From the Vault: Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)

It’s been a Bogarde double-bill at BigLens Towers this afternoon, with WWII adventure The Password is Courage followed by Visconti’s reimagining of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice. The latter belongs to Bogarde’s arguably more experimental, ambitious body of work, and he gives a remarkable performance as ageing composer Gustav von Aschenbach – loosely based on Gustav Mahler. The film follows Aschenbach as he travels to Venice on a whim, ostensibly to recover his health and creative faculties. Once there, he falls under the spell of Polish youth Tadzio, the very definition of beauty, and finds he is unable to tear himself away from the pestilence-ridden city, even in the face of death.

Mann’s slim novella covers barely 80 pages, and the film suffers from trying to expand its scope and fill in too much of Aschenbach’s backstory. Flashbacks to moments of intense polemical discussion are clearly designed to expand the themes Mann explores, and to give the viewer clues about Aschenbach’s obsessive behaviour. They feel overwrought and unnecessary, however, especially given the power of Bogarde’s performance. If you are familiar with the novella, his incredibly expressive face says everything you could possibly need to know about this man’s inner turmoil, and the additional information about his tragic family past ends up feeling irrelevant where it should deepen the characterisation.

Although it has dated in some respects, Visconti’s vision of stifling, plague-filled Venice still powerfully recreates the moody intensity of Mann’s work. Achingly slow zooms and pans move through the stuffy atmosphere of beach and hotel, only gradually picking out the details of the scene as they appear to Aschenbach. The older man’s gaze – and thus ours – lingers on the beautiful Tadzio (played with natural understatement by then 16-year old Björn Andrésen), with the tiniest upward curl of his lip or glance of his eyes deepening Aschenbach’s obsession. This is where cinema makes up for its earlier shortcomings in adapting page to screen. The voyeurism we become implicit in is, if possible, even more unsettling on screen; it is somehow harder to remove yourself from implication as a viewer than as a reader.

While Death in Venice won Visconti a special prize at the year’s Cannes festival, and was subsequently nominated for three BAFTAs, it was not universally adored. Bogarde at least felt it had been largely misunderstood – complaining in a letter that, for a time after, he was only offered parts as pervy old schoolmasters hankering after their pupils. This is not the essence of Mann’s work, nor the film Visconti and Bogarde intended to make. At the time of production Warner Bros wanted to scrap the film over fears its subject matter would make it impossible to release in America – echoing Bogarde’s fears about general misunderstanding of the work – but it has survived the test of time admirably well.

More than just an insight into one man’s perverse, obsessive lust, it is a discussion of beauty in classical terms, and the depths of passion and unreason it can make man sink to. The final, almost painfully long take of the newly coiffed and rouged Aschenbach on the beach, watching Tadzio one last time as he succumbs to the illness which will take his life, is spectacular – a tour de force from Bogarde as he melts and crumbles onto the deserted sand, his fellow guests having sensibly left the choleric city. Without the added discussion and flashback scenes, Visconti’s intense, oppressive Venice would have been even more powerfully realised, not to mention cutting a good half an hour from the running time. However, the central performances, and cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis’ elegant, measured camerawork make this a film worth revisiting.

Harriet Cash

ETA: As luck would have it, the full film is available to watch on YouTube:

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