The spotlight illuminates the face of Martin von Essenbeck (played by the inimitable Helmut Berger). It is the birthday of Martin’s grandfather, Joachim von Essenbeck, and, to mark this occasion, Martin (playing a character based on Marlene Dietrich’s The Blue Angel) has decided to serenade the family patriarch. Joachim, inevitably, does not enjoy this spectacle at all.
And so begins director Lucchino Visconti’s The Damned. The film proved highly controversial at the time of its release (most notably for its depictions of sexuality and the Third Reich), although it has achieved legendary status in the ensuing years. Despite all the contemporary criticism, the film also received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. While that is all very interesting, our focus in this article will, of course, be the clothing of The Damned. Indeed, more accurately, we will be looking at the suits and combinations worn by the irresistible (and more than a little troubling) Martin von Essenbeck.
Martin von Essenbeck is a scion of the wealthy industrial von Essenbeck clan (the film is full of allusions to the Krupp dynasty, from the German city of Essen) and, at his core, little more than an irresponsible, moody, sexually disoriented, and rather unlikeable young man. To his credit, though, he certainly does love his mother, Sophie (see Note).
We will not reveal too many details of the plot here. All one really need know is that Martin is an object of hatred (and at least a small amount of fascination).
Underlining the Character through Costume
Perhaps it is Visconti’s legendary perfectionism that allows him to give his characters not only beautiful, but also perfectly expressive costumes. Most of the clothing seen in the film was made bespoke for the production. I don’t believe that the aesthetics of a decadent upper-middle-class have ever been portrayed quite so accurately (perhaps Visconti drew inspiration from his own upbringing in the Milanese aristocracy). Martin von Essenbeck, when not cross-dressing, is seen wearing sharply cut, yet austere suits. Whether in a dark grey double-breasted suit, white shirt and dark tie, an evening suit, a combination of flannel trousers and houndstooth sports coat, or even a morning gown, Martin von Essenbeck always looks elegant – and the androgynous Helmut Berger lives up to his reputation as the prototypical erotomaniac God of Elegance. For Martin, dressing well and, perhaps even more important, correctly is second nature, yet it still also allows him to subtly convey his superiority. His appearance, the razor-sharp silhouettes, the over-correctness of it, the pomade, and the make-up create a fascinating juxtaposition of conservative excellence and inhuman arrogance.
Dressing Martin von Essenbeck Today
If we were to dress this role, resisting the urge towards a Bateman-esque interpretation, we would suggest a slim, ultra-conservative, dark grey (almost black) three-piece suit. The jacket would have only one closing button, the trousers would be relatively narrow, feature no pleats and a military cuff. The socks (OTC, of course) would match the trousers. The cap-toe oxfords should have a mirror-shine. The shirt would be a subtle off-white or eggshell, cut quite narrow (but never too tight) and feature a discreet yet expressive semi-spread collar. His ties would be dark and his pocket square white linen. The waistcoat would close high and the jacket would emphasise the natural waist. The lapels would be moderately wide and the shoulder-line must be characteristic of classic English elegance. The result is a classically-inspired silhouette that makes shivers run down your spine.