Death In Venice

Desire and death, just like any day
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1971
Director: 
Luchino Visconti
Starring: 
Dirk Bogarde, Bjorn Andreson, Romolo Valli
The Setup: 
Adaptation of the famed Thomas Mann novella.
Discussion: 

I had always been meaning to see this, so when I saw the DVD for $6 I went ahead and bought it, knowing it wasn’t supposed to be all that good, but figuring I could sell it later. I actually remember a full-page ad for this on video in one of the gay porn magazines I would furtively buy when back in high school, positioning it as a hot tale of forbidden lust. That’s a little funny, given how removed and cerebral the actual movie is.

We begin with Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach on a ferry to Venice, while we hear the slow movement from Mahler’s 5th symphony. If you are familiar with this music, you will know that it’s not something you just deploy lightly—and not that it is here, but we hear it so many times over the course of the movie that it can’t help but be cheapened and drained of its emotional power, especially toward the end, when it seems we are intended to be most moved.

But the Mahler is no accident, because Aschenbach, an esteemed writer in the novella, has been changed into a famous composer for the movie. What I heard is that Visconti [the writer / director] heard a tidbit that the figure of Aschenbach was based in part on Mahler, and so he went whole-hog and MADE Aschenbach into Mahler. Physically, he looks like a cross between Mahler, Neitsche, and Rudyard Kipling. For me, Bogarde seemed miscast from the start. He has a sort of American West macho handsomeness, and just seems a little more extroverted and vital, all of which is here being subdued as he tries to come off as so introverted and internal that he can barely speak to anyone. Anyway, on the ferry over he sees a man whose face is painted white, lips red, who laughs loudly and is a little frightening. This is a sort of death figure that will appear again and again throughout the movie. He transfers to a gondola, and has an argument with an obstinate gondolier about where he wants to go. You will notice that he is being ferried over water, as they dead in mythology are carried over the river Styx by Charon. Yup, transported toward death, you guessed it.

Somewhere in here he catches his first glance of Tadzio, this little blond muffin who Aschenbach thinks is just the bee’s knees. In the novella you are free to develop your own idea of what this supposed ideal beauty is supposed to look like, but in a movie you have to settle for someone else’s interpretation. Tadzio here is young [like 13?] and very pretty with longish blond hair, and both me and the friend I watched this with were not moved by his appearance. To me he looks very much like Princess Diana. So you just have to accept that to Aschenbach he is the most beautiful thing in the world, so beautiful that his very appearance makes one contemplate all sorts of notions regarding the meaning of life and the soul and man’s place in the universe, etc.

Intermingled with all this stuff are Aschenbach’s reminisces of his conversations with another intellectual buddy. They would discuss things like how Aschenbach doesn’t believe that beauty has a meaning of its own, and says he wants to “master the senses,” as opposed to his friend, who wants to “roll around in music like a calf in clover.” These flashback conversations occur fairly regularly throughout the movie, and I almost always found them disruptive. Why are they there? Because the majority of the book is dialogue-free, it’s just Aschenbach’s thoughts and the narrator’s reflections, and Visconti needs some way to direct the viewer toward some of the issues he needs you to consider. One of the ways in which, ultimately, this is one of those works of literature that cannot and probably should not be adapted to a movie.

In here we notice that there are a great deal of crowd scenes, with carefully-placed crowd noises. This is to provide later contrast when the crowd vanishes and the city empties out. You will also notice a large amount of shots of the back of Aschenbach’s head. I think this is to orient our perspective in his mind, and to show us not just what he is seeing, but him in the act of looking at it.

Aschenbach has the sense that he should leave Venice. One day he is sitting eating, when a porter informs him that his baggage is ready and he must leave now. Aschenbach will not disrupt his meal, so he orders the trunks to be taken… somewhere or other. Later, after a night in which he is really rattled by his desire for Tadzio, he decides that he must leave to get away from him. He learns that his bags have been sent somewhere he cannot get to them—the very place he ordered them earlier—which means he cannot leave Venice. We can see the delight on his face as he returns, he is thrilled to be able to continue his perusal of Tadzio. What is interesting and remains uncommented-upon is that HE ENGINEERED his own being ‘forced’ to stay in town by ordering the bag off earlier.

SPOILERS > > > Toward the end the hotel and the town is virtually empty. We realize that the only person Aschenbach has really talked to has been the hotel manager, who even now assures him that rumors of cholera outbreak are ridiculous. We see, ominously, a man pouring buckets of disinfectant around a square.

Toward the end, Aschenbach is coming close to losing his mind. He meets a man who claims to know a great hairstyle and look for him, and he paints Aschenbach up with powder on his face and reddened lips—like the death figure I was telling you about earlier. Now Aschenbach IS the death figure. He continues staring after Tadzio—who appears late in the film like a vision against the glittering water. Aschebach dies while watching him. < < < < SPOILERS END

For the last 30 minutes of the film, there is very little dialogue and a great deal of music. This, I believe, is an attempt to create a parallel to the psychologically internal world of the novel; to create a space in the viewer’s head where he can just watch the images and the meaning of the story will wash over him. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work, at least for me [and my friend]. There just wasn’t enough in the first part of the film to prepare you for this shift, and the parts I think intended for this purpose—the conversations with his friend—don’t linger in the mind long enough to come crashing in as we near the end.

It seems to me that the only way to make a movie of this novella would be to have very little dialogue, and just show a long series of scenes that may appear somewhat trivial, just Aschenbach going to the beach or walking around and what he sees. Even then, I don’t think it would entirely work, I think you would just have to face that it would be a crap-shoot as to whether anyone would get it. Not to mention how boring it would be to most people. But really, I think this is just one of those works that are not suitable to be made into a movie. Visconti is no fool [The Leopard is quite a treat], but I think that the task here cannot be accomplished outside of the written word.

Should you watch it: 

If you’ve read the novella and are really interested in seeing how it came out. If not, I wouldn’t bother.