Death in Venice (1971)


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 often I visit The National Gallery in London, certain paintings continue to fascinate and enthral me with every viewing. These unique and special 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 unparalleled in its allure. 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 explore the city deep in its carnival joy with gondolas racing on the canal while the crowds celebrate, thieve and argue. But why do I find myself drawn to this painting again and again? Is it the sheer beauty of the work? The exquisite detail? Or maybe it’s the hidden stories lying undiscovered in the faces of the bustling crowd? It’s all three. The beauty, mystery, and meticulous detail combine to create a work of fascination, as the painting calls to me like a flower to a bee. Like that divine painting, films also have the power to create this level of fascination and allure, and Death in Venice is one of those films.


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, Death in Venice is also a film that continues to court controversy due to its subject matter as a middle-aged man becomes obsessed with the beauty of a teenage boy.

Following a disastrous concert, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) travels to Venice to escape – his trip wrapped in isolation, recovery and hope as he seeks to find an allusive new artistic flair. However, as he settles into the luxury of the Grand Hôtel des Bains, Aschenbach spots a boy on the verge of adolescence, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). As he gazes upon the angelic boy who never utters a word but clearly understands the attention he garners, Aschenbach finds himself enthralled, his mind a whirlwind of confusion, obsession and infatuation. But as rumours of a plague begin to spread through Venice, Aschenbach’s obsession leads to his own destruction, with Tadzio’s beauty a honey trap as Venice is gripped by cholera.

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Many have argued, over the years, that Visconti’s film is unsettling, an open acceptance of paedophilia. However, this argument views Death in Venice as a story of forbidden love and ignores the complexity at the heart of the narrative. After all, while beauty, love and desire are undoubtedly interlinked, they also carry 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. Likewise, Ruben’s Apollo is a figure of sculpted male beauty, but does that mean we view the painting solely from a perspective of sexual desire? Throughout history, the figure of the adolescent male has found itself associated with ideas of perfection, strength and beauty. This can be seen in paintings that take us from the early depictions of Christ to Andrea Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian and the work of Caravaggio. Meanwhile, in our modern world, the music industry continues to sell male teenage beauty through the boyband, while Hollywood embraces teenage male stars as the new idols of cinema. Maybe we celebrate this male beauty due to it being fleeting as the muscular androgyny of the teenage boy melts into the chiselled and rough 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 behind Death in Venice, the boy is a good place to start. Tadzio symbolises youthful perfection and its short-lived beauty; he is androgynous and delicate yet aware of his allure. Tadzio has no lines in the film, just a welcoming, nervous, yet inquisitive smile – he is a living statue of David, aware of the public gaze that follows him. Tadzio is a mere representation of the fragility of youth as the inner man begins to emerge from the cocoon of boyhood. The floating city surrounding him reinforces this theme of a rare beauty that quickly decays. Here Visconti’s Venice represents a city in decline, its once bright, opulent and grand buildings slowly sinking as age takes its toll.


Visconti’s Death in Venice meditates on our growing obsession with youth and beauty. Aschenbach’s obsession is not with the boy but with his own decline. Tadzio is a reminder that his life has failed despite his intelligence, wealth, and all the wishes and hopes he carried as a boy. Aschenbach sees Tadzio’s beauty and sexuality, but this reflection also ignites deeply held regrets, fears and failures. Tadzio brims with confidence, his life at the crossroads between boyhood and manhood where he can openly explore his sexuality free from public pressure, but for Aschenbach, that time has passed and is forever lost in the mists of age. As cholera takes hold and his death nears, Aschenbach attempts to reclaim his youth with makeup in a final defiant act of self-forgiveness and hope; his last moments spent staring at the boy who was his angel and demon.

Death in Venice is a film about repression, fleeting beauty, age and lost opportunities, and maybe elements of the narrative play to Visconti’s personal experiences as an ageing gay man. Visconti never denied or attempted to hide his sexual orientation, but he did keep his private and public life in separate boxes throughout his career. Death in Venice may be his most personal and revelatory film, as it explores the regrets of older age and the new youthful sexual freedom of 70s Europe through a historical text and story. Equally, Dirk Bogarde’s decision to play Aschenbach may also tie to these undercurrents as Bogarde left Hollywood for Europe. Here both Bogarde and Visconti mirrored aspects of Thomas Mann’s life, his secretive love of men sitting at the heart of his work.

Meanwhile, the choice of Gustav Mahler’s majestic third and fifth symphonies as a score brings to the fore another sexually-repressed figure from history. Mahler’s sexuality was the subject of constant rumour and speculation.


Death in Venice is not only a complex discussion of repression and regret; it’s an intricate tapestry of themes woven with such care that the film continues to intrigue audiences. As Visconti’s film turns fifty, it feels more and more like Canaletto’s A Regatta on the Canal, as it offers me something new with every viewing.

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