Death in Venice

A template of death

(by Thomas Mann) (1912)

(Dir. Luchino Visconti) (1971)

Gustave von Aschenbach, an artist questing intensely after spiritual perfection, arrives, exhausted, unhappy, at the end of his tether, at the Lido and is entranced by a family staying at the same hotel, including handsome Tadzio in his little sailor suit.

Shaken by his depth of feeling, Aschenbach attempts to skip town but upon a hitch in his arrangements, he decides to return to where he was smitten, and to embrace his doom with a light heart.  Mann’s novella is a polished gem, a short and sweet epitome of a bitter quest to steal innocence.


As Visconti told Bogarde: “You know it is about Mahler, Gustav Mahler? Thomas Mann told me he met him in a train coming from Venice; this poor man in the corner of the compartment, with make-up, weeping…because he had fallen in love with beauty…If you ever look upon perfect beauty, then you must die, you know that?  Goethe.  There is nothing else left for you to do in life.”*

There is little doubt that the older man’s feelings are a bit ‘suss’ (in fact, all of the older men in the picture, especially those given to use make-up, have serious personal issues) but thankfully both novella and film skirt the earthier aspects and concentrate on the pitiful descent of the Apollonian ideal.  Visconti directs with a Wagnerian romantic splendour (the sublime opening shot is reminiscent of Rheingold), utilising pieces from Mahler’s 3rd and 5th Symphonies (Orchestra Santa Cecilia conducted by Franco Mannino), lovingly rendering Venice in its tarnished glory, its out-of-season weather, and its grip in the plague of cholera.

That trip to the barber didn't stave off that "swiftly mounting dread"

That trip to the barber didn’t stave off my “swiftly mounting dread”

Central to the film is the performance of Dirk Bogarde as the obsessed, dying man: a driven composer and conductor of genius (in the novella he was a writer) who returns to embrace the fetching Angel of Death.  With very little dialogue, Bogarde builds a complex persona, gives us a back-story, and embodies a moral dilemma, almost from glances alone. It vindicates Norma Desmond’s view that movie acting is primarily to be seen, rather than heard.  Because his glances are so powerful and galvanising: when, for example, he decides to leave the train station and return to the Lido, smiling to himself both at the fates and the jolt of his decision, one is tempted to stand and applaud.


In fact, Bogarde’s playing is the apex of his career, a subtle triumph to cap his performances in The Servant and Accident.  As Visconti said to Bogarde after filming had completed: “Your work transcends anything that I even remotely dreamed of.”*

Keats wrote, in Ode on a Grecian Urn: ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

[* Dirk Bogarde, Snakes and Ladders]


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