Death in Venice (1971)

Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice is based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same title, which was originally published in 1912. It is about a German composer, Gustav Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who attempts to escapes his life crisis by going to Venice for a vacation. Upon his arrival, he makes a fateful encounter with a Polish boy, Tadzio (Björn Andréssen), whose godly beauty instantly captivates him. Despite the danger of an epidemic in Venice, Aschenbach stays there in order to catch a glimpse of Tadzio, and he even wonders whether the attraction may be mutual. He goes so far as to wear makeup to obscure his old age, and shadows the boy all over the city. Eventually Aschenbach falls ill and dies on the beach while seeing his idol turning to him, raising his arm, and pointing toward faraway as if to invite the dying composer to join him in eternity.

Despite the apparent simplicity of the plot, Mann’s work bears great complexity of thought, and to fully appreciate Visconti’s adaptation, we need to delve into this intricacy. I shall begin with some notes on the inspiration behind this work.

The original novella was published a year after the death of an Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler. Mann personally met Mahler on a few occasions, and the composer left a strong impression on the writer. According to the writer’s spouse, Katia, Mann modelled the appearance of the main protagonist, Aschenbach, after the composer. He was preoccupied with the death of Mahler, as well as the work and legacy of this great composer at the time of writing this novella. Still, by Katia’s testimony, it is clear that the story itself is based on the writer’s own experience in Venice. During a family vacation to Venice, Mann encountered a Polish noble family and was strongly attracted to the boy of the family. Despite her clarification that her husband did not shadow the boy all over Venice, Death in Venice is a very autobiographical work.

It is clear that Visconti knew of these details before shooting this movie; he altered the protagonist from that of a writer to a composer, and he made ample use of Mahler’s scores, especially the famous Adagietto from the 5th Symphony, which became inseparable from this film after its release. Also, somewhat awkwardly, Visconti added a scene inspired by Mahler’s life: the death of Aschenbach’s daughter. Gustav and Alma Mahler had lost their young daughter, and her death dealt a fatal blow to their marriage and haunted the composer for the rest of his life. Still, for most of the movie, Aschenbach sports a moustache precisely in the fashion of the German author. Therefore, it is clear that Visconti made an informed directorial decision over the character of Aschenbach: He created a hybrid of Mann and Mahler in order to reflect the complex thoughts, inspirations, and desires of Mann at the time of writing Death in Venice.

Visconti also altered the story in order to highlight the philosophical aspect of Mann’s story. The director inserted the scenes where Aschenbach and his friend argue over the ideal of artists. Whilst Aschenbach insists that artists must be morally exemplary, his friend argues that chaos, ambiguity, and sensuality drive artistic creation in a domain which is liberated from societal norms. This is in line with the widely accepted interpretation of Mann’s novella; the struggle and the eventual downfall of Aschenbach represents the Nietzschean battle of two temperaments, that is, a classical and formal Apollonian ideal which strives toward harmony, serenity, and symmetry, and a wild and untamed Dionysian impulse. In this interpretation, Aschenbach, an Apollonian moralist, is eventually destroyed by his Dionysian desire for Tadzio.

However, Mann’s story is too complex to be reduced to this single line of explanation. For once, it is easy enough to notice the parallel between Aschenbach and Tonio from Tonio Kröger (1901). Tonio, like Aschenbach, is a writer who struggles with repressed bi-sexuality, yet Tonio Kröger’s central theme is not a Nietzschean struggle. It is rather an identity crisis of a person who is a mediocre bourgeois and a deviant artist at the same time. This duality was an important theme for not only Mann, but of his contemporaries such as Franz Kafka, who described his nightly toil of writing as ‘the worship of the Devil’ all the while working as a lawyer for a government insurance office by day.

This heightened self-consciousness of an artist who is external to societal norms in his creation, yet dons the mask of normalcy, is an important theme to understand the crisis of modernity. Seen in this light, both novella of the German author are about the lack of authenticity arising from the duality of existence. And this duality is not merely about two opposing temperaments. It actually hints something far more sinister. This duality has a potential to create a monstrous existence who rationalises his/her personal desire, however deviant, or criminal even, and imposes it upon the world as a norm in order to escape the sense of duality within him/her. Whilst Visconti could not explore this aspect of European Zeitgeist in this film, he did so with his earlier work, The Damned (Götterdämmarung) in 1969. Whilst this film is full of 'damned' characters, this theme is best represented by Martin von Essenback (Hermut Berger) who makes a devil's pact with a SS officer Aschenbach (Hermut Griem) in order to protect and enforce his duality: the heir of a wealthy and powerful family by day, and a deviant criminal in private.

Visconti has done a great job of reflecting much of the complexity that shaped Mann’s novella in this movie. Whilst the director’s intervention seems forced at times, it is to his credit that he integrated this much into a cinematic adoption, which is smooth enough to follow without straining the audience’s attention. However, Visconti’s classicism that enables this ease of viewing has its drawback. The facility to follow the narrative of this movie is so great that it is difficult not to treat this movie as a music video, which features the angelic beauty of an adolescent boy and one of the most hypnotic musical scores ever written. In Japan, Andréssen inspired many male characters for the graphic novels targeted to young girls, and there was a cult of Tadzio in the ‘70s and ‘80s amongst them. And, needless to say, this movie is one of the most celebrated films in the male homosexual community. Whilst it is up to the audience as to how the movie is to be enjoyed, I will close this article by drawing a conclusion regarding a question: Did the infatuation with Tadzio cure or destroy Aschenbach?

In the Nietzschean interpretation, the Apollonian Aschenbach is destroyed by giving in to his desire for Tadzio. Whilst his attachment to Tadzio eventually causes his death, I don’t think he is ‘destroyed’ by a Dionysian impulse. Aschenbach certainly betrays his standard of conduct by wearing makeup and shadowing an adolescent boy all over Venice, yet his desire is restrained to the very end; in his daydream, he touches Tadzio’s hair in a fatherly manner, and that is as far as he would go. And, at the end of his life, Aschenbach follows the gesture of Tadzio who points toward the immensity over the sky and the ocean, as if to invite the composer’s gaze to the transcendental Form of Beauty itself. Tadzio, and his gesture, is a cinematic representation of an Apollonian ideal: a perfectly composed form of a classical beauty. Even though Aschenbach himself is getting far and away from Apollonian beauty with his horrid makeup, Tadzio remains pure in his eyes, and the boy serves as a guide toward the beauty which he thought was forever lost to him. Thus, I must say that his desire, Dionysian or not, did not manage to destroy his Apollonian ideal. It only destroyed Aschenbach’s body by forever delaying his departure from the plagued city, but not the artist.

Then, did Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio cure his artistic impotence, as his friend thought it would? The answer is again negative. Whilst Aschenbach becomes inspired, the inspiration is purely aesthetic, not artistic. Aschenbach spends his days without attempting to compose anything in Venice. It is as if he forgets about his vocation altogether. The awakened sensuality is still restrained, and his love for Tadzio remains Platonic. He is completely absorbed with Tadzio’s beauty, yet the beauty he beholds does not inspire his creative impulse.

Therefore, in the end, Aschenbach, despite his appearance, does not transform in his final trip to Italy. Death in Venice is, thus, more about death itself than the life of an artist. Like German poet Novalis, Mann seems to take death as the point of rapturous transcendence, the moment in which one becomes free of the dominion of flesh, and thus enables artists to meet the aesthetic ideal in its purest form. Yet, as Ancient Greeks understood, this form of beauty must be represented by something which appeals to our senses. And the final sequence of this film represents Mann’s ideal perfectly, with Tadzio gracefully pointing toward the beauty that is beyond our reach, as he himself is the representation of it. Thus, despite many flaws, Visconti succeeded in an improbable task: creating a cinematic representation of the idea of beauty which has captivated the West from Greek antiquity to the present. And the film, like Aschenbach, finds the redemption at its final moment by completing this task.