The Damned and Fascism's Queer Aesthetics

Movies Features The Damned
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<i>The Damned</i> and Fascism's Queer Aesthetics

“Meet the dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave,” the headline of a Mother Jones profile cheerily proclaimed in late November 2016. Photographed in a posh elevator with mirrors on the perimeter, white nationalist Richard Spencer’s expression is that of someone in a standoff with the so-called snowflakes. While the adjective “dapper” has since been removed, and Spencer’s notoriety fluctuated within mainstream news media outlets, the reflex to describe the former philosophy grad student from Boston is not unprecedented. Not only is it not uncommon, it appears considering the appeal of fascist aesthetics and their eroticization is right on time.

Milo might (finally) be a pariah, Chadwick Moore might not find a home in a Williamsburg bar anytime soon and former (current?) Twink 4 Trump Lucian Wintrich might have trouble waving around his (questionable) press credentials, but the homoerotics of fascism are here again.

And, at least for Ivo van Hove’s sake, not unironically. The Belgian avant-garde theatre director is bringing his critically acclaimed adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film—a tale of political, financial, and familial corruption—The Damned to New York for a limited 11-day engagement. The Damned is a button pusher and, among other things, a polarizing depiction of an amoral, sexually deviant nephew named Martin (Helmut Berger) whose hobbies include blackmail, Oedipal complexes and finding comfort in both Nazi garb and Marlene Dietrich drag. Martin is no blue angel.

The Essenbeck family, nouveau riche industrialists that have sold their business and souls to the Nazi party, perform for their greased up servants on a medium-sized stage in one of the many rooms in their mansion, sitting pretty while the rest of the world falls apart. The room seems to cave in on itself from all the decadence. Everyone looks beautiful, even the portly patriarchs—but the most beautiful of all? Martin has drawn-on, pencil thin eyebrows, his face caked in white makeup and blue eyeshadow. He wears a curly blonde wig, black fishnet stockings and heels, topping off his dessert of a presentation with a top hat painted in glitter and a feather boa draped around his neck with a, ahem, devil may care manner. Martin looks like a nightmarish mishmash of Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, plus the Dietrich-inspired Fassbinder (anti-)heroine Lola, gamely played by Barbara Sukowa. Better yet, Martin looks like however John Waters would conjure Dietrich in one of his films: slightly off, but still sexy and diabolical.

Even when his father, the greedy and Hitler-hating Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals), tries to interrupt the performance with news of a bombing in Berlin, Martin plows on with the show. He attempts to regain the eyes of his family another two times to little success, but at least he has the spotlight on him. As Visconti’s Krupp-inspired family begins to unravel, particularly after the death of patriarch Joachim throws the future of their steel business into the air, Martin remains beautiful, tortured, sadistic. Berger’s cheekbones are smooth and chiseled, the face softer and marginally more androgynous than someone like David Bowie. He sleeps with his mother, molests his young cousin and the Jewish girl next door, tries to wage internal political war in the family, and, between the crisp Italian suits and the sharp, imposing leather of the SS uniform, looks fabulous all the while.

Yes, it’s incredibly un-PC to say such a thing as Martin, a queer whose transgressions play off the worst stereotypes with which LGBTQ people have been associated, looks hot when he’s also, like, literally a fascist. As a matter of fact, Visconti goes out of his way to make his Aryan boys look as attractive as possible, freewheeling between the model-ready Essenbeck family to a team of Nazi youth and seniors at a party that, in what amounts to a 17-minute sequence, transitions from a celebration, to a drunken party, to a drunken party with many of the svelt brown coats in drag, to an orgy, to a massacre. Visconti’s imagery is both in adoration and complete disgust at how beautiful, how perfect and how ideal these men are. Martin and the Nazi boys Visconti shoots are neither the first nor the last queer or queer-adjacent fascist men to be eroticized; there are cultures and subcultures fascinated with how fascism’s aesthetics are eroticized.

One of the most well known cult examples of this is Charlotte Rampling in Liliana Calvani’s The Night Porter, a provocation in leather and boots. The film tells of a Holocaust survivor rekindling her sadomasochistic relationship with her lover Dirk Bogarde (both actors were in The Damned), a former SS guard now working at a hotel. We watch her dance and sing wearing little else but suspenders, elbow length black leather gloves and an SS uniform hat.

While there is undoubtedly a queer connotation to the way in which Rampling’s character embraces a sadistic power conventionally associated with men, another example of eroticized fascism iconic in its own right is the Emcee (Joel Grey) in Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the musical, itself an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s Berline Stories. He, too, is slathered in makeup, appears in drag, his sinister presence one of both complicity and power within fascism. During the opening number, “Willkommen,” the Emcee teases the audience, “Outside it is windy, but in here, it is so hot…every night we have the battle to keep the girls from taking off all of their clothing…so, don’t go away, who knows? Tonight we may lose the battle!” The cabaret girls gyrate on stage, numb from the routine, but it should be noted that the Emcee—alternately dressed in a ratty tux and a draggy version of an SS uniform, a camp nightmare—is referring to the outside political climate. The wind is changing. The safety of the Weimar Republic’s underground openness won’t be able to save them.

The aesthetics of fascism can be easily eroticized because, obvious or not, the aesthetics of fascism are about power, not only implicit power but how power can be manifested materially. The materiality of absolute power and submission finds itself in leather communities and in high fashion (or Nazi chic). Susan Sontag argued that, previously, sadomasochism aesthetic had to be cultivated, but in the aftermath of World War II “there is a master scenario available to everyone.” Examining the paradox of former Alt-Right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos, gay and campy yet ultra-conservative, Daniel Penny writes, “The problems of Milo’s paradoxical position—sex symbol to a political movement that alternately embraces and repudiates him—remains unresolved, and that is the way he likes it. Adopting an identity coherent with his political ideologies would spell the end of his career.” Penny, in tribute to Sontag, hones in on one of the most crucial aspects to understanding the homo-eroticized aesthetics of fascism: “Fascism’s aesthetics are its ideology.”

Why should questions like this matter now, almost two years deep into a political reign which has spelled little else but turmoil for nearly everyone, even those unwilling to admit it? Why should supposedly progressive gay and queer people care about something like The Damned and its new, prohibitively expensive production, an outre take on an Italian political art movie? Even if the text itself is not necessarily within reach, or within the purview, of mainstream audiences, especially gay ones, the ways in which we talk about sadomasochism, race, bodies and power nonetheless increasingly occupy popular online discourse. (Even gay haircuts can be read as political.) Look to the claims of myopia or conservatism in recent LGBT movies, like Love, Simon, Alex Strangelove and Call Me By Your Name. While I am not at all claiming that these films peddle in the same kind of fascist aesthetic as The Damned, what is important is the way gay audiences relate to these stories and the power dynamics developed between audience and text, and between the characters within the film.

The men of these movies are (allegedly/arguably) carved from similar trunks—white, dark-haired (so, not technically Aryan), conventionally attractive—creating this bizarre sameness among gay movies. They are mirrors, clones, inheritors of aesthetic or political dominance. Pain, trauma and power are inextricable from the texts these men inhabit, and, useful or otherwise, more discussion about how these films function within a larger landscape of queer filmmaking is growing. Texts like these depict characters emblematic of wealth, privilege, virility and homogeny. Texts like these could be argued to be emblematic of those tenants.

Paradoxically, much of the philosophy around gayness and fascism in such films concerns both the consolidation of power and self-destruction. Tom Joudrey points to Beach Rats and Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, writing:

[Eliza] Hittman’s lens trains on Johnny’s succulent, glistening body with an obsessive hunger, daring the viewer to lust with abandon—and vicariously succumb to the same awful retribution. The message: Queers reconciled to their queerness in effect earn their own obliteration. ...when Frank calls out to plaintively to his impending murderer in Stranger by the Lake—the audience is primed to savor the violent catharsis, to enjoy the deserved eradication of queerness.

The queer aesthetics of fascism are not unlike the queer bodies valorized and upheld as ideal: lean, sleek, strong enough to self-obliterate. They will become so lean, so tight, they can channel their power into completely disappearing.

Though the gays who have more overtly branded themselves with fascist rhetoric don’t need the leather chaps and the black army hat anymore, their sameness, even when queered in some way to tweak masculinist iconography, nonetheless rears its head. Be it the grey suits or the tight undercuts, their presentation is predicated on sameness. Milo, Lucian, Chadwick, and their twin boyfriend acolytes have, as most propagandists do, exploited fears for the sake of political gain and dominance. That their audience is of LGBT people suggests a desire to consolidate power even within marginalized groups. Which makes art like The Damned a rather curious find in a contemporary political atmosphere: It’s almost 50 years old, and yet it still recognizes, after many a Times Op-ed piece, an obsession, a thirst, shall we say, for an aesthetic whose erotic fantasy is, as Sontag quips, “death.”

Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of The Damned begins its run at Park Avenue Armory on July 17 and runs through July 28. You can purchase tickets here.