By Gary M. Kramer.
Death in Venice, Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous adaptation of the 1912 Thomas Mann novella, has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in a new 4K digital restoration. The film is a classic story of unrequited love as Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) becomes obsessed with a young male beauty, Tadzio (Björn Andresen), at the Grand Hotel des Bains in Venice.
Visconti shoots the majority of the film without dialogue, as Gustav observes his surroundings, taking in the atmosphere, and reflecting on his past. The camera zooms in and around the environs, quietly observing the people, as decay slowly takes over. In addition, a series of flashbacks flesh out Gustav’s backstory. He has impassioned discussions about art, life, and beauty with his friend Alfred (Mark Burns), and he is seen with his wife (Marisa Berenson) and their young daughter in a few key moments.
The approach means Bogarde’s internal performance carries the narrative, and the actor, who is made up to resemble Gustav Mahler – the composer’s work is featured prominently on the soundtrack – gives a remarkable performance. From the opening shot of him on a boat headed to Venice, he is noticeably bored, restless, and frustrated. He gives up trying to read and resigns himself to his situation of enforced rest. (The reasons for this prescription become clear later).
As Gustav has an exchange with the gondolier bringing him to Venice, his persnickety attitude is revealed. He is obviously an unhappy man, and as he dutifully enters the hotel and his room, with its impressive view of the beach, his despondency is palpable. Only upon sitting in the lobby, waiting for the dining room to open does his composure change; he sees Tadzio sitting glumly with his governess (Nora Ricci) and his siblings. His heart leaps at this object of youth and beauty. Tadzio provides infatuation and inspiration, stoking Gustav’s latent homosexuality and repression.
Much of Death in Venice features Gustav spying on Tadzio – and not always discreetly. He shifts a vase on his breakfast table to have a better view of the young man. And he ogles him on the beach in a revealing swimsuit. When Tadzio embraces Jaschu (Sergio Garfagnoli), another youth, who puts his arm around Tadzio’s shoulder, and even plants a friendly kiss on Tadzio’s cheek, Gustav is practically jealous. Then again, he may be living vicariously through the Polish youth. Gustav’s expressions range from intrigue to embarrassment.
Visconti defines the characters clearly. Whereas Gustav is wistful, Tadzio is impish. Gustav, consumes a strawberry – though one beachgoer claims fresh fruit in the Venetian heat is harmful – almost lustily, practically devouring it whole, as if it were Tadzio. In contrast, Tadzio playfully teases his governess, stealing a strawberry from the vendor and being chased by her for his actions. Such is the nature of their characters, who become involved in an extended game of cat and mouse. Is Tadzio deliberately teasing Gustav? It appears so. A scene in an elevator, where Gustav cannot help but stare at the handsome Tadzio, continues once the young man exits and turns back toward Gustav, letting the older man drink in the youth’s pure beauty before the doors close. Gustav exhibits considerable longing and despair as he enters his hotel room.
Gustav’s torment bubbles to the surface throughout the film. The scenes with Alfred shed light on the thoughts behind Gustav’s emotions. Gustav insists that, “The creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual act,” while Alfred disagrees, claiming, “Beauty belongs to the senses.”
Visconti is squarely on the side of sensuality. His film features exquisite belle epoque period costumes (Piero Tosi was nominated for an Oscar for his work), and lush music that swells – most notably when Gustav tries to leave Venice. Tadzio wrestles homoerotically in the sand with Jaschu, and a scene of Tadzio’s governess wiping the dirt off of him is almost erotic. But it is a scene of Gustav and Tadzio passing each other in the dining room, where Tadzio stops and smiles enigmatically at Gustav, that is most seductive. This moment plumbs the depths of the unspoken desire and homoeroticism between them. It echoes a later fantasy scene in which Gustav strokes Tadzio’s hair, his hand practically trembling at the opportunity.
Death in Venice may be about Gustav’s repression, but it is also about oppression. The city is being disinfected and a filthy smell permeates the streets. Viewers can practically detect the odor; the film is that vivid. There is talk of an oppressive sirocco as well as a cholera epidemic. The decay extends to Gustav’s aging, “contamination,” and “impurity” – not just his need to dye his hair, but his shameful, inappropriate thoughts toward Tadzio, which culminate in Gustav’s admitting his love for Tadzio to himself.
While the bulk of the film depicts Gustav’s lust for the youth, two other scenes add depth to his character. One is an extended sequence involving a comic Italian musician, who performs for the hotel guests. The songs are a far cry from the music Gustav composes, which may be their very point. Likewise, an episode in a brothel is curious, but filled with emotion. It, too, reflects Gustav’s shame. Gustav is described as having a “rigid standard of morality…as perfect as his music,” and these two scenes reflect that paradigm being torn down.
Death in Venice ends, of course, with death, and Visconti shoots this climactic moment in a manner as operatic as the rest of his film. Tadzio is seen in silhouette in the water as the fading sun illuminates him. Gustav’s blood runs down his pallid face. It is almost divine. But for some, Visconti’s film’s slow, mannered approach will feel pretentious; when death finally comes, it may also be a relief.
The Criterion Blu-ray includes Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, a 2008 documentary about the director; Alla ricerca di Tadzio, a 1970 short film about casting Tadzio; program notes from scholar Stafano Albertini; a 2006 interview with costume designer Piero Tosi; excerpts from 1990 program about music in Visconti’s films; a 1971 interview with Visconti, a behind-the-scenes documentary from 1970 featuring Visconti and Bogarde; trailer; and an essay by Dennis Lim.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.