Classic Corner: Death in Venice

In 1982, The New York Times named Venice “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” Its near-mythic status as the hub of Renaissance art and an idyllic romantic hotspot has withstood centuries of change and human impact, including careening cruise ships, polluted rivers, and the fact that the entire city is sinking into the ocean. Cinema has certainly indulged this fantasy, although the most notable examples of Venetian dramas have a more caustic view of the city. The Criterion Channel’s current “Set in Venice” collection is largely dominated by films wherein the picturesque city is the exemplification of mental and sexual degradation. Paul Schrader and Nicolas Roeg made Venice a dingy backdrop to stories of paranoia and sleaze with The Comfort of Strangers and Don’t Look Now, respectively. Luchino Visconti’s Senso used Venice as the home for a story of desire that melts into madness amid a war of nationalist corruption. The undisputed king of the Venetian rot subgenre, however, is another Visconti film, and the title says it all: Death in Venice.

Based on Thomas Mann’s unnerving novella, Death in Venice follows a frail composer, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who has traveled to the city for health reasons. While staying at the legendary Grand Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido, he notices an exquisite teenage boy named Tadzio. He is instantly mesmerized, left unable to do anything but trail through Venice in the hopes of catching another glimpse of the boy whose beauty enthralls and destroys him.

Aschenbach’s Venice is one in the midst of a plague, a cholera outbreak that the authorities are seeking to downplay to fleeing residents and confused tourists. It’s hard to make Venice look totally awful, but even amid its historic beauty, Visconti’s languid gaze cannot help but expose its deterioration. It’s a far cry from the Venice of Senso, whose sumptuousness evokes that narrative’s sexual frenzy. Every alleyway feels like a tunnel to hell, with the walls scrubbed down in a futile attempt to stop the spread of infection. Despite the evident danger, Aschenbach stays in Venice to be close to Tadzio, and his body and mind degenerate until he dies alone and afraid. It’s a very literal evocation of the novella’s themes, a rendering of subtext into text.

Many critics took umbrage with how Visconti’s adaptation zeroed in on Aschenbach’s pederasty. On the page, Aschenbach’s awestruck odes to this adolescent boy are more thoroughly linked to ideas of platonic love, of the appreciation of beauty rather than sexual desire for it. He is seeking some sort of replacement for what he believes to be his own waning artistic abilities. Roger Ebert lamented the film’s “lack of ambiguity,” saying that Visconti had “chosen to abandon the subtleties of the Thomas Mann novel and present us with a straightforward story of homosexual love.” Time‘s review claimed that the novella was “no more about homosexuality than Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is about entomology” and that the film was “irredeemably, unforgivably gay.” Perhaps that stripping away of plausible deniability felt too raw for some and made it impossible to ignore the blatantly unnerving spectacle of an adult man all but stalking a child through a city with lust in his eyes.

But that’s what’s at the heart of this story and always has been. Academics have spent decades dissecting Mann’s novella in connection to his private life, his diaries detailing his own struggles with his sexuality and the obsession he seemed to have with a young Polish boy as well as his own teenage son. Those discomfiting biographical elements are that much tougher to watch on-screen, particularly since young Tadzio, mostly mute like a Grecian sculpture, often seems to coyly return Aschenbach’s hungry gaze (Björn Andrésen, who played Tadzio, has talked candidly over the decades about his struggles with being sexualized by both Visconti and other adult men who fetishized the character.) To reject the film’s queerness, just because it’s one of intense and justified taboo, is to deny the raw, painful ethos of both Mann and Visconti’s intentions.

Visconti obviously has some sort of empathy for Aschenbach, a man so consumed by his mania that he lets it sink him into utter oblivion. But he also makes it clear that this sensation he feels for Tadzio is overwhelmed with shame and self-destruction. Tadzio himself is barely a character. Andresen plays him with such a lack of feeling, not unaware of his beauty but more ambivalent about it than everyone else around him. In those moments where he seems to acknowledge Aschenbach’s gaze, you get the sense that this is nothing new to him, and that it will leave less of an impact on his mind than what he had for breakfast that day. Anyone could have been Tadzio to Aschenbach. It was all merely a case of time and place.

Visconti’s film is not necessarily condemning of Aschenbach, but it does pity him, and his sad lonely death on the beach is a mockery of his futile desires. He drags himself to the coast to further leer at Tadzio, but only after a humiliating make-over to appear younger that leaves him looking like a corpse. It melts off in the unforgiving sun. An adolescent is objectified by an older man desperately seeking beauty and pleasure, and in the end, it renders him an abject fool. It becomes grotesque, the rotting truth at the center of a city sinking into the sea as an epidemic decimates its curious voyeurs.

“Death in Venice” is streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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