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Death in Venice (in Italian Morte a Venezia) is a 1971 film directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde and Björn Andrésen. The film is based on the novella Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.
Outline of the film
The protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, travels to Venice for health reasons. There, he becomes obsessed with the stunning beauty of an adolescent Polish boy named Tadzio who is staying with his family at the same hotel on the Lido as von Aschenbach.
While the character von Aschenbach in the novella is an author, Visconti changed his profession to that of a composer. "Playing the role" of von Aschenbach's music in the film is the music of Gustav Mahler, in particular the Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, which both opens and closes the film, and sections from his Third Symphony. Mahler could be seen as an appropriate composer to use because of his concern with death, which he transposed to his music. Apart from this change, the film is relatively faithful to the book, but with added scenes where von Aschenbach and a musician friend debate the degraded aesthetics of his music - again, this has direct parallels in the life and works of Mahler, especially when von Achenbach is played an extract of his own work which, in reality, is an extract form the final movement from Mahler's Fourth Symphony.
While von Aschenbach attempts to find peace and quiet, the rest of the city is being gripped by a cholera epidemic, and the city authorities do not inform the holiday-makers of the problem for fear that they will all leave: "Oh, it is merely the Sirocco", offers one bank clerk as an explanation. As von Aschenbach and the other guests make day-trips out into the city centre it eventually dawns on them that something is seriously wrong. Von Aschenbach decides to leave, but in a moment of impulse decides to stay. However, he himself is dying. Rejuvenated by the presence of Tadzio - though they never actually converse - he visits the barbers who, in his words, "returns to you merely what has been lost", dying his grey hair black and whitening his face and reddening his lips to try and make him look younger. As he leaves the barber's shop the barber exclaims: "And now Sir is ready to fall in love with whomever he pleases". But the result replays the sickly "mutton dressed as lamb" old man von Aschenbach had encountered on the boat approaching Venice at the beginning of the film. Von Aschenbach still continues to gaze at Tadzio from afar, the latter more aware that he is being gazed at. The climax comes with von Aschenbach witnessing Tadzio being beaten up on the beach by an older boy, and at that very moment - heightened by the crescendo in Mahler's Adaggietto - he has a heart attack and dies. While Tadzio and the boy make up, they don't even notice von Aschenbach dying, and they continue to walk along the beach while the other guests alert the hotel staff of what has happened. They then carry von Aschenbach's body away.
Behind the scenes
In his autobiography, A Postillion Struck by Lightning, Bogarde recounts how the film crew created the deathly white skin which his character displays in the final scenes of the film, just as he dies. Bogarde recalls that the make-up department had tried various face paints and creams, none of which had been satisfactory, as they smeared. When a suitable cream was found and the scenes were being shot, Bogarde recalls that his face began to burn terribly. The tube of cream was found and written on the side was "Do not let this come into contact with the skin": the director had ignored this and had been testing it out, as small patches, on various members of the film crew, before finally having it applied to Bogarde's face.
Film historian Lawrence J. Quirk wrote, in his study, The Great Romantic Films (1974), "Some shots of Björn Andrésen, the Tadzio of the film, could be extracted from the frame and hung on the walls of the Louvre or the Vatican in Rome. For this is not a pretty youngster who is supposed to represent an object of perverted lust; that was neither novelist Mann's nor director-screen writer Visconti's intention. Rather, this is a symbol of a beauty allied to those which inspired Michelangelo's David and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and which moved Dante to seek ultimate aesthetic catharsis in the distant figure of Beatrice."
* Henry Bacon, Visconti: Explorations of beauty and decay. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
* Dirk Bogarde, Postillion Struck by Lightning, London, Orion Books, (New edition) 2006.
* Lawrence J. Quirk, The Great Romantic Films, New York, Citadel Press, 1983.