Death in Venice: Ruinous Infatuation

Of the numerous literary adaptations that Luchino Visconti directed—based on works by James M. Cain, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa—his 1971 version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is perhaps the one that most fully showcases both the challenges and the possibilities of page-to-screen translation. The movie divided critics upon its release, and many of its detractors invoked what is often deemed a cardinal sin of adaptation—namely, that Visconti’s film made explicit what Mann’s 1912 novella, one of the most celebrated, analyzed, and debated works of twentieth-century literature, had kept implicit. The concern over explicitness, of course, had everything to do with the charged subject matter—potentially incendiary in its time and discomfiting to this day. 

In a 1911 letter to a friend, Mann described the in-progress Death in Venice as “a novella, serious and pure in tone, concerning a case of pederasty in an aging artist.” He added: “You say, ‘Hum, hum!’ but it is quite respectable.” Visconti’s movie stays faithful to the main events of Mann’s slender book: Gustav von Aschenbach, a Bavarian creative artist of considerable renown and querulous temperament, travels south for a stay on the Venice Lido. Cosseted in the belle epoque luxury of the Grand Hôtel des Bains, he spies one evening a beautiful Polish adolescent named Tadzio and immediately becomes obsessed. Aschenbach watches Tadzio, across gilded rooms and on the cabana-lined waterfront, and begins to shadow the boy and his family through the labyrinthine city. He endeavors to leave, only to be detained by a baggage mishap. Despite the cholera outbreak ravaging Venice, Aschenbach stays on, body and mind growing ever more feverish. Finally, on the day that the boy and his family are due to leave Venice, Aschenbach dies in a beach chair, looking out to sea, and to his beloved Tadzio, who seems to beckon to him from the water’s edge. 

Mann’s Aschenbach is an author, best known for a biographical novel of Frederick the Great, and his ruinous infatuation is framed largely as a lightning-bolt encounter with physical perfection, in part revivifying but mostly deranging. His awestruck paeans to Tadzio are linked to Platonic ideals of beauty, and by extension to the Athenian tradition of man-boy intimacy. Mann, who was familiar with Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, also invites us to consider Aschenbach’s doomed infatuation as an Apollonian ascetic succumbing to the Dionysian spirit. Generations of literary critics have seized on the book’s pronounced philosophical dimension to minimize its queerness, taking Aschenbach at his word when he describes his love of a teenage boy as a matter of form and aesthetics. Mann’s craftily modulated prose is hardly ever clear-cut; he appears to take seriously and even to identify with his protagonist’s passion and associative ruminations, but also at times to treat them as self-deluding rationalizations, viewed from an ironic, perhaps protective, distance.

“Of all the portraits of this extensively photographed city, this is arguably the one that best does justice to its overwhelming sense of melancholy and decaying grandeur.”

Adapting this richly ambivalent text, balanced between literalism and symbolism, would seem to present, for Visconti, a high degree of difficulty. Cinema produces ambiguity through means other than the written word, and there are only so many things it can remove from the realm of the visible. Even though Aschenbach never acts upon his forbidden desire, Death in Venice the film returns time and again to the disconcerting sight of a middle-aged man casting longing glances in the direction of a boy who is barely past pubescence. This created a stumbling block for some viewers: a pan in Time magazine claimed that “Mann’s Death in Venice is . . . no more about homosexuality than Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about entomology” and that Visconti’s film, in making homosexual desire all too plain to see, was “corrupt and distorted” and, more to the point, “irredeemably, unforgivably gay.”

While Aschenbach is above all a drifting consciousness on the page, the concreteness of cinema demands embodiment, and Visconti coaxes from Dirk Bogarde, brilliantly cast in the central role, a performance of true gestural subtlety and force, worthy of a silent-movie star. Played by the fifteen-year-old Björn Andrésen, discovered through a continent-wide casting search, the movie Tadzio is as mute as Mann’s, who is likened more than once to a classical sculpture. But as with many cinematic objects of desire who exist mainly to be looked at, he knows the power of a returned gaze. Aschenbach first sets eyes on Tadzio in an extended scene in the hotel lobby—a couple of paragraphs in the book drawn out to a mesmerizing eight or so minutes. Aschenbach settles in before dinner amid the ostentatious lounge’s clutter: outsize vases and lampshades, a blur of plumed hats and pearls. The camera slowly pans and occasionally zooms as we and Aschenbach survey the room and the golden-locked, sailor-suited Tadzio comes into view. Stupefied by the sight, Aschenbach stares, averts his gaze, awkwardly raises and lowers his newspaper. (He is dazed as well by the eventual appearance of the boy’s no less stunning mother, played by Silvana Mangano.) Many of the ensuing scenes revolve around the dynamic established here: Aschenbach trying not to be seen as he watches, Tadzio absorbing and, every so often, coyly acknowledging his gaze. Cinema may not be able to reproduce the layered ironies of Mann’s language, but it is—as Visconti knew well—a medium for looking.

In the film’s single biggest alter­­ation to Mann’s text, Visconti’s Aschenbach is not a writer but a composer, extending the allusion to Gustav Mahler that Mann already had in mind when he named his protagonist. In spectacles and with slightly overgrown hair, Bogarde is styled to resemble Mahler, and Visconti pipes in generous swaths of his Third and Fifth Symphonies. Visconti and his coscreenwriter, Nicola Badalucco, excise the opening chapters of Mann’s book—including the hallucinatory encounter with a stranger at a Munich cemetery that sparks Aschenbach’s wanderlust—and instead supply backstory through occasional flashbacks. Some describe his attachment to his wife and daughter. Others find him at odds with a fellow musician, squabbling over questions of artistic reputation and integrity—as if to bolster Mann’s contention that his book was foremost about “the artist’s dignity.” But as inducements to enter Aschenbach’s febrile state of mind, these explanatory scenes are less effective than Visconti’s more purely cinematic passages. From its opening shot of a steamship inching across the Adriatic at dawn, accompanied by the slow, swooning Adagietto of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5, Death in Venice is an invitation to languid immersion, a film of thick and almost tangible moods. Of all the portraits of this extensively photographed city, this is arguably the one that best does justice to its overwhelming sense of melancholy and decaying grandeur.

“While not exactly a coming-out film, Death in Venice was nonetheless a landmark of sorts at a time when tales of sexual obsession were almost exclusively the province of heterosexuality.”

The middle film in what has been called his German trilogy—following The Damned (1969) and preceding Ludwig (1973)—Death in Venice could be read as Visconti’s most personal film. Born into Milanese nobility in 1906, Visconti is often described as a clear-eyed elegist of bygone aristocratic worlds. In other films, he delved into earlier periods of Italian history: the Risorgimento (for 1954’s Senso) and the twilight of Sicily’s rule by the Bourbons (for 1963’s The Leopard). Death in Venice is another one of Visconti’s signature last gasps, but in this case it is that of an era and social class he knew firsthand—a Europe on the brink of dissolution through war and revolution, the dying world into which he was born.  

Visconti’s relationship to the material dovetails in fascinating ways with Mann’s own vacillation between self-exposure and evasion. The auto­biographical basis of Mann’s novella is by now well-known. (“Nothing is invented in Death in Venice,” he wrote in a 1930 essay.) Multiple narrative details, from the grotesque old fop who greets Aschenbach upon arrival to the brusque gondolier with whom he has an argument, were gleaned from an actual trip that Mann took with his family to the Lido, where he indeed became fixated on a Polish boy—identified in Gilbert Adair’s 2001 book The Real Tadzio as Wladyslaw Moes, eleven years old at the time. Mann’s diaries would later reveal a lifelong attraction to young men and boys (which, like Aschenbach, he may never have acted on). As for Visconti—who met Mann in the 1950s, and attempted without success to adapt the author’s The Magic Mountain, first as an opera at La Scala, then as a film—his homosexuality was an open secret that he shied from discussing. (He was involved with his regular star Helmut Berger at the time he brought Mann’s novella to the screen.) While not exactly a coming-out film—and hardly an instance of positive queer representation, its depiction of a doomed pederast on the contrary seeming to fit the era’s tragic stereotypes—Death in Venice was nonetheless a landmark of sorts at a time when tales of sexual obsession were almost exclusively the province of heterosexuality. 

There are affinities, to be sure, between Viscontian atmosphere—certainly present in this film, if less so than in the sumptuous period re-creations Senso and The Leopard—and Mann’s prose in Death in Venice: a lushness verging on the purple, and an attention to surfaces with a coolly analytical intellect coursing beneath. There are also important differences in temperament. For Mann, poor old Aschenbach is, if not a figure of ridicule, then certainly one of satire. Visconti does not spare Aschenbach the final humiliation of his ill-advised makeover: he dies slumped in his deck chair, black hair dye streaking his pallid death-mask makeup. In Mann’s hands, Aschenbach’s fate registers as a kind of ironic comeuppance. Visconti, both an aesthete and a humanist, makes the tragedy an exquisite one. His Tadzio is an angel of death but perhaps also one of salvation, and there is in the permanent abeyance of Aschenbach’s unconsummated desire a glimpse of acceptance and possibly even of transcendence.