Written by Kristoffer Tronerud

Italy, 1971. 130 min. Alfa Cinematografica/ Warner Bros. Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Bjørn Andresen, Marisa Berenson, Mark Burns. Music: Gustav Mahler; Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis; Produced by: Luchino Visconti; Based on a Novella by: Thomas Mann; Written by: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco; Directed by: Luchino Visconti

“The artist is like a hunter in the dark”, bemoans Gustav, the tormented hero of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, “they know what their target is, but they don’t know if they’ve hit it!” While this is certainly true of Gustav, nothing could be less true of Luchino Visconti, a masterful commanding artist who knew exactly what he wanted, and, most often, got it. In the contemporaneous promotional short Visconti’s Venice, Dirk Bogarde, (who plays Gustav with a brave and ego-free poignancy) notes with amusement that “I provide the tracks, but Visconti brings the train.” Another, very different, Italian master, Sergio Leone, was speaking of himself, but might as well have been describing Visconti, when he said “It is essential that all the details seem right, never invented. A fairy tale captures the imagination most when the setting is as realistic as possible”. Visconti was the master of detail; engineering every visual touch, every texture, every last element of costuming, set design and prop placement (indeed, on Death, he seems even to have controlled the weather itself), so that by the time the shot is played out, his languid camera need only pass over the proceedings in a final masterful brush stroke to bring home the powerful truth of each passage of this magnificent fairy tale.

Wracked by the loss of his daughter, and the devastating public reception of his latest work, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (based in large part on Gustav Mahler, whose elegiac music is a perfect accompaniment to Visconti’s achingly beautiful compositions) has fled to the ancient beauty and serenity of Venice, hoping that he will be able to recover both his health and his ability to work, a plan which, almost immediately, begins to unravel. If Count Luchino Visconti di Madrone (it is easy to forget that this champion of the common man was heir to the Duke of Milan) was in complete control of his life and his art, his protagonist, despite his fussy insistence on every detail of his life being arranged ‘just so,’ is decidedly not. Upon his arrival in Venice, Gustav is not even able to get his Gondola driver to take him to his preferred landing spot, and, despite his insistence (in the flashbacks of conversation with colleague and best friend Alfred that frame the moral and philosophical premise of Death) that artists are teachers who must be “models of balance and strength”, Gustav almost immediately surrenders his will and resolve when he sees Tadzio (Bjorn Andreson), a breathtakingly beautiful teenager, dining with his mother and sisters in their hotel dining room.

At first Gustav is wistfully amused by his preoccupation with the young aristocrat, but when Tadzio, flattered and curious, returns Gustav’s fond stares, Gustav is transfixed by the opportunity to realize his dream of an objectified beauty made real, as filtered through his artistic sensibilities – a dream which quickly degenerates into the more unmanageable sexual obsession of old man for a young, unattainable boy. This unhealthy preoccupation is in direct conflict with both his lifelong habit of remaining at arm’s length from the beauty of the world (a habit that Alfred says has crippled his art) and his genuine love for his wife (portrayed in the flashbacks with a wordless grace by Marisa Berenson). As he struggles between a desire to make, at long last, human contact with the beauty he has sought to portray in his art and retaining his now crumbling sense of purity, another kind of collapse is quietly taking place all around him.

Signs of sickness and death begin to appear everywhere in the city, and the local authorities, terrified of panicking the all-important tourists, are denying the rumors of what is actually happening: Asian Cholera has hit the city. Ausenbach, in a brief flirtation with good sense, attempts to leave, but, in yet another surrender of control, allows a minor problem with his luggage to convince him to stay and, smiling, await his doom. In the quietly terrifying scene that begins the final tragic act of Gustav’s story, a street troubadour, sickly, and obviously already infected, makes his rounds of the outdoor tables of the hotel’s garden, defiantly singing with a forced gaiety to the remaining guests, giving special attention to Gustav, as if death itself has invaded the rarified atmosphere of the hotel, and Gustav’s once sheltered life. The city of Venice, at once beautiful and decaying, already serving as a powerful metaphor for the aging Gustav, now mirrors, in its own descent into pestilence and chaos, the final corruption of everything Gustav has always held dear, a willing and willful accomplice to his own destruction. The final dance of death has begun.

It is at his point that Death in Venice overtly becomes what it has really (except for the somewhat awkwardly inserted debates between Gustav and Alfred) been all along: a silent movie. “He reads all the time”, chuckles Bogarde in Visconti’s Venice, “but he doesn’t care about words.” As Gustav pathetically follows Tadzio and his family through the streets of Venice, now littered with small fires of burning infected clothing, his face smeared clown-like with face cream, his hair died jet black in a foolish last stab at manufactured youth, Bogarde’s performance takes on a mime-like Chaplinesque pathos. As every step brings him closer to death,and to a realization of what he has become, Bogarde collapses, gesturing toward the sky in a final and apparently unanswered supplication; we are reminded once more of the awesome power—quite apart from language—of great images, here accompanied only by the sounds of nature, and, of course, the sad and sweeping “score” by Mahler.

Although they have very different visual and social settings, Death in Venice is very similar in structure and emotional spirit to another great film of inexorable, uncontrolled downfall, John Ford’s The Informer. Both films, from their very first moments, trap their hero and audience in a terrible whirlpool of inescapable ruination. Both films also, despite their potentially depressing storylines, have the underlying message that there is value in striving for a higher purpose, even when we fail, and Visconti seems to be saying, as he did throughout his work, that there is dignity, and yes, beauty, in the struggle. Gustav’s worth lies not in his failed attempt to create this beauty, but in that part of him that seeks it.

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