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Death in Venice
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Death in Venice

In the summer of 1911, German writer Thomas Mann was vacationing with his wife in Venice, when he became enthralled by a beautiful adolescent Polish boy who was staying at the same beachfront hotel. Although Mann (who struggled all his life to suppress his gay identity) never even spoke to the youth, his fascination with the boy became the basis for his1912 novella, Death in Venice. Sixty years after Mann's fateful encounter, Italian director Luchino Visconti made a compelling yet problematic film version of Mann's book.

Mann's protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach is a middle-aged writer. Visconti made him a composer, and the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler is used in the film both as a soundtrack and as Aschenbach's work. Visconti had reportedly considered Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, and Burt Lancaster for the role of Aschenbach, but ultimately chose British actor Dirk Bogarde, who is made up and styled to resemble Mahler. A cholera epidemic has gripped the city, but the hotel's staff keeps the news from guests, reassuring them that all is well. Aging and ill, Aschenbach tries to flee from his obsession, but is powerless to resist Tadzio's allure, and continues to admire him longingly from afar.

Like Mann, Visconti was a Mahler fan. He had wanted to use Mahler's music in his 1969 film, The Damned, a lurid drama about the rise and fall of a decadent German family under Nazism, and was disappointed when the Mahler estate refused permission, possibly because of the film's subject matter. Visconti settled for naming one of The Damned's characters Aschenbach, and hired film composer Maurice Jarre to create an original score. Since the story of Death in Venice is about a conflicted (and scandal-free) composer, he did not have the same problem obtaining permission for the use of Mahler's music.

There were other problems. Bogarde writes in his memoirs that Visconti met with potential American backers who wanted a more marketable British actor than Bogarde to play the lead. Visconti refused to replace Bogarde. The money men were also reluctant to fund a film about "a dirty old man chasing a kid's ass," in the words of one of them. They wanted to change the character of Tadzio to a girl, saying it would be more acceptable to American audiences. Visconti was incredulous. "You do not think that in America they mind child-molestation?" The executives replied, "Mister Visconti, we do not envisage that kind of problem. We are not as degenerate here as you are in Europe." The director remained adamant, and Tadzio remained a boy. According to Bogarde, Visconti himself "set out, in an immense fur hat and a pair of seal-skin boots, to search for his Tadzio in the northern capitals." In Stockholm, he found thirteen-year old Bjorn Andrésen, whose astonishing beauty was perfect for the role.

The budget for the film was extremely tight, and Visconti took no salary for his work. Italian actress Silvana Mangano, who played Tadzio's mother, also took no salary and only worked for her hotel expenses; and Bogarde and other cast and crew members took big salary cuts.

Visconti's films could often be overwrought and flamboyant, as The Damned had been. But critics who liked Death in Venice found it as restrained and nuanced as Mahler's music and Mann's story. "It has a compelling fascination and elegance," according the Variety reviewer. "Visconti and Dirk Bogarde have a rapport and Bogarde gives a subtle and moving performance that fits beautifully into the atmospheric realism of Venice 60 years ago."

Even though Death in Venice was discreet about Aschenbach's longings, influential New York Times critic Vincent Canby's review was scathing, calling Visconti's adaptation "disastrous." Canby followed up with a long article heaping more scorn on the film and director: "Visconti has transformed Death in Venice into a sort of homosexual 'Scarlet Letter' set in the pre-Gay Lib past." He was not the only critic whose review was tinged with homophobia. Time magazine's Stefan Kanfer wrote, "This film is worse than mediocre; it is corrupt and distorted...Visconti may aspire to tragedy, but [the film] does not even achieve melancholia; it is irredeemably, unforgivably gay." Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert's problems with the film were not about its subject, but about its tone: "The thing that disappoints me most...is its lack of ambiguity. Visconti has chosen to abandon the subtleties of the Thomas Mann novel and present us with a straightforward story of homosexual love, and although that's his privilege, I think he has missed the greatness of Mann's work somewhere along the way."

However, Death in Venice was released in 1971, during the height of the "Gay Liberation" movement, and in spite of the anti-gay frenzy of critics like Canby and Kanfer, others applauded the film. In a New York Times article, Stuart Byron took issue with reviews which "complained that Visconti had 'reduced' the story to 'mere' homosexuality and that Mann was really talking about more important things." Byron mused that "the greatness of Mann's story lies precisely in its ambivalence," and that both the novella and the film are about "ideas of sensuality which go beyond physical sex." Byron concluded that "Visconti has produced a work distinct and different from Mann's and one which is unquestionably the finest movie on gay oppression and liberation to date." For gay and straight alike who came of age during that tumultuous period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, films like Death in Venice became beacons of self-discovery and self-expression.

Director: Luchino Visconti
Producer: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco, based on the novella by Thomas Mann
Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis
Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Costume Design: Piero Tosi
Art Direction: Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Music: Gustav Mahler, Ludwig van Beethoven, Modest Mussorgsky
Principal Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Björn Andrésen (Tadzio), Silvana Mangano (Tadzio's Mother), Romolo Valli (hotel manager), Mark Burns (Alfred), Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach), Nora Ricci (Tadzio's governess), Franco Fabrizi (barber)
130 minutes

by Margarita Landazuri

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