Cast & Crew
In 1911, famed German composer Gustav von Aschenbach leaves Munich for a vacation in Venice, where he hopes to restore his physical and mental health. During the boat ride, Aschenbach is annoyed by an elderly man, wearing makeup and cavorting drunkenly, who spouts nonsensical compliments. Aschenbach then takes a gondola from the steamship landing to the Lido, where he is to stay at the prestigious Hôtel des Bains, but during the trip, the gondolier irritates the composer with his surliness. Finally arriving at the hotel, Aschenbach examines the luxurious surroundings and settles into his room, which overlooks the beach and its many cabanas. As he wearily positions some photographs, he remembers his recent collapse, after which his doctor prescribed a complete rest. Aschenbach also recalls a conversation he had with Alfried, his devoted yet combative pupil, in which he mused about the nature of time and how one cannot see time running out until the very end. That evening, the composer joins the other guests in the lobby before dinner and observes the sparkling tableaux of refinement, wealth and various nationalities. Aschenbach spots a family of three young girls with a governess and their brother, a blonde teenager possessing such stunning and classical beauty that Aschenbach cannot help but stare at him as dinner is announced and the other guests leave. The family remains behind, however, while the children's regal mother arrives and they greet her. Ascertaining from their conversation that the family is Polish, Aschenbach is charmed by the children's good manners and the elegance of both mother and son. Upon being seated in the dining room, Aschenbach moves the centerpiece to have an unobstructed view of the beautiful boy. While eating, the composer remembers a conversation with Alfried in which they heatedly debated the relationships between beauty, reality, art and spirituality. Aschenbach, an austere man who believes that only by maintaining domination over the senses can one achieve wisdom, dignity and truth, rejected Alfried's opinion that the creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual, spontaneous act. They also argued about evil, which Alfried says is "the food of genius," while Aschenbach vigorously asserted that the true artist must be an exemplary, unambiguous model of moral balance and strength. In the morning, Aschenbach asks the manager how long the sirocco, a hot, oppressive wind, will last, as it is aggravating his poor health. Annoyed by the manager's evasiveness, Aschenbach goes to breakfast, where he again sees the beautiful youth with his family. Aschenbach then walks to the beach, where he watches the boy play with his friends and learns that his name is Tadzio. Enchanted by Tadzio's grace and exuberance, Aschenbach eschews his work to relax, enjoying the sunshine and some strawberries. That evening, however, discomforted by Tadzio's nearness in the elevator, Aschenbach becomes distraught and is unable to concentrate. Fearing an emotional entanglement, he remembers another argument with Alfried during which the younger man accused him of being afraid of direct, honest contact with others because his rigid moral standards dictate that his behavior be as perfect as his music. Using his health as an excuse, Aschenbach prepares to leave the next day, but after dawdling to catch one last glimpse of Tadzio, he learns at the train station that his trunk has been sent to the wrong town. Petulantly, Aschenbach demands its immediate return, and upon being told that it will take three days, insists that he will not leave Venice without it. Making his way back to the hotel, Aschenbach is suddenly happy and carefree, relieved that the decision to stay was made for him. Returning to the beach, he revels in watching Tadzio romp with his friends, one of whom, Jaschu, is particularly attached to him. Content, Aschenbach remembers a long ago, beautiful day in the countryside that he enjoyed with his wife and their young daughter. In the present, Aschenbach is so inspired by Tadzio that he begins composing. Another day, as he goes to the beach, Aschenbach walks behind Tadzio and considers catching up to talk to him, but is overcome by the effort and grabs onto a pole for support while the boy wanders off. Later, Tadzio is alone in the lobby and playing the piano when Aschenbach enters. Trembling with emotion, Aschenbach asks the manager about newspaper stories that there is sickness in Venice, but the manager assures him that all is well. Aschenbach persists, asking about the notices posted by the health department, and the manager states that it is merely a precaution taken because of the heat and the sirocco. As Tadzio continues to play, Aschenbach remembers a visit he made years earlier to a brothel, where a prostitute named Esmerelda was playing the same tune when he entered her room. Embarrassed at having given in to his base desires, Aschenbach wept with shame after their assignation. Later that evening, Tadzio smiles sweetly and openly at Aschenbach as the composer passes the promenading family, and the older man is overwhelmed by emotion. Murmuring to himself that the boy should never smile such a smile at anyone, Aschenbach finally breaks down and whispers aloud, "I love you." Unable to deny his feelings for the boy, Aschenbach begins to follow the family everywhere, even on Sunday when they attend church. Walking behind them and hiding to avoid observation, even though Tadzio is usually aware of his presence, Aschenbach trails his beloved throughout Venice. One day, he notices a foul-smelling liquid being smeared on streets and buildings, but no one will answer his questions about what it is. One evening, as the hotel guests sit on the veranda, Tadzio lingers near Aschenbach while a troupe of garish local musicians performs. When Aschenbach asks the leader why Venice is being disinfected, the man dissembles about "the usual precautions." Still suspicious, the next day Aschenbach goes to a British travel agency. There, the manager tells him that Asiatic cholera has reached Venice and that despite the government's struggles to contain and cover it up, the death toll is mounting and every hospital bed is filled. As the manager warns him to flee Venice immediately, Aschenbach fantasizes about informing the mother that she needs to leave also, then caressing Tadzio's head in farewell. At the hotel, however, Aschenbach is torn between his desires to warn the family or to keep the news secret so that Tadzio will stay. Calling himself a rogue, he remembers his wife's grief at the death of their daughter. Soon after, Aschenbach visits a barber and despairs over his gray hair. The barber, while reprimanding him for neglecting his appearance, promises to restore his youth. By applying hair dye and covering the composer's face with a liberal amount of foundation, rouge and lipstick, the barber transforms the formerly staid man into a dandy. Believing himself dashing, the satisfied Aschenbach searches for Tadzio. He finds the siblings, led by their governess, as they wander around the now ruined streets of Venice, empty of tourists and covered with mounds of burning rubbish. Lost and frightened, the family searches for a route to the hotel, although Tadzio ensures that Aschenbach can maintain sight of him. Aschenbach cannot keep up, however, and collapses, sweating and gasping. Crying over his wretchedness, he remembers his last concert, at which the audience loudly rejected his compositions. Near fainting, Aschenbach was led away by his wife, while Alfried castigated him for achieving a perfection and severity of form that was devoid of all emotion. That night, as he tosses in his bed at the hotel, Aschenbach remembers Alfried's bitter declaration that the composer is old. In the morning, Aschenbach sees a pile of luggage in the lobby and learns from the manager that it belongs to the Polish family, who will be departing after lunch. Heartbroken, the composer staggers to the nearly deserted beach, where Tadzio is wrestling with Jaschu, who is upset that his friend is leaving. When the larger Jaschu shoves Tadzio's face in the mud, Aschenbach struggles to get up from his chair to help the boy but cannot. As his tears mingle with the dye running from his hair, Aschenbach watches forlornly while Tadzio regains his feet and wanders alone into the water. Finally succumbing to the cholera, Aschenbach grows delirious and imagines that the perfect boy is pointing off into the distance, at the sun and water. Smiling slightly, Aschenbach stretches out a hand to his beloved, then collapses and dies alone.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Maria Teresa Corridoni
Gianfranco De Dominicis
Gilda De Guilmi
Pasquale De Santis
Dino Di Dionisio
Mario Di Salvio
Alfredo Di Santo
Robert Gordon Edwards
Best Costume Design
Death in Venice
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)
by Margarita Landazuri
Death in Venice
Death in Venice
Nearing the end of middle age, exhausted composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) arrives for some seaside relaxation in turn of the century Venice. However, a Polish family staying at the same hotel proves more than a bit of a distraction thanks to the impossibly pretty son, Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), who wears an increasingly silly parade of swimwear and fancy hats. Devoted to the spiritual rewards of creating pure beauty, Aschenbach believes he has found his muse and sets all other considerations aside, even as a plague gradually creeps across Venice. Though Aschenbach refrains from speaking to his "ideal," memories soon trigger involving the composer's wife and children who have all evidently vanished into the mists of time.
While Mann's novel has been acknowledged as largely autobiographical, Death in Venice as a film is impossible to separate as a rumination on Visconti's own romantic ideals. The surging Gustav Mahler music (as well as the switch from novelist to composer in the story) reflects the classical preferences of the director. Also, while many critics stumbled over themselves to avoid any suggestion of homosexual subtext, that argument is scuttled when one considers that Visconti's 1974 film, Conversation Piece, was virtually a thematic remake of this one but starred Visconti's own real-life Tadzio, Helmut Berger (whom he became involved with during The Damned, a whole two years before this film). One also has to consider that, despite his groundbreaking role in Victim, Bogarde remained largely closeted through most of his career and only became more open while making a series of Continental arthouse pieces like this, The Damned, and Fassbinder's Despair. In a world where youth can be physically idealized on every street corner thanks to Abercrombie & Fitch, the attitude of this film will prove strangely alien; even a mere three decades ago, the subject of this film carried a palpable charge that barely even registers today. Fortunately we're left with Visconti's impeccable visual sense (next to The Leopard, this is probably his most ravishing scope film), faultless eye for period detail, and committed passion for the elements of cinema.
Warner's DVD thankfully compensates for years of horribly cropped video and TV presentations by restoring the original widescreen dimensions, vital to understanding everything from the haunting opening moments (a steamer dreamily gliding across foggy waters towards Venice) to the fatalistic ecstasy of the beachside finale. Some of the photography is deliberately soft and gauzy; that's not a fault of the video transfer. The mono audio track sounds fine, though if ever a film shouted out for a stereo remix, this would be it; the music is so astonishing you'll wish it could pour out of every speaker in your home theater system.
Apart from the pompous theatrical trailer, the biggest extra here is "Visctoni's Venice," a featurette designed to promote the film in which we see Visctoni meticulously arranging the cast and crew for shots which can take an entire day to execute. Stanley Kubrick, eat your heart out. Bogarde also appears briefly for an interview segment and enthuses about Visconti's methods. Also included is a production still gallery, "A Tour of Venice," focusing on the various locales used throughout the film. For more information about Death in Venice, visit Warner Video. To order Death in Venice, go to TCM Shopping.
by Nathaniel Thompson
Death in Venice
Truth? Justice? Human dignity? What good are they?- Alfred
Do you know what lies at the bottom of the mainstream? Mediocrity.- Alfred
You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone.- Gustav von Aschenbach
I remember when we once had one of those- Gustav von Aschenbach
in my father's house. The aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only, only at the end. And until it does, it's not worth thinking about. Till the last moment when there is no more time... when there's no more time left to think about it.- Gustav von Aschenbach
The picture was released in Italy, where it was filmed, as Morte a Venezia. Thomas Mann's novella was first published in the Berlin magazine Die Neue Rundshaud (Oct-November 1912) and as a special, limited edition before being printed in regular book form in 1913. The film features numerous flashbacks of the character "Gustav von Aschenbach" remembering his wife and daughter; his numerous conversations with his student, "Alfried"; and the embarrassing encounter with the prostitute "Esmerelda." Some of the flashbacks occur only as voice-over narration as Aschenbach thinks about his discussions with Alfried.
In 1964, several sources reported that actor-director José Ferrer and his partner, Joseph Besch, had acquired the rights to Mann's novella. Ferrer was slated to direct the project, with Besch set to produce and BBC drama critic H. A. L. Craig to write the screenplay. A February 1964 Variety item stated that Ferrer and Craig were planning to write the screenplay together, and other news items noted that Ferrer would not act in the film. In April 1965, Daily Variety reported that Franco Zeffirelli had confirmed that he would direct the project for Besch, although by July 1965, sources again reported that Ferrer would be directing and that the film would begin shooting the following spring. According to a modern source, Ferrer considered John Gielgud, Burt Lancaster and Alec Guinness for the leading role. In 1969, Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety announced Ferrer had purchased the screen rights, presumably from Besch, and would be writing the screenplay himself.
In October 1969, Variety reported that Luchino Visconti would direct and produce the screen version of Mann's novella for Mega Film, although by 1970, it was announced that the project would be made for Mario Gallo's Alfa Cinematografica company. According to a June 1970 Variety article, the Mann family estate "sided with Visconti in sealing the part" of Aschenbach for actor Dirk Bogarde and helped to obtain the rights from Ferrer for Visconti. Contemporary news items and Hollywood Reporter production charts add that Warner Bros. was the main financial partner in the enterprise. The June 1970 Variety article reported that Warner Bros. supplied $1,600,000 of the film's budget. The rest of the financing came from the French company P.E.C.F. Films.
Visconti, Bogarde, screenwriter Nicola Badalucco and cinematographer Pasquale de Santis had recently worked together on the 1969 film The Damned. Several contemporary sources reported that actress Silvana Mangano did not take a salary for appearing in Death in Venice because she wanted the chance to work with Visconti. Bogarde and other "above-the-line talent" deferred their salaries, or took minimal wages, against percentage points, according to the Variety article. Although their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed, studio press reported that Visconti, an Italian count, had cast many of his aristocratic friends as extras, including the following: Countess Maria Franchin Donati delle Rose, Countess Lily Morett dell'Adimari, Countess Maria Barozzi, Countess Antonia Donati delle Rose, Countess Anna Maria Balbi Valier, Countess Querini Querina, Countess Francesca Barozzi, Countess Letizia Franchetti, Donna Anna Maria Bramante, Donna Ida D'Ottariano Bressania and Marquesa Corrado Corviao. Modern sources include Marcello Bonini Olas, Bruno Boschetti, Nicoletta Elmi, Mirella Pamphili and Marco Tulli in the cast.
The picture was shot on location in Venice, primarily at the Hôtel des Bains, the locale of Mann's novella, and some interiors were filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Modern sources add Trieste and Bolzano, Italy as additional location sites. Although a July 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that the German company Taurus Films of Munich had filed a lawsuit to stop the production, the exact reason for the suit was not specified. The item reported that Visconti, who was "more than two-thirds finished after 10 weeks' filming in Venice," asserted that he had fully cleared the rights to the novella. No other information about the suit has been found.
The film differs from Mann's novella in several ways. In the novel Aschenbach is a writer, not a composer. Some literary historians have posited that Mann partially modeled the character on composer Gustav Mahler, and in contemporary interviews, Visconti recounted that because he wanted to use Mahler's music as the film's main score, he felt it was appropriate to change Aschenbach's profession and to model him even more closely on Mahler. Warner Bros. press notes add that Bogarde was made up to resemble the composer. Other literary historians have noted, however, that the character of Aschenbach is related more to Mann himself, who took a similar vacation to Italy in 1911 and there saw a young Polish boy who became the inspiration for Tadzio. According to an October 1970 Hollywood Reporter article, Mann's widow and Mahler's daughter both denied that Mahler was the "prototype" for Aschenbach.
Although in the novel it is established that Aschenbach has a deceased wife and a grown daughter, the flashbacks in the film concerning his family were created for the picture. The novel also does not feature the characters Esmerelda or Alfried, who were added for the film. Some of the conversations Aschenbach and Alfried have in the picture are, in the novel, internal musings Aschenbach has about art and beauty.
Numerous contemporary film reviewers criticized Visconti for adding a homosexual slant to the picture that they felt was not present in the book. The Newsweek critic, in one of the more castigating reviews, stated: "Visconti has cast the Mann story in the least interesting terms, treating it like a requiem for an aging homosexual." Visconti defended himself in a June 27, 1971 New York Times interview, in which stated that the love Aschenbach feels for Tadzio is "not homosexual. It is love without eroticism, without sexuality," and that Tadzio is "a symbol for beauty."
Although the onscreen credits "introduce" actor Björn Andresen, who plays Tadzio, he had previously appeared in a 1970 Swedish-language film. Death in Venice did mark Andresen's first appearance in an English-language film, although his limited amount of dialogue is not in English. On June 7, 1970, before Death in Venice had completed production, Italian television aired a thirty-minute documentary entitled Alla ricerca di Tadzio about Visconti's extensive search to find an unknown actor to play the pivotal role. Andresen did not act in another motion picture until the 1977 Swedish film Bluff Stop. Death in Venice did mark the feature-film debut of model Marisa Berenson.
The film, which was lavished with praise from reviewers for its cinematography, art direction and costume design, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design and won BAFTA Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Soundtrack. The picture won several other awards given by film critics and festivals throughout the world. Visconti received a special 25th Anniversary Prize at Cannes in May 1971 for both Death in Venice and his entire body of work. According to a February 1971 Daily Variety news item, "special allowances" were made for the film so that it could represent Italy in the competition, despite its primarily English-language soundtrack. The news item also noted that the film had been the first picture selected for competition at Cannes that year. Several of the film's premieres, including the Royal Premiere in London, were benefits for charities dedicated to the restoration of Venice.
In 1973, the premiere of Benjamin Britten's two-act opera Death in Venice, based on Mann's novella, was held in England, with an English libretto by Myfanwy Piper. The opera has been filmed twice for British television: the first version aired in 1981, was directed by Tony Palmer and starred Robert Gard; the second one was broadcast in 1998, was directed by Robin Laugh and starred Robert Tear.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971
Released in United States March 1975
Released in United States August 21, 1990
Shown at Lincoln Center, New York City in the series "A Roman Holiday" August 21, 1990.
Based on the Thomas Mann novella "Der Tod in Venedig" (Berlin, 1913).
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971
Winner Palm d'Or at Cannes Film Festival May 1971.
Released in United States March 1975 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The World on Film - Italy, the USSR, Canada, Japan) March 13-26, 1975.)
Released in United States August 21, 1990 (Shown at Lincoln Center, New York City in the series "A Roman Holiday" August 21, 1990.)