from the world around Them. (My  emphasis; Bondanella, 2002, p 34).

Here one can note the  dramatic treatment of  the  Nazis  trying to catch an anti-fascist in the block of flats in Roma  citta aperta.  The intercutting between Nazi troops rushing up the stairs and the priest  hiding the anti-fascist  was using film language to heighten the drama. similarly in this film the overly Germanis mise en scene of the Gestapo cell block and the representation of the Gestapo officer as gay with his subordinate a vampish lesbian was the start of an association of Nazism with sexual perversion which Rossellini also explored in Germany Year Zero with a key character an unreconstructed Nazi pedophilic teacher. 


It is useful to note that the number of films which can be defined as neorealist produced 1945-1953 was about 10% of the total number of films produced which equates to about 90 out of the 822 produced overall. The critical and historical discourses have focused upon these as the key films aesthetically of the period however they were not that important in the context of the industrial system as a whole. The films were not great box office hits at the time despite becoming described as masterpieces now. Rossellini’s Rome, Open City achieved first place in the box office 1945-1946, after that even the most popular of the neorealist films slipped down the box office lists as the wartime concerns receded. By 1949 de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves could only achieve 11th place in the annual box-office returns. The films were often praised by critics abroad; this helped to create a small but financially useful internationalo market for these directors.




The Shift Towards Neorealism

Ossessione 1


The Italian neorealist movement is effectively bracketed by two films made by Visconti, Ossessione made in 1942 loosely based upon James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Ring’s Twice. This film transposed an American popular crime novel into an Italian setting with an aesthetic influenced by French Poetic Realism.  Visconti had worked with Renoir during his great poetic realist period of the interwar years and had gained some of Renoir's political outlook from this period. However, Nowell-Smith (2003 p 13) notes that the stylistic debt to Renoir was confined to this one film.

Visconti follows Renoir in a naturalistic way when he establishes the relationship of the character to the landscape. Where Renoir’s naturalism was influenced by Maupassant and Zola, Visconti’s was influenced by Giovanni Verga the Sicilian writer of the late 19th century who wrote in a style called Verismo which was a form of naturalism and a part of Italian regional literature. The beginning of the end of the neorealist movement is marked by La Terra Trema (1948).

La Terra Trema 1


Nowell-Smith argues that despite the many claims to associate Ossessione with neo-realism it was marked by realism without the 'neo', rather the film can be seen as a precursor of what was to come for it was missing the essential political elements although the style was present. In a similar vein La Terra Trema is marked by going beyond the central aspects of neo-realism. De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) is usually seen as the film which marks the end of this current. Nowell-Smith emphasises that:

The real heart of the neo-realist movement was the resistance film and the often agonisingly direct contact it re-established between the spectator and recent events, and the decline of this movement can be traced to the moment when this genre lost its immediacy and became at best reflective, at worst sentimental’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003: 29).


Visconti had belonged to an artistic resistance movement that had started to emerge in the early 1940s, although he was on the margins. At that time it seemed vital to go beyond the conformist cinema of Mussolini’s period and there was a growing shift towards the verismo aesthetic of Verga. However at this stage Ossessione was made directly under the government of Mussolini during 1942. The film was subject to the censors when it came out in 1943, although later in this year the invasion of Sicily by the Allies had happened and the Allies were beginning to control parts of the Italian mainland by the end of the year. It was the changing political circumstances which both allowed and demanded a different aesthetic and neo-realism is normally regarded as happening between 1943 -1950.


Ossessione 4


Ossessione is marked off from most of Visconti’s other films by having a lack of historical and political perspectives which also distinguishes it from most of the neo-realist films as well. However, with the script being written by four politically committed film critics and writers including both Visconti and de Santis, all of whom were based in the journal Cinema, it would be unwise to write it off as an entirely apolitical film. Whilst Cain’s novel appears to have provided the inspiration the story-line, the visual coding of the film and the more realist aesthetic can be interpreted as signs of cultural resistance at a time when Italy was still under full control of Mussolini during its making.

Perhaps, it is possible to read Ossessione as an allegory of the way in which Italy had become seduced by fascism. The crash at the end of the film could be seen to be the disaster that Italy was heading for at the time. Look carefully at the way in which Giovanna changes from a light flowery summery frock into a morbid black dress after making love with Gino the tramp for the first time. This is a powerful visual statement after a moment of high passion, that can be read as highly symbolical given the moment of the film’s production and its release. Note too the association of Gino and the husband frequently described as ‘boorish’, yet he is an affable and generous man and bonds with Gino the tramp when he realises that they have served in the same part of the military together, and were even trained by the same drill sergeant. Perhaps this can be seen as harking back to the national solidarity of the Risorgimento, as reworked into Mussolini’s notion of the ‘national popular’ .




Neorealism Proper


Origianl Poster Roma citta aperta


For Marcus (1986), Morandini (1997) and Bondanella (2002) the neo-realist movement proper starts with Rossellini’s Roma, citta aperta (Rome Open City, (1945).  Here the city can be seen as a synecdoche (a part that equals the whole) for the whole of the Italian nation. The film examines the consequences of the Nazi occupation of the city after Italy has declared itself as being on the side of the Allies after the arrest of Mussolini.  Of the neorealist core films two more  are by Rossellini Paisa (1946), Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero,1947). These three are sometimes known as his war trilogy. to these films can be added to three by de Sica: Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Umberto D (1952). Morandini also includes Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), and Bellissima, 1951) as core films of the movement.

Bicycle Thieves 1



De Sica and the early Rossellini films although not strongly politically motivated like the work of De Santis still were attuned to the specifically politically sharpened moment of their making:

In Rossellini’s case his interest in the immediate realistic representation of actions and events attached itself to a situation that was one hundred per cent political, in which political action was immediate to an exceptional degree’ (Nowell-Smith, 2003:27)

Bondanella argues that the conditions of production under which Rossellini worked during the making of Roma citta aperta helped to create many of the myths surrounding neorealism. There was little studio work, the film stock was bought on the black market , often in short strips. The development of the film was done without the use of rushes and the post-synchronisation of the sound were all contributory factors to the myth-making of neorealism.

Roma citta aperta in its style was far more than just naturalistic including a range of styles moods through the use of documentary to the ‘most blatant melodrama’ comments Bondanella:

Beneath the surface of the work, which often seems to possess the texture of a documentary and frequently seems closer to a newsreel than to a fictional narrative there is a profoundly tragicomic vision of life which juxtaposes melodramatic moments or instances of comic relief and dark humour with the most tragic of human experience which reconstructs the reality of a moment in Italian history. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 38-39).


By comparison Paisa is closer to the conventions of a newsreel style documentary whilst going beyond the straightforward depiction of events. It is organised around several episodes going through the Allied invasion of Italy. It starts with the landings in Sicily, then moving to episodes in Naples and Rome, the struggle between the partisans and the Fascists for Florence, a visit of American chaplains to a monastery in the Apennines and finishing with the capture of a group of partisans and allied advisers in the Po valley.



Paisa 1


The name Paisa was a colloquial form of the word paesano meaning countryman, kinsman, neighbour or even friend. It was typically used as a form of greeting between the American GI’s and the local Italians. For Rossellini the deeper meanings become a route for exploring the Italo-American relationships in which ‘...linguistic barriers ...give way in the face of moral commitment.’ Suggests Bondanella in which the self-sacrifice of an American for his partisan comrades demonstrates a love of fellow man which links with Rossellini’s Christian humanism. Interestingly the episodes set in Florence and on the Po have an anti-British sentiment within them.

Germany Year Zero Poster




Germany Year Zero (1946) is dedicated to Rossellini’s young son who died in that year. It is based on the story of a young boy Edmund in his early teens. Edmund ultimately murders his sick father and eventually commits suicide. The film shows the breakdown in morality announced in a voice-over at the start of the film.


Bondanella argues that comparison of these three seminal works of neorealism by Rossellini  with the work of De Sica shows that:

it becomes abundantly clear that thee was no single or aesthetic programmatic approach to society in their works. (Bondanella, 2002 p 54)

Neorealism can be understood in both cinema and literature as a reaction against the classical and rhetorical stance of the arts of the Fascist period. In La Terra Trema Visconti chose as a model not only Verga but also the realism of the American 1930s. The naturalism and verismo fundamental to Ossessione are absent from La Terra Trema beyond the use of Verga for the initial story. Visconti’s had by then become influenced by Flaherty and Eisenstein. A fuller account of this film is present in a separate posting on this blog. Suffice it to say here the film is frequently understood as the last film made which can be attributed to the neorealist movement and moment. 



The Shift Away from Neorealism

Neorealism, never a film movement based upon a manifesto of strict conventions, began to decisively shift away from its aesthetic roots through films by De Sica and Rossellini which incorporated a realm of fantasy and imagination rather than a naturalistically based ‘reality’. De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1950) for example sees an escape from poverty symbolised by flying over Milan cathedral on a broomstick.

Other filmmakers like Visconti and Lizzani chose to explore the historical legacy of Italy and as such began to engage with the historical processes which brought about the fascist state through adaptations of literary texts. Visconti’s Senso (1954) is a film which is exploring history through a Gramscian inflected lens going beyond a reportage of events during the Risorgimento (the Italian movement for national liberation and unity of the 19th century) to explore the ideological differences and the outcomes of these in the form of fascism.

Visconti uses the format of operatic melodrama to explore this using the lives of individuals to intersect with what he envisioned as the motor of history. The use of Verdi in the opening scene was used to great effect to connect with the artist who in Italy best exemplifies notions of Italian patriotism and nationalism. Here Bazin’s critique of the film suggested that viewers were forced to engage more with their intellect rather than their emotions. Bondanella suggests that this disjunction was achieved through the creation of a sumptuous and meticulously researched mise en scene which lends ‘...the film a certain sterile splendour...  (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, 98).

The original release of Senso was very controversial, for Visconti had made it with the intention of drawing parallels between the failure of the Risorgimento and the antifascist resistance. The film was released at the Venice film festival whereupon the Ministry of Defence forced an important cut on the original:

...which confused Visconti’s original comparison of the Risorgimento and the Resistance, thus weakening much of the film’s political impact upon its public’. (Bondanella, Peter. 2002, p 99.)

As far as neorealism as a style was concerned the film was a combination of spectacle, melodrama and critical realism and represented a distinct shift away from the idealist version espoused by Zavattini.






Zavattini

Zavattini: Major scriptwriter within the neorealist framework often thought of as a purist as far as neorealism is concerned.







There are some interesting issues concerned with the film in terms of the general development of Italian cinema as an institution. It was the first colour film made by an Italian director, and marked a shift towards a level of dependence upon American financing. An American star Farley Granger was imposed upon Visconti - he had originally wanted Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando. Despite these attempts to make an international package the film failed to attract large overseas audiences. This seems largely due to their ignorance of the Risorgimento.

One important underlying issue is revealed by this. Lack of wider historical knowledge especially amongst American audiences vitiates against the success of even more expensively and well made films in the American marketplace. Some level of de-historicisation and a greater focus on the romance and melodrama might well be necessary to impress a genre constructed audience.


Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the shift away from neorealism came with the production of Love in the City (1953) made by Zavattini in conjunction with several other directors each doing an episode. Whilst Zavattini was the defender of the neorealist faith, trying to promote the film as something close to cinematic journalism, the contributions from Antonioni and Fellini pointed towards the move into highly abstract psychological representations of love affairs through the suicides of several women from Antonioni. Fellini’s contribution was based on a story-line about a client who wished a marriage bureau to advertise for wife willing to marry a werewolf.

Rossellini often regarded as the core neorealist, along with the younger Fellini and Antonioni, were moving away rapidly from the neorealist ‘mode of production’ based upon using ordinary people instead of actors. They were shifting to stories with more psychologically complex characters which required professional actors.




Voyage to Italy 1

George Sander and Ingrid Bergman in Rossellini's post neorealist Voyage to Italy






Rossellini was now having a public affair with Ingrid Bergman and made a range of films that were largely vehicles for her such as Stromboli (1949), Europea ’51 (1952) and Voyage in Italy (1953). The content tended to revolve around aspects of contemporary marriage, emotional alienation and despair. Whilst they were failures at the box office they were lauded by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema. Rossellini commented that

..life has changed, the war is over, the cities have been reconstructed. What we needed was a cinema of Reconstruction. (Rossellini cited Bondanella 2002 p 105)

The Cahiers critics considered Voyage in Italy to be one of the twelve best films of all time up to that date. In the recently re-released BFI version on DVD Laura Mulvey who provides a commentary says it is her favourite film. It tells the story of an English couple who visit Italy needing to dispose of an inherited property. It becomes a play on the stuffiness of the middle class English and the deep rooted passions of Italy which are quite literally in the case of a couple in Pompeii embedded in the soil. Alexander makes a visit to Capri renowned for the sexual exploits of Caligua and Tiberius where he fails to seduce an attractive woman he meets. It was a site later visited by Godard in Le Mepris, - perhaps a homage to Rossellini. Eventually the couple become reconciled meeting up at a religious festival. Bondanella suggests that the way the Anglo-Saxon speaking press treated Rossellini’s affair might have been a reason for this denunciation of English morality. The film itself received little critical attention outside of France.

Fellini had been closely involved with writing several scripts for Rossellini including Rome, Open City and Paisan. He also wrote scripts for Lattuada, Without Pity, and Mill on the Po. Fellini became co-director with Lattuada on Lights of Variety (1950). The film explored the seedy underside of the entertainment world, examining the charlatans and the opportunists. The leading female roles were played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina, and Lattuada’s wife Carla Del Poggio. A complete break with any form of naturalism occurs when Checcho the leading impresario who has been trying to seduce Liliana (Del Poggio), has been had an argument with Liliana in which a reconciliation takes places. Checcho leaves the building in the early hours of the morning and walks up some steps to the sound of applause for in his imagination at least he has achieved his aims of making a successful variety show which will star Liliana and be toured in the biggest cities. It is this which will in his desire at least seal a truly loving relationship with Liliana. The laughter turns into the sound of a passing tram bringing the viewer at least back into reality.


The film is the start of one of Fellini’s major concerns of examining the reality behind performance and entertainment in Lights of Variety, celebrity the media and the growth of ‘infotainment’ in La dolce vita, and in 8 1/2 a reflection on filmmaking itself. A theme that was to be continued in the 1980s in Intervista (1987)

Case Studies

Umberto D, 1952: Directed Vittorio de Sica

A case study of Roma citta aperta will be added to this blog in due course. A link will be provided.


Webliography


For a small reference piece on the importance of specific Cinematographers of Neorealism 

You may also find it useful to access the Italian directors hub on this site  





Bibliography

All the references can be found in the Bibliograpy of Italian Cinema on this blog.  



Suggested Core Reading for Neorealism

General approaches

Bondanella, Peter. 2002 3rd Edition. Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present . Continuum. Probably your first port of call. Chapters 2 & 3 are useful reviews of the period.

Marcus, Millicent. 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press. Not only does this deal with neorealist films directly with very good chapters on Rome Open City, Bicycle Thief and Umberto D the rest of the book traces the powerful influence upon Italian cinema into the 1980s. There is also a useful discussion about realism as a set of ever changing artistic conventions. It is a very good in depth book.

Musico, Giuliana. 2004. Paisa / Paisan. In Bertellini, The Cinema of Italy . 2004. Wallflower Press is a useful article on Rossellini’s film.

Pierre Sorlin’s Italian National Cinema pp 83 - 114 places neorealism in the context of popular cinema as a whole.

Landy, Marcia. 2000. Italian Film. CUP has an interesting chapter which follows the theme of Landscape and Neorealism, Before and After. This is an engagement with a cinematic geography and is best left until you have more familiarity with the field.

Shiel, Mark 2006: Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City.  Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback

Sitney, P. Adams. 1995. Vital Crises in Italian Cinema. University of Texas Press. This provides useful chapters on Visconti, Rossellini de Sica and Zavattini.


Director Studies

Critical reviews of specific directors and their neorealist films include:

Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge University Press. This has sections on Ossessione, La Terra Trema. Bellissima.

Core films to view:

Roma, citta aperta : Rossellini

Paisa: Rossellini

Germany Year Zero: Rossellini

Bicycle Thieves: De Sica

Sciuscia (Shoeshine): De Sica

Miracolo a Milano: De Sica

Umberto D : De Sica

La Terra Trema: Visconti

Neorealist precursors

Ossessione : Visconti

I bambini ci guardano: De Sica









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