Death hangs over Ivo van Hove’s The Damned like the ash clouds that darkened the skies over the Nazi extermination camps. Ash hangs over designer Jan Versweyveld’s stage also; it piles up in an urn with each scene change that follows a new murder. Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film about the slide into Nazism of a family of German industrialists is adapted by van Hove into a chilling production for the Comédie Française, whose troupe proves an excellent match for the Dutch director’s vision of the cruelties only humans can bestow on each other. Jealousy, betrayal, greed, desire, hatred, vanity and finally resignation and despair play across the actors’ faces in real-time close ups. And yet, notwithstanding the ashen reference to the Nazis’ Final Solution and documentary footage of key events in Hitler’s rise to power, this story of hell-bound arrivistes and hellish Nazis never manages to truly frighten us with its historical weight; it’s ambition seems rather to unsettle us in the telling of a tale that has uncomfortable parallels with our own political moment.
That is because van Hove’s The Damned tells the crushing story of the Essenbeck family’s capitulation to the violence and terror of an autocratic state, a calculated move meant to maintain the family’s financial and social status but one which demonstrates ignorance of the fact that the status quo that helped them to power and wealth during the Weimar Republic was being dynamited while they continued with business as usual.
This is not exactly the story Visconti imagined; his opulent industrialists are rather more set upon by both the nascent Nazi state and enemies in their own ranks, than they are actors in their own downfall, at least at the outset. Van Hove sets up a family as corrupt as any imagined by Shakespeare, and his version of The Damned presents visual parallels with Kings of War, his remarkable telescoping of Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III, in its unceremonious march of events to a disastrous finish, notably through a cold dispatching of the murdered to hospital stretchers. A worse fate awaits the Essenbecks; van Hove sends them to icy tombs where the dead awaken to scream their revolt against their elimination from the family’s power struggles.
Van Hove intends to deeply disturb us, and he succeeds at least in disquieting his audience through two performances from opposite poles of viciousness. One of France’s most famous stage and screen actors, Denis Podalydès provides a study in blind barbarism as the Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck, a brute who quickly casts his lot with the Brownshirts and then ruthlessly terrorizes his own family into submission. His Konstantin is a zealot whose singular focus can be read in Podalydès’ almost robotic movements which reach their stunning paroxysm in a frenzy of passionless, militaristic, homoerotic folk dancing that ends in the historical bloodbath of the Night of the Long Knives.
His opposite is incarnated by Christophe Montenez’s feral Martin von Essenbeck, the heir to the Essenbeck empire, who is raised to be a moral degenerate by his mother, Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre, as depraved as her son), who dresses him in drag and looks away while he stalks his young cousins and a neighbor girl into sexual encounters. Montenez delivers a lithe, seductive, hurt and vulnerable but utterly dangerous Martin, though he himself succumbs to all-consuming hatred and sells his soul in the process. In a formidable cast that is also anchored by Guillaume Gallienne’s scheming Friedrich Bruckmann, as Sophie’s scheming lover and overshadowed partner in crime, Montenez’s Martin equally fascinates and appalls: there is nowhere else to look as long as he is on stage, from his entrance where he wickedly serenades the family patriarch (Didier Sandre) in an improvised cabaret number to several genuinely creepy pedophile scenes.
A stage adaptation of Visconti’s film, with its historical background and the Essenbeck’s grand industrial occupations and life style, is an ambitious project that van Hove and Versweyveld embrace unhesitatingly. Versweyveld has placed a huge, barren stage immediately inside the entrance to the Wade Thompson Drill Hall and flanked it on both sides with quasi-backstage areas where costuming and makeup changes take place and where tangential action continues concurrently with the storyline (including in a row of caskets). As if the production were too huge for even the Armory’s cavernous dimensions, the action spills out into startled dog-walkers and passers-by in the street (captured by Tal Yarden’s video) and even the Drill Hall’s upper reaches.
Van Hove assembles the cast at each scene change to face the audience in an expedient narrative device that emphasizes the family’s dwindling numbers, but which seems meant to challenge the audience to examine its own choices in similar circumstances. He also offers a pointed commentary on our media-obsessed society – and its beleaguered media – through Yarden’s video which alternately offers fact (the burning of the Reichstag, the Nazi’s auto-da-fé’s…) and the imploring or stoic performances for the camera of the Essenbecks. They appear to go to their deaths knowing they are making great nightly news headlines, so that we might wonder how their demise is being spun for pubic consumption.
Yarden’s video offers some of the production’s most stunning moments (Konstantin’s dance orgy with the Brownshirts plays out against video of the same, with a regiment of perfectly toned, naked male bodies), but van Hove and his design team keep the attention on the stage at all times. This Damned stands alone as a work of acerbic, political theater that may not chill to the marrow but which certainly cuts to the bone.