"You’re much too important a man to be a slave to conventions about nature. I’ll restore what was yours [...] Then you can fall in love."
—Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice
The adaptation of a novel to film is a precarious task, especially with source material as philosophically dense and deliberately cryptic as Thomas Mann’s turn-of-the-century novella Death in Venice. Since the time of its release, Luchino Visconti’s 1971 interpretation of the famous work has weathered a mixed critical reception, with praise reserved primarily for the film’s lush, scenic photography. Still, some considered these elements wasted on a questionable depiction of a man’s Lolita-esque sexual guilt trip.
Gustav von Aschenbach, the writer-protagonist of Mann’s story, is in Visconti’s interpretation Aschenbach the composer (played by Dirk Bogarde with fussy and uncharacteristically sallow demeanor), a man self-exiled to Venice in search of rest, repose, and perhaps inspiration after ongoing defeats in his work and personal life. Coming full circle to one of Mann’s influences for the novel—the life and work of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler—Visconti’s most significant departure (Aschenbach’s artistic background) embraces new physical and sensory tensions that emphasize the tragedy of things rendered obsolete and out of time.
The film opens to a velvety-pastel wide shot of the Venetian lagoon as a steamer unfurls into existence, trailed by a billowy streak of smoke, the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony blaring with a godlike presence. Aboard the ship, Aschenbach appears sitting cross-legged surrounded by his unwieldy luggage. As the vessel approaches the port, the camera assumes Aschenbach’s observational gaze, grazing over the alternating pediments and domed tops of Venice’s architectural landscape, a group of military recruits pleasantly in sync as they jog in formation. An unintelligible white-faced old man with red hair makes a disturbing appearance as Aschenbach attempts to disembark—the first taste of menace that, hand-in-hand with desire, will swell up throughout the film.
Settled into the position of silent surveyor, Aschenbach notices a family of Poles amongst the hullabaloo of dinnertime at the Grand Hotel des Bains; beyond gaudy ceramics and oversized lampshades, he sees a young golden-haired boy, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), strangely serene amongst the chatter of wealthy tourists, a discordant beacon of something simple and sublime. An object of affection at first, the boy will later become a source of tragic self-realization for Aschenbach. Slow pans scanning rooms, and static shots looking out at the shore as Tadzio saunters around, running and playing with a relaxed aimlessness in his striped swimming clothes, mirror the fixed and uninterrupted devotion of Aschenbach’s gaze, which elevates the boy’s banal activities to that of divine expression.
That Visconti would choose to accentuate the queer underbelly of Mann’s novel seems merely practical, speaking to the director’s interest in desire broadly speaking, not necessarily limited to the intermingling of bodies or the longing for such. Of course the director himself was unusually open about his sexual orientation for a public figure working in the mid-twentieth century, so a sort of confessional metaphor for the experience of homosexuality in a society at odds with it isn’t exactly out of left field. Some critics of the film, nevertheless, consider the film’s literalized erotic visualization to be a crude erasure of the novel’s pointed ambiguity. While the film does provide commentary on the nature of desire and society’s distinction of what is shameful and what is natural within that realm, the film’s greatest contribution to the legacy of the original, and in fact its claim to autonomy, is its invention of a tactile visual language that embodies the ambiguity inherent within desire, its productive and destructive powers, and its relationship to the indifferent movement of history.
The bulk of the film’s dialogue provides a guiding discourse with which to consider the present events, contained within flashbacks of literal arguments about morality and beauty and art with fellow artist and friend, Alfred (Mark Burns). Aschenbach here defends his idea of beauty as an embodiment of the platonic ideal, to which Alfred counters by pointing out the double meanings within a piece of music, going so far as to play one of Aschenbach’s own compositions, its simultaneous melancholy and triumphant quality proof of the composer’s self-denial. As a recollection, the exchange bears the marks of regret, foreshadowing the mistakes of the future by grounding error in the austerity and righteousness of the past.
An extended musical sequence featuring a troupe of macabre-looking buskers disrupts the insistent composure of the hotel guests, a class intrusion spoiling a stilted bourgeois dining experience—making a mockery of Gustav’s self-serious private ruminations and even the impression of Tadzio’s pseudo-existential stare. The buskers—violinists and an accordion player led by a wild-eyed, toothless singer—puncture the mood with a rowdy, off-key song, and piercing vocals, wails indistinguishable from laughs. This moment of unmistakable ugliness, both morbid and joyous, introduces the Venice of the second half of the film—not the bright, dignified Venice worthy of tourism, but the decay and gothic solitude of a city succumbing to sickness, like a floorboard lifted to reveal a muck of insect medley beneath the surface.
But wasn’t there always something that smelled of rot in the gaudy furnishings and extravagant dress—Aschenbach’s sober, rigid suits, the bloated gowns and dramatic veils of society ladies—of Visconti’s bourgeois characters, so decadent in appearance and yet sterile, and laughably repressed? A living, breathing lie, as it were, in a place that insists on deception for the sake of its livelihood. Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio grows as the number of guests at the hotel resort dwindle, causing the aging composer to suspect something terrible has befallen the city. In a scenario akin to Jaws, the townspeople and proprietors insist that Venice is devoid of sickness so as not to jeopardize the local economy that relies heavily on money from tourism, even as people are falling dead on the streets. Aschenbach is witness to one such demise as he tries not quite hard enough to leave the city by train. Though no one seems willing to tell the truth about the city’s cholera epidemic, it would seem that Aschenbach is equally willing to put up with lies for what he considers a greater cause.
After a good Samaritan confesses to the truth of the city-wide epidemic in almost comical, unwarranted detail, the news is followed with the film’s most overt erotic scene. In a frenzy, Aschenbach approaches Tadzio’s mother, urging her to take him and his sisters away from Venice, warning them of the deadly sickness, but all in vain since the family can’t understand a lick of English. Tadzio approaches, and the flustered Aschenbach touches the boy’s head as one would a forbidden fruit. It’s unclear whether this in fact plays out in reality or whether its a sort of wet dream, fantasized in reaction to the news as an opportunity for access to his beloved.
The final act of the film suggests a certain abandon to the desire and decay that coexist within Venice—the evidently dying city, its burnt remains and dark crevices captured in a slug-grey hue, and the intoxicating allure of Tadzio, whose each glance is a reminder of his worthwhile sacrifice. As a final sacrament, Aschenbach undergoes a cosmetic transformation—trimming and dying his hair, applying dark, defined makeup to his facial hair, chalky white tint to his skin, giving him the pseudo-aristocratic look of a prince poppycock, clownish but oddly dignified in the renewed air of confidence it bestows upon him, and morbid in its allusion to the anointing of the sick. His appearance, striking in its contrast of death and decor, seems to mirror a newfound honesty, a grotesque maudlin acceptance of himself and his desires as he unabashedly follows Tadzio and his family through the ruined city, slowly dying with each step. Toppled over, he laughs at his own absurdity, folded in with cries of despair over the tragedy and comedy of his fate.
Aschenbach recalls the events leading up to his trip to Venice—the death of his wife and daughter, displays of impotence at a brothel, his work met with cries of hate. As an object of desire, Tadzio embodies a rare physical perfection, precisely the sort of uncomplicated ideal that Aschenbach ascribes to great art, apparently the opposite of himself, who is degraded to the appearance of Venetian street people, faces slicked with dripping red and white paint. “There is no impurity as impure as old age,” Aschenbach recalls on his deathbed, as he steals a final look at Tadzio playing on the beach at a distance, again, as in the beginning, captured upon the backdrop of a romantic wide shot of the water, collapsing into the hazy dream of high fantasy and an unimaginable future.
Death in Venice plays in a new 4K restoration December 14 – 20, 2018 at New York's Quad Cinema.