Quite by chance, I came across the 1971 film “Death in Venice” (while waiting for the Champion’s League game between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to begin) on cable. As it had just started, I was drawn in to Thomas Mann‘s meditation on death and beauty, and as mesmerized as the first time I saw it. Forgot about the football.
One may see the film as self-indulgent and slow. In fact, there is very little action. We watch a thousand emotions flit across lead actor Dirk Bogarde‘s face. The cameras linger as they pan across the Lido beach and the dining room of the Grand Hotel des Bains, where much of the “action” takes place (last year this splendid hotel from a bygone era was converted into luxury apartments). The film became quite a cult movie when it came out, and the overwhelming, soaring strains of Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony (and bits of the Third) sparked a sudden passion for the Austrian composer’s sumptuous symphonies. Although the film was nominated for an Oscar it did not receive one, but won a bunch of BAFTA awards, and best film at Cannes. It wasn’t really Hollywood stuff, at all. Too arty and a touch too risqué for the early seventies.
The film (based on the 1912 novella by German author Thomas Mann and directed by Luchino Visconti) revolves around two characters: Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach (a composer in the film, an author in the book); and an adolescent Polish boy (played by a Swede, Bjorn Andresen) called Tadzio, who is visiting Venice with his family. The lonely, aging composer arrives in Venice on a steamer, as the sun is setting across the translucent Lagoon. The magic spell of the city begins as the towers and minarets and palaces appear on the horizon, balanced on the still water. As he traverses the canals, the balconies and arches and stained glass windows of the floating city slide by Gustav’s face. And Gustav becomes infatuated with Tadzio.
Gustav Mahler himself died in Venice in 1911, the year before the book was published. So there are many links here with the composer’s life. These are worked into the film in short flashbacks of fleeting domestic happiness (Mahler suffered personal losses); and the angry public response to the first performance of the main character’s work. Mahler himself was booed when he conducted his work, and as an Austrian Jew suffered much prejudice and social ostracism; to me, this loneliness is always expressed in his music, as it is in this book and film.
And Tadzio is beautiful. Although the two characters never speak to each other (in fact, dialogue is quite minimal), he is aware of his own beauty – his fine features, blond hair, delicate mouth and dark brooding eyes – and of poor Gustav’s hopeless attraction to him. He walks self-consciously, and when he is not moving he creates a kind of languid cameo image, a watercolor painting perhaps. Leaning on the darkened parapet of one of Venice’s many bridges; in a striped orange bathing suit on the pale expanse of beach, one hand on his hip, half-turning towards his admirer; and at the end, standing in the shining water, one arm raised and pointing into the distance, a lonely figure.
“You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone,” Gustav murmurs, awe-struck by the boy’s latest Mona Lisa effort, directed at him, as the boy walks by.
The book, although short, is dense and far more complex than the film – but that is always the case. Nevertheless, there are some marvelous lines in the film. During a philosophical discussion on the conflict between “the man” and “the artist,” Gustav’s friend Alfred observes, “At the bottom of the mainstream…is mediocrity.”
Yet it is not just a pretty place, and not just a beautiful boy. There are disturbing elements. There is self-loathing and denial, and there is Gustav’s own revulsion at a painted homosexual who greets him on the boat. Bogarde’s character himself becomes a version of this man himself towards the end – a dandy, with dyed hair, coquettish mustache and reddened lips, and a pink rose in the button-hole of his white suit. And there is the uncomfortably clown-like quartet that plays at the hotel, moving from table to table, entertaining the upper classes while at the same time subtly deriding them.
Now, dear reader, if you have never been to Venice… Please try to go, one day. Yes, it is a tourist trap and too hot and crowded in the summer. I went there in early spring with my parents, and it was unforgettable, a world unto itself, uniquely beautiful and mysterious. Yet it also has a real and earthy quality, and there are some touches of this in the film – largely, the discovery that there has been an outbreak of cholera in the city, with a man sluicing the wet cobble stones and fountains with disinfectant. There is the fear of death – and Bogarde’s character reflects that fear of old age, of death. As his friend Alfred says, “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.”
In the end, though, it is the languorous, luminous tableaux of privileged Europeans with nothing to do, in the early years of the troubled twentieth century, that captivate and endure. The lines of pale green bathing huts; the endless parade of Edwardian hats, piled high with roses, festooned with feathers and swathes of satin, veiled and ruffled (hat-lovers will adore this film); the children, sitting up straight and silent with pursed lips in the dining room; the Russian family, spread out on the beach with their flowing robes and cushions. One of the Russians sings an exquisite lament at the end, on the almost-deserted beach, after most of the travelers have left in fear of disease. Deserted except for two small girls playing together, dressed in black. And Gustav and Tadzio, separated by their troubled emotions and essential loneliness.
In case you are wondering, dear reader, the British actor Dirk Bogarde was indeed reported to be homosexual. He has a fine body of work in films – many of them controversial, including “The Servant” and “The Night Porter,” and wrote several novels and a series of quite fascinating memoirs, which I have on my bookshelf. He was much more than a movie star; I was deeply saddened to hear of his death in 1999. As for the actor who played Tadzio, he was reportedly furious when Vischonti took him to gay bars at the time of the making of his film.
And don’t forget the much-revered author of the story, Thomas Mann – the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. The Nazis hated his anti-Fascist stance, and stripped him of his German citizenship in 1936. He denounced German academics who supported Nazism, and lived in exile in Switzerland and the United States, teaching at Princeton University for a while. His writing is rich and deep even when translated into English, and worth exploring.
Meanwhile, is beauty meaningless, or is it worth exploring for its own sake? How do we find that balance in life between “reality” and art?
- Death in Venice – Thomas Mann (collentine.com)
- http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/10/17/1066364482598.html?from=storyrhs: I’m Not Germaine’s Toy Boy
- Dearth in Venice as developer pulls plug on Grand Hôtel des Bains (guardian.co.uk)
- Jeremy Irons Joins Alcon’s ‘Beautiful Creatures’ (hollywoodinthehood.wordpress.com)
- Death In Venice (allysonway.wordpress.com)