Death in Venice is available to rent or buy now on streaming platforms and limited edition Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
No matter how many times I visit The National Gallery in London, certain paintings continue to fascinate me. These paintings pull me into the artist’s world, allowing me to see the world through their eyes and travel through time to the location of their work: the intricate detail, beauty and artistry of their timeless masterpiece enthralling with every new visit. For me, one of these paintings is Canaletto’s A Regatta on the Canal, completed around 1740. Canaletto brings Venice to life in sumptuous detail as we are drawn into a city carnival in full swing, gondola’s racing up the canal. The crowds joyously celebrating the event as the sun beats down on the floating city.
But why do I find myself drawn to this painting again and again? Is it the sheer beauty of the work? Or the exquisite detail? Or maybe it’s the hidden stories laying undiscovered in the faces of the bustling crowd? In truth, it’s all three, with beauty, mystery and meticulous detail combining to create a work of fascination. The painting calling to me like a flower to a bee as I step into the vast Victorian grandeur of the Gallery. Just like a painting, films also have the power to create this level of fascination. But here, the canvas is celluloid, the director the artist, the cinematographer the brush and the actors the soul.
Like the stunning work of artists throughout history, a vast gallery could be filled with films that radiate timeless beauty, interest, mystery, and exquisite detail. And if such a gallery was ever to open, I believe Visconti’s Death in Venice would sit at the heart of its visual and auditory wonders. For, Death in Venice is far more than a beautiful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella; it is a work of cinematic art. A stunning, complex and intricate reflection on the nature of beauty, art, mortality and obsession.
However, Death in Venice is also a film that continues to court controversy due to its subject matter fifty years after its release. This controversy centres on the film’s depiction of a middle-aged man obsessed with the beauty of a teenage boy. But, for those unaware of the story, let me take this opportunity to explain.
Following a disastrous concert, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) travels to Venice to escape a career in freefall. His trip, one of isolation, recuperation and hope as he seeks the return of the artistic flair that once made him famous. As he settles into the luxury of the Grand Hôtel des Bains, Aschenbach sees Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), a teenage boy travelling with his mother. Aschenbach finds himself enthralled by the boy, his mind an ocean of confusion, obsession and infatuation as he watches the boy from a distance. However, as rumours of a plague spread through Venice, Aschenbach’s obsession will ultimately lead to his own destruction. The beauty of Tadzio a honey trap as Venice is gripped by cholera.
Many have argued that Visconti’s film is unacceptable and unsettling, encouraging an acceptance of paedophilia as a normal desire. However, this argument views Death in Venice as a simplistic story of forbidden love, ignoring the complexity sitting at the heart of its narrative. It laces concepts of beauty and desire together without understanding the difference between each. After all, while beauty, love and desire are interlinked, they also have different emotional connections. For example, we see beauty in the carved perfection of Michelangelo’s David, but that does not mean we desire the figure sexually. Equally, Ruben’s Apollo is a figure of sculpted male beauty, but does that mean we view the painting from a perspective of sexual desire?
In truth, throughout history, the image of the young man has found itself associated with ideas of perfection, strength and beauty. This can be seen in paintings that take us from early depictions of Christ to Andrea Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian and Caravaggio’s extensive catalogue of work. Meanwhile, in our modern world, the music industry sold male teenage beauty through the boyband. While at the same time, Hollywood placed teenage male stars front and centre in blockbuster roles to pull in a crowd. However, youth is fleeting, and the puppy dog looks of a teenage boy sail by in just a few short years.
“You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone.”
Gustav von Aschenbach – Death in Venice
Therefore, as we begin to explore the meaning of Death in Venice, the boy at the film’s heart is a good place to start. Tadzio is symbolic; his character undefined his background, a mystery to the audience. He has no lines in the film, his magnetism held purely within his looks. He is a living statue of David, delicate, chiselled yet confident, aware of the public gaze and conscious of the power he holds within a single look. Tadzio is a reflection of the power and strength of youthful beauty. A beauty that burns intensely and quickly as adulthood bites at its heels. He understands his beauty and accepts the eyes that bore into his soul. While at the same time never knowing just how fleeting it may be.
There is no lust or carnal desire held within this beauty, just an image of unattainable perfection. A rare and delicate flower that may crumble if scrutinised for too long. Here, Tadzio is a mere representation of how fragile youth, energy and beauty are. This is reinforced by the floating city surrounding him, with Visconti’s Venice delicate in its decaying grandeur. Its once bright, opulent and luscious buildings slowly sinking as age takes its toll.
From this perspective, Visconti’s Death in Venice is a stunning meditation on our obsession with youth, beauty and mortality. This addiction continues to permeate modern life, as youth is held aloft as an image of perfection. Our adult lives spent trying to reclaim the fleeting beauty we once enjoyed. While at the same time, our consumer-driven world offers miracle moisturisers, surgery and workout routines that promise the return of our youthful looks. Here, Aschenbach’s obsession is with his own decline, Tadzio a mere walking reminder of his own descent into old age. In fact, despite his intelligence and wealth, Visconti presents Aschenbach as a failure hiding under a disguise of nobility. A man so wrapped up in his own self-importance that his life has slipped him by. Here, Tadzio is a mere muse who ignites his imagination and traps him in a cage of regrets.
And that brings us to the themes of repression sitting at the heart of Aschenbach’s decline.
As one of Italy’s finest directors, Visconti never hid his sexual orientation in private. His complex mix of nobility and privilege dovetailing with a passionate belief in marxism and social revolution. However, in public, Visconti was less direct in conversations of sexual orientation. His private and public life kept firmly in separate boxes. This was, of course, not unusual in 1971, with many LGBTQ+ figures in the film and TV industry choosing silence over discussion.
“Solitude produces originality, bold & astonishing beauty, poetry. But solitude also produces perverseness, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the forbidden”.
Thomas Mann – Death in Venice
Meanwhile, Dirk Bogarde also kept his private life away from media intrusion, opting to shun the bright lights of Hollywood for Europe. His outstanding career favouring complex characters who often reflected themes of sexuality, hidden desire and forbidden love. At the same time, the author of Death in Venice, Thomas Mann, also held a secretive love of men, his novella based on his own experiences at a Lido. In addition, the choice of Gustav Mahler’s majestic third and fifth symphonies as a score brings to the fore another repressed figure from history; Mahler’s private life bound in the denial of his homosexual desires. Therefore, is it possible Visconti was also exploring the regrets of a life lived in secrecy when studying Aschenbach? And the restrictions imposed on men in a heteronormative world?
In Visconti’s film, Tadzio brims with youthful confidence, his life sitting at the crossroads between boyhood and manhood where play fighting and physical contact with other boys is still acceptable. The social barriers of perceived manliness not yet having taken hold. This allows Tadzio to explore his sexuality, understanding the power his beauty holds. He is never unnerved by Aschenbach’s interest; in fact, he encourages it as he defines his place and purpose before manhood invades. For Aschenbach, this evokes memories of the freedoms he also once had. His interest in Tadzio a reminiscence of a brief moment in time where freedom prevailed before societies expectations quickly buried his sexuality.
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As cholera takes hold and death nears, Aschenbach attempts to reclaim his youth with make-up, a final defiant act as he reflects on a wasted life of repressed love. The composers final days an attempt to reclaim time before it runs out altogether. His last moments, spent staring at the boy who was always his angel of revelation. His final breath drenched in sadness as an unfulfilled life ebbs away. The sexuality he kept hidden for so long, his ultimate downfall. Meanwhile, as Aschenbach’s life pitters away, Tadzio’s last summer as a boy free from the social pressures of masculinity also ends.
When viewed from this perspective, Death in Venice is not only a masterful dissection of beauty and art but a complex discussion on repressed sexuality and mental health. This complexity only highlights why Death in Venice continues to create conversation and debate. Its complex tapestry of themes and ideas continuing to intrigue audiences with every new year that passes.
As it reaches fifty, Visconti’s film, just like Canaletto’s A Regatta on the Canal, offers something new on every viewing. Its place in cinema unique as we continue to explore its hidden depths. And despite the controversy that continues to rage around its subject matter. Visconti’s film is an undeniable masterpiece, an exquisite, beguiling enigma of beauty, mortality, and regret.