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.”
“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.”
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