The Histories and Alternate Histories of Death in Venice

It is probably better that the world knows only the result, not the conditions under which it was achieved; because knowledge of the artist’s sources of inspiration might bewilder them, drive them away and in that way nullify the effect of the excellent work…

Summer, 1911. The German author Thomas Mann, 36 years old, is on holiday in Venice, staying at the Lido’s Grand Hôtel des Bains. He sees a 10-year-old Polish boy, whom he takes for a young teenager, and is enchanted. This child takes over his entire imagination in a terrifying combination of intellectual fascination and carnal longing. Mann’s wife, Katia, is not blind to this attraction but insists in her memoirs that her husband never broke any barriers of propriety or morality. The author leaves Venice knowing the child’s nickname, having never interacted with him; even he agreed the alternative was unthinkable.

In his head, Mann creates an alternate universe: What if he had followed the boy? What if he had admitted this disturbing attraction to himself? Would this unacceptable breach of morality have led to anything but disaster? He creates a fictional writer, a good 20 years older than himself, and sends his stand-in on a shameful spiral towards self-destruction. The result: Death in Venice.

The 1912 novella imagines a disastrous second act for Mann, an inevitable path to ruin he explores only theoretically while continuing a successful personal and professional life. Despite diaries and letters suggesting attraction to younger men—often minors—he remained (devotedly, perhaps even happily) married to Katia for his entire life, raising six children with her as she acted as his literary manager. Rather than descending into artistic, creative, and moral wreckage, his writing reached its arguable zenith with Doctor Faustus, which he began writing 32 years after his fateful Venetian encounter. Mann is too accomplished a writer to moralize, but the swift and severe demise he delivers to Aschenbach after his stand-in gives in to their shared obsession contrasts sharply with the author’s fruitful legacy.

This unsettling yet captivating demise is something that Luchino Visconti hones in on in his 1971 film adaptation. While largely faithful to the book, translating Mann’s atmospheric language to shots both languid and claustrophobic, his Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia) takes other liberties that heighten both the agency and the ambiguity of Aschenbach’s fall from grace.

The plot structure is the same: Aschenbach, an aristocratic artistic/intellectual type (writer in the book, composer in the film) in his late 50s, decides on a holiday to the Lido to restore his health and creativity. Despite his own distaste for the youthful costuming and posturing of his fellow middle-aged holiday-makers, he finds himself drawn towards an adolescent boy, nicknamed Tadzio, who is on holiday with his family. In Aschenbach’s mind, the child is the epitome of exquisite humanity. As Aschenbach grapples with this fascination, the eerie events that have tailed him through Venice—untrustworthy gondoliers, lost luggage, whispers of a plague—pick up speed with the sirocco (the hurricane-like phenomenon caused by Mediterranean air and Sahara winds). He dyes his hair and paints his face, but these do little to hide his failing health. He keeps extending his stay in Venice, following Tadzio’s family to their increasing unease. Despite the whispers bringing news of a cholera epidemic, he will not leave the Lido and ends up dying of a heart attack on the beach. Tadzio roughhouses with his companions in the waves as Aschenbach’s body is hastily carried away.

Death in Venice has captured the imaginations of several artists, often ones towards the end of their own careers. Visconti’s 11th film is part of the famously intertextual novella’s second life in the early 1970s. Mann’s story was adapted twice in three years: the first, Visconti’s version; the second, an opera by English composer Benjamin Britten. The striking display of cultural synchronicity was noted by both Warner Bros. and Mann’s estate, who advised Britten to avoid seeing Visconti’s work before his own 1973 premiere. The former adaptation is the focus of this piece, but parallels and comparisons will be drawn to the source material and Britten’s reworking where they illuminate Visconti’s interpretation of Aschenbach’s final days.

The revivals did not end with the dual adaptations. At the film’s helm, Visconti was moving his work away from the neorealism that marked his earlier works, including Rocco and His Brothers. His works from the mid-1960s onwards, including Death in Venice, are characterized by a decadence in subject and tone. Dirk Bogarde, Visconti’s Aschenbach, was moving away from his early career as an English matinee idol, instead focusing his efforts on European projects that provided meaty, challenging roles. The film even brought late-Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, whose 3rd and 5th symphonies feature prominently in Visconti’s score, a second burst of fame; legend has it that a studio executive asked for Mahler’s agent following the premiere, not knowing the maestro had been dead for 60 years. Visconti’s choice to change Aschenbach’s profession from writer to composer is a deliberate homage to Mann’s favorite musician. Connecting the sweeping sounds of Mahler’s orchestrations to Aschenbach’s artistry brings a tangibility to the artist, an extra mode through which to explore his work before and during this disastrous holiday.

*

This yearning for new and distant scenes, this craving for freedom, release, forgetfulness—they were he admitted to himself, an impulse towards flight, flight from the spot which was the daily theater of a rigid, cold, and passionate service.

Death in Venice has been described as the “most arthouse of all arthouse movies.” It luxuriates in its atmosphere almost to a fault; scenes stagnate along with the holiday-makers in the Venetian heat, and long shots linger on Aschenbach’s fellow guests in the hotel lobby, mirroring his observation of the surroundings and company. A perpetual state of watching and waiting becomes the perfect breeding ground for his obsession.

Venice, the city of canals and cathedrals sinking into its lagoon, becomes a nightmarish place slowly and then all at once. Aschenbach first glimpses it during an unsettling gondola ride from Venice to the Lido, but the city and island are still as picturesque as expected. Pasqualino De Santis’ cinematography suggests nothing innately untoward about the city; the film’s unsettling tone is set by the uncanny actions of its inhabitants and visitors, caught in the evening shadows or juxtaposed against the imposing Hôtel des Bains. In this sense, Visconti’s Venice is a perfectly amoral backdrop for his hero’s fall. It is always there, picturesque and imposing, proving all-pervasive and inescapable as Aschenbach will not—or cannot—leave.

Aschenbach’s self-perception crumbles throughout the film. Initially, he sees himself above his fellow aging tourists. His is on a dignified search for creativity rather than a pleasure-seeking holiday. The “von” in his name is an affectation he claimed, not a hereditary title. By the film’s conclusion, the relaxing escape to invite inspiration that he had sought has been turned on its head. Instead of artistic redemption and a legacy he can be proud of, he invites absolute ruin on himself. Stealthily following a family through the sunset streets and deserted campos is a far cry from his original plan, and he chose not to stop this compulsion.

There is little regard for Aschenbach’s appeal, much less glamour. Bogarde’s performance is magnetic but refuses to dig for sympathy. He earns viewers’ compassion, not through his situation (the morality of stalking a minor certainly hasn’t changed), but instead through imbuing this fall from grace with honesty. By bringing out the humanity in this cataclysmic, symbolism-heavy conflict, Visconti and Bogarde create an anti-hero that remains compelling through every bad decision and the film’s frustrating, if gorgeous, lengthy takes.

Unlike Mann, Visconti dramatizes the earlier epochs of Aschenbach’s life, flashing back to his life as an artist in society, married to an accomplished woman and debating the degradation of artistic aesthetics and what moral value can be derived from music. He is shown conversing after recitals until the late hours of the morning in all flashbacks save one, where he visits a brothel. This scene is almost devoid of dialogue, in stark contrast to his verbosity around art and aesthetics, as Aschenbach completes his transaction with some awkwardness. It throws light on Aschenbach’s reliance on intellect and aesthetics, creating a tacit acknowledgement of his own curiosity and fear surrounding the “baser” instincts.

This dramatization invites parallels to Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation. Britten—who keeps Aschenbach as a writer—invents a dreamlike dialogue between Apollo and Dionysus to explore Mann’s philosophizing on beauty, morality, and desire. This approach feels like a more literal, omniscient rendering of an authorial voice, keeping Aschenbach a passive listener who takes no action to avert his downfall. By contrast, Visconti’s choice to put these words, thoughts, and intellectual struggles in the minds and mouths of Aschenbach and his former colleagues gives us a vital, vibrant figure who is no stranger to these questions. Yes, these debates may touch purely on the theoretical and artistic rather than the heady yearning that leads the artist to his demise, but he is the one doing the reckoning of his own volition. The tragedy occurs when all his intellectual conversations cannot prepare him for the darkness within.

*

The fruit of solitude is originality, something daringly and disconcertingly beautiful, the poetic creation. But the fruit of solitude can also be the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.

The treatment of Tadzio in each adaptation speaks volumes about Aschenbach. We very rarely hear Tadzio speak in Visconti’s and Mann’s versions; any dialogue is directed to his family. Britten makes the boy and his entire family exclusively danced roles, mainly due to advice given by friends who had seen Visconti’s film and found the relationship between the aging artist and youth too “sentimental and salacious.” Britten’s Aschenbach thus retains a semblance of dignity, if dispassion. On the other hand, the sight of Bogarde’s garish, grotesque longing, his desperate eyes blazing behind melting makeup, is the more visceral. He grasps at a second youth as Tadzio and his family remain one step ahead of him through Venice’s twisting, misty alleys (painstakingly captured by Visconti, often over several takes and several hours, until the lighting evoked the perfect atmosphere). Instead of conjuring youth, his painted face stands in glaring contrast to Tadzio’s beauty and, on a metatheatrical level, to Bogarde’s own matinee idol days. Visconti’s protagonist is given no respite or path forward, only a revelation that drives him towards the humiliating youth-seeking he previously looked down upon.

In a poetic coincidence, Aschenbach dies the moment Tadzio pauses his play to look back towards the dying man. The boy then keeps playing in the sea, unaware that his secret admirer’s body grows cold nearby. The moment is open to interpretation. Tadzio may not be looking towards Aschenbach specifically but rather catches him in a general glance towards the shore. The boy could also be curious about the man he keeps seeing in the shadows but finds nothing further to pique his interest. Either way, the gesture Visconti captures—Tadzio’s arm extended gracefully to Aschenbach as if inviting him to the waves—is almost certainly the dying man’s delirium. The film ends with a long continuous shot, tracking up as Aschenbach’s body becomes a small and meaningless speck on the beachfront, an inconvenience to be removed by the ant-sized attendants as the morning breaks on swimmers and sunbathers. For an artist who longed for a legacy built on the intrinsic connection of beauty, life, and art, it is the most inglorious way to go.

*

…nearly everything great owes its existence to “despites:” despite misery and affliction, poverty, desolation, physical debility, vice, passion, and a thousand other obstacles…

Roughly halfway through the film, in a scene ripped beat-for-beat from Mann, Aschenbach finds himself faced with the inevitable when Tadzio smiles in his direction. Rushing into the deserted hotel gardens, he collapses on a bench and hauntingly, helplessly admits “I love you.” Despite Bogarde’s unforgettable delivery, Visconti leaves Aschenbach’s attachment to Tadzio open to interpretation. Is it purely an aesthetic appreciation? (Probably not.) Is it a desperate attempt to label this fascination, a plea to the universe that it is not too late for love? (Almost certainly.) Is it a realization of homosexual attraction repressed by five decades in upper-class European society? Is there a sinister undertone of pedophilia? The fact that it is based on the author’s own glimpses of a pubescent boy is disquieting; despite Katia Mann’s insistence that the fixation stopped short of Aschenbach’s stalking, Mann’s diaries show a pattern of pedophiliac attraction, though there is no evidence that any of these went beyond Mann’s imagination. Of Death in Venice’s three versions, the film puts the least effort into excusing or explaining the writer/composer’s behavior. This ambiguity and inexplicability, evident in Aschenbach’s self-knowledge (or lack thereof), make the character’s mad descent all the more haunting. His cinematic ending is poetic, if not quite deserved.

Death in Venice remains a tantalizing, sobering piece of work, with hazy morals that have disturbed and fascinated through its 107 years. By not grappling with the ethics or meaning of Aschenbach’s compulsion, Visconti’s version foregrounds Aschenbach’s actions while leaving his impulses shadowy. It may lack some of the psychological torture of Mann’s and Britten’s pieces but is no less haunting thanks to the striking imagery of loss, ruin, and immoral desire. Aschenbach’s ignominious end is not only inevitable but somehow the most dignified way this possible would-be pederast can go, considering the unethical nature of his attraction and the self-inflicted fall from his social trappings of respectability. As Mahler’s fifth symphony accompanies that last shot over the Lido, however, Aschenbach still invites sympathy. He struggles to rationalize his attraction, his art, and indeed his whole accomplished yet unfulfilled life that brings him to Venice, and in the end he is brought down by the nature he had not reckoned with.


All quotations come from Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Death in Venice, published by Ecco in 2005.