Sight and Sound – Spring 1971

Death in Venice

When Thomas Mann created Gustav Aschenbach he compiled a conscious summary of the twentieth century’s first decade. Mahler’s death in 1911 was the cue to which he was responding, but as was demonstrated by his translation of the central character in his story from composer to writer, Mann recognised not only the autobiographical link between Mahler’s work and his own but also the more widely familiar influences upon the times of other German commentators. Aschenbach, like Mahler, has forsaken earlier passions for the serenity of perfect art, but he is equally the offspring of Mann’s encounters with Schopenhauer (for whom death was the real aim of life), with Nietzsche (whose concern was with the need for victory over oneself), and with Wagner, in whom Mann found both the association of love and art with death and the Werkinstinkt, the will to toil and endure. The slender narrative of Death in Venice, with its joyful celebration of classical triumph and simultaneous confession of social defeat, stands midway between Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain – between, in fact, the theme of the individual tortured by his sense of isolation and that of the individual’s acceptance of his social context. It is a story in which the crisis of one generation is handed lovingly to the next in the expectation that once again it will be transcended.

With Visconti’s version, Death in Venice (Warner) reverts to an account of Mahler’s philosophy: Aschenbach is now a composer, whose symphonies, like Mahler’s, are received with storms of abuse, whose background, like Mahler’s, is one of tragic deprivation (Mann had disposed of Aschenbach’s family in eight lines), and whose contention, like Mahler’s, is that beauty is the product of conscious effort rather than of instinct and accident. Visconti draws the resemblance even closer by the addition of arguments taken from Mahler’s correspondence with Schönberg, now taking the form of passionate confrontations around the grand piano. Although Schönberg’s quite sensible points are finally proven for him by Aschenbach’s Venetian experience, he is however presented as something of a bully, exulting at the apparent collapse of Aschenbach’s career with the delighted observation that man and artist are at last in perfect balance-they’ve reached bottom at the same moment. Not surprisingly, the director of The Damned retains an affection for the Wagnerian concepts which bring him back to Mann’s conclusion: that perfection of knowledge and of beauty can be equally dangerous, but that the latter danger is preferable. Visconti’s command of both has customarily displayed a similar bias.

The reconstruction of turn-of-the-century Venice, then, could scarcely have been in more appropriate hands, and Visconti has done full justice to his task. The Hotel des Bains, a hothouse of enormous feathered hats and only slightly larger satin lampshades, is rich with movement and display, its cosmopolitan chatter perpetually reinforced by a small orchestra’s unending repertoire of popular classics, its choreography firmly but discreetly guided by a regiment of porters, pageboys and waiters. Aschenbach’s first glimpses of Tadzio, the Polish youth who is to dominate his last days, occur during a series of lavish camera movements around the hotel lounge, which convey superbly both the oppressiveness and the stimulation of the setting in which he finds himself.

Even taking into full account the costumed set-pieces of Senso and The Leopard, Visconti and Piero Tosi have excelled themselves in these scenes with the immaculate assistance of Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s backgrounds, all brocades, flower-vases and immense sprouting ferns. On the beach outside, the sense of period is equally breathtakingly maintained, with Mann’s delicately observed incongruities scrupulously reproduced-even to the dead-ripe strawberries, the unlikely turreted sandcastle, and the abandoned camera on its tripod. As a cloud of white figures bearing parasols drifts along the edge of the barely moving sea, and multilingual snatches of conversation whisper across the sand, it’s almost possible to believe, with Aschenbach, that we have entered an enchanted, timeless world.

Almost, but not quite, and not for long. Visconti’s preoccupation with the processes of decay and disintegration has found in Death in Venice its most hallucinatory illustration. The beach scenes are largely filmed in a diffused, chilly light, a morning haze in which shadows are a watery grey and abrupt breezes snap at the awnings of the bathing-huts; only during the final visit of Aschenbach to the beach does the sun beat down, crushing him into the vast arena of sand (filmed in a burningly static long-shot) and melting his pathetic façade of youthfulness. Venice itself is photographed by De Santis in muted colours, increasingly darkened by the smoke of plague-fires; the city is a hostile warren of cloistered streets and tiny bridges dwarfed by high peeling walls, among which Aschenbach pursues his wandering love with a choking desperation. The pursuit of an elusive ideal that pauses only long enough to check that it is still being followed, smiles a hint of encouragement, and then moves on again, served Mann completely as a method of presenting the malaise that was to culminate in the First World War.

In Visconti’s eyes, the vision again becomes disturbingly contemporary, for all that Don Fabrizio in The Leopard or Simone in Rocco have trodden similar landscapes. The old world is crumbling and no amount of elegance, violence or face-lifting will bring it back. And so Gustav Aschenbach, played by Dirk Bogarde with whole-hearted dedication, collapses among the garbage, laughs weakly at the corruption of his vanities, and accepts Schönberg’s parting shot that no impurity is so impure as old age.

Visconti’s achievement-and it is doubtful whether any other director could have managed it- has been to balance this acceptance with hope, beauty and a kind of contentment. Mahler would surely have approved.