Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ had already been adapted, operatically, by Benjamin Britten before Luchino Visconti came to film it in 1971. Both Britten and Visconti were gay, which perhaps accounts for the common misconception that the film is about an old man’s obsessive lust for a boy barely in his teens.
Wrong. The film, like its literary source, is about many things, not least the nature of art and beauty and the thorny question of where, between the two, the humanity of the artist resides. There is nothing perverse or cynical about the film. For all of its melancholy it is, in fact, one of the most beautiful works of film art in the history of the medium.
Mann’s novella was inspired by the author’s encounter with Gustav Mahler during a train journey. Shocked at Mahler’s physical appearance (the haggard Aschenbach at the end of the story, powdered, a line of mascara running down his face, is Mann’s fictive approximation). And it was for the purposes of fiction that the character became Gustav von Aschenbach, a writer of books, not of music.
A director whose forte was his immaculate attention to detail, particularly in the observation of social rituals (the minutiae of Mann’s descriptions are captured in vivid and poetic images), Visconti’s film is a faithful adaptation but for one crucial alteration.
The director’s most decisive aesthetic decision was to allay the character more closely with the man who inspired him. Thus the Aschenbach of the film is a composer - moreover, by dint of the soundtrack, Aschenbach is Mahler. Evocative use is made of his Third and Fifth Symphonies, particularly the latter’s adagietto. (Even Karajan, a non-Mahlerian, was taken by the film enough to record the Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic.)
Visconti also adds a series of flashbacks which concern, variously, Aschenbach’s attitude to his art, the death of his beloved infant daughter (viewed in this light, the effeminate young boy Tadzio [Bjorn Andresen], of an age Aschenbach’s daughter would have been, becomes almost a replacement for the composer’s fatherly devotion), and his debasement in the boudoir of a hooker - this last being the event that instils in him an obsession with cerebral and artistic purity and dignity.
A key flashback sees him in heated debate with Alfred (Mark Burns), a fellow composer:
Aschenbach: The creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual act.
Alfried: No, Gustav. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.
Aschenbach: You cannot reach the spirit from the senses. It’s only through complete domination of the senses that you can achieve wisdom, truth and purity.
At the risk of oversimplifying a deep, profound and thought-provoking film, ‘Death in Venice’ is about an artist who, suffering from nervous exhaustion, takes a supposedly recuperative sojourn only to be confronted with a vision of purity and beauty, but one that, by definition of his reaction to it, completely invalidates the principles by which he has tried to live.
The last half hour is shattering. Scenes dealing with Aschenbach’s increasing bad health, played out against a plague-ridden Venice stained with disinfectant and ravaged by fires, bookend the final flashback sequence, which demonstrates Aschenbach’s failure as an artist and public vilification.
Throughout, Dirk Bogarde’s performance as Aschenbach has been perfectly nuanced and intricately mannered, suggesting through the minimum of dialogue (he is onscreen the whole time, but entire stretches of the film pass without him uttering a word) the brittleness and emotional void of a man who has kept his humanity tightly under wraps. The last quarter of the film, however, is acting on another level. Bogarde progressively tears away layer after layer of his character, culminating in a moment of heart-breaking acceptance as Aschenbach finally attempts to reach out to someone only for it to be too late. He slumps back into his deckchair; the man and the artist are dead. It is arguably one of the most moving death scenes that any actor has played.
For Bogarde, Aschenbach was more than just a role:
The five months of work on ‘Death in Venice’ had been the hardest I had ever known for stress and mental strain; daily I had struggled with a personality … who had overwhelmed me to such an extent that every single function I performed in my daily life was as he would have done. I was never without his influence at any time, even in sleep. - Dirk Bogarde, ‘An Orderly Man’, chapter 1.