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 – their intricate detail, beauty and artistry enthralling me with every visit. One of these paintings is Canaletto’s A Regatta on the Canal, completed around 1740. In this exquisite work, Canaletto brings Venice to life in sumptuous detail as we join the city carnival with gondolas racing on the canal while the crowds joyously celebrate the event.
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 lying undiscovered in the faces of the bustling crowd? In truth, it’s all three. Here the beauty, mystery and meticulous detail combine to create a work of fascination, the painting calling to me like a flower to a bee as I step into the Gallery. Just like that divine 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 paint.
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Like the many stunning works of art throughout our history, a vast gallery could be filled with films that radiate timeless beauty, mystery, and exquisite detail. Many movies would adorn such a gallery, but for me, pride of place would go to Visconti’s Death in Venice. But let me explain why, for me, Death in Venice is far more than just a rich and beautiful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella; it is a cinematic work of art – a stunning and intricate rumination on the nature of beauty, art, mortality and obsession. However, for many, Death in Venice is also a film that continues to court controversy due to its subject matter. This controversy centres on the film’s depiction of a middle-aged man obsessed with the beauty of a teenage boy.
Following a disastrous concert, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) travels to Venice to escape his career. His trip is one of isolation, recovery and hope as he seeks to find an artistic flair that is now allusive. However, 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 lead to his own destruction, with Tadzio’s beauty a honey trap as Venice is gripped by cholera.
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Over the years since its release, many have argued that Visconti’s film is both unacceptable and unsettling, an open acceptance of paedophilia. However, this argument views Death in Venice as a simplistic story of forbidden love while ignoring the complexity at the heart of its narrative. After all, while beauty, love and desire are interlinked, they also have different emotional connections and patterns. 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?
Throughout history, the young male form 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 sells male teenage beauty through the perfection of the boyband, while Hollywood embraces teenage male stars as the new teen idols. However, in reality, youth is fleeting, and the puppyish looks of the teenage boy quickly fade as the boy becomes a man.
“You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone.”
Gustav von Aschenbach – Death in Venice
As we explore the meaning of Death in Venice, the boy at the heart of the story is a good place to start. Tadzio is a mere symbol of youth and its short-lived beauty. His character is undefined, and his background remains a mystery to the audience. He has no lines in the film, just a welcoming, nervous yet inquisitive smile. He is a living statue of David with a delicate, chiselled yet confident awarenesses of the public gaze that follows him. Here Tadzio is a reflection of the power, strength and flowering beauty of fleeting youth. There is no lust or carnal desire held within this beauty, just the image of rare and delicate perfection. Here Tadzio is a mere representation of how fragile youth is. This is reinforced by the floating city surrounding him, with Visconti’s Venice delicate in its decaying grandeur, its once bright, opulent and grand buildings slowly sinking as age takes its toll.
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Visconti’s Death in Venice meditates on our obsession with youth, beauty and mortality. Here, Aschenbach’s obsession is with his own decline, not Tadzio, who is a mere reminder of his own descent into old age. In fact, despite his intelligence and wealth, Visconti’s Aschenbach is a man dogged by failure, his life slipping by while he ruminates on what could have been. Here, Tadzio is a mere muse who ignites his artistic desires, regrets and fears.
Tadzio brims with confidence, his life at the crossroads between boyhood and manhood where play fighting and physical contact with other boys are still acceptable – the social barriers of manliness not yet formed. This allows Tadzio to explore his sexuality and attraction freely. He is never unnerved by Aschenbach’s interest; he finds it mysterious, exciting yet confusing. For Aschenbach, this evokes memories of the freedoms he once enjoyed as a boy and lost opportunities and regrets of his internalised repression.
As cholera takes hold and death nears, Aschenbach attempts to reclaim his youth with makeup in a final defiant act of self-forgiveness and hope. Here his final days are an attempt to reclaim time before it runs out altogether, his last moments spent staring at the boy who was his angel and demon.
Death in Venice is a film about repression, age and lost opportunities to live freely. Visconti never hid his sexual orientation in private, nor did he conceal his nobility, privilege or passionate belief in marxism and social revolution. However, Visconti was less direct in conversations about his sexual orientation in public. He kept his private and public life in separate boxes throughout his career. Yet, Death in Venice feels like his most personal and revelatory film in many ways.
“Solitude produces originality, bold & astonishing beauty, poetry. But solitude also produces perverseness, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the forbidden”.
Thomas Mann – Death in Venice
Likewise, Dirk Bogarde also kept his private life away from media intrusion, opting to shun the bright lights of Hollywood for Europe. Both Bogarde and Visconti mirrored some aspects of Thomas Mann, who also held a secretive love of men, with Death in Venice based on his experiences at a Lido. Meanwhile, 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 was the subject of rumour and speculation about his sexuality. Here Visconti’s masterpiece is layered with themes of regret and repression in every creative choice made.
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Death in Venice is not only a masterful dissection of the very nature of beauty; it is a complex discussion of repression and regret. This complexity only highlights why Death in Venice continues to create conversation and debate, its intricate tapestry of themes continuing to intrigue audiences. As it reaches fifty, Visconti’s film, just like Canaletto’s A Regatta on the Canal, offers something new on every viewing.