Readers have been aware since the publication of Death in Venice back in 1912 that author Thomas Mann, visiting the city with his wife, literally observed his inspiration for young Tadzio, noticing not only the mythological beauty but also how others around him were caught in the spell and became subsequent characters. Mann writes that Aschenbach would realize “a dark contentment with what was taking place...[the] wicked secret of the city was welded with [my] own secret.” Before the novella there were hints of his attraction to males but idolatry of youth not yet suspect. While Mann’s attempts at hiding or avoiding any physical acts of sex with men are still debated, his homosexual leanings are not; in spite of German apologists claiming everything was platonic, those yearnings have intersected throughout his life and writings. He had what is described as an “intense” four-year relationship with German violinist Paul Ehrenberg but, as his writing career was taking off, and with his avowed goal to achieve “greatness,” which translates into winning the biggest literary prize of them all, he broke off whatever he had with Ehrenberg to marry, acknowledging that conservatism reigned and, lest we forget, the indiscretions of Ludwig and Oscar Wilde never far away. However, when Mann’s diaries were unveiled in Germany in 1974, causing a sensation twenty years after his death, many of his entries—particularly one from 1920 in which he felt “disconcerted” and a “disquiet” in enjoying watching his son Klaus bathing and romping around nude as a young teen but nevertheless commented that he’d “find it quite natural that I should fall in love with my son”—would compel biographers and critics to reëvaluate Death in Venice. Believing “writers are happiest with an idea which can become all emotion and an emotion all idea”—ironic is the emotion’s possible genetic link to sons Klaus and Golo as gay and beloved daughter Erika as bisexual—Mann’s insistently Germanic veneration of beauty as pardon for that emotion now seems close to confirmation, having eclipsed the spiritual and desirous enthrall of accidental discovery and tipped Aschenbach into intellectual pedophilia. By end Tadzio isn’t Hermes but Donatello’s David. Various insertions in the diaries insinuate Mann, as he aged, became increasingly attracted to younger boys. As Elizabeth Hardwick points out, “In Mann’s fiction, a deep psychology of symbol and wound moves...into a bold, secret life of repression, erotic fatality and a driven, complicated denial.” Intertwined in its exquisite embroidery of language, Death in Venice is both a cautionary tale on the dangers of consumption and a foretelling of the secrets of Thomas Aschenbach.
Luchino Visconti’s movie version is constructed with fidelity to Mann’s Grim Reaper aesthetics to mesh with his own—that, textual or visual, masturbatory adoration of proscribed beauty kills. Regarded as inexplicable misstep, he changes Aschenbach from writer to Mahler with the intent to expose the musician, without substantiation, as closet case. The major undermining, however, is pretending that Dirk Bogarde could ever be Germanic like the author or even Czech, Mahler’s nationality; every flabby cell confirms Bogarde’s an English poof. Lacking even a minimum of requisite Teutonic masculine pride, he scarcely manages the slow demise of a crumbling artist devoured by what’s unattainable, he doesn’t conjure tragedy in a death primped in squeamish pathos of a barber’s vulgar touch-ups of hair, cheeks and lips. Slumping over as hair dye runs down the face, he turns the sap into a pathetic Yuri out of a perverted Pasternak, with his Lara strolling not through the snow but out to sea, stopping long enough to give the old man his last jollies with a David come-on. The appeal is to those closeted academicians who don’t engage in their darker wishes, who hide between the stacks of their libraries and become grotesque parodies, blitherers akin to Tim Conway’s Mister Tudball. And now there’s an added association—we’re much more likely to flash on Rudy Oozy Giuliani.
Three elements make the movie a sufferable curiosity. Cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis captures Venice as the watery serpent of indefinable plagues and forebodings, as the last grand visitation of rotting romanticism languishing as elegant theme park. As Mann did, he takes in the class snobbery, the funereal gondola and its seats, the canals’ green goo and dampish mazy passages as journeys into malignancy. Art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s interiors are profusely more crowded with appointments than people, fulfilling Visconti’s customary virtu; the exteriors are diametrically nonindulgent and the Lido austere and isolating; the frightful fires in the campi waging defense against the sirocco escalate its threat slithering through the labyrinths. Stellar is the contribution of costume designer Piero Tosi’s elaborated wardrobe for Silvana Mangano: breathtaking as she is, and clearly the only mother who could give birth to Tadzio, her dresses and millinery (those nets!) have a compensatory effect—they do more “acting” than she or any other performer. (This link about Tosi does him justice.)
Visconti reserves concentration on Mann’s worship of Tadzio, making Björn Andrésen a ravishing icon in his seafood whites; he’s so delicate a creation that others who covet him are at the same time feeling obliged to protect him from the sharks, at least on screen. Mann’s Tadzio is muse without sapience; instructing Andrésen on set that the author is in love with Tadzio’s beauty and that it’s not sexual, Visconti then uses Andrésen as precocious temptress. Scouring Mann’s diaries, we’re apprised of his attempts to persuade us he hadn’t any same-sex sex, only a tortuous restraint equaling the labor he pours into Aschenbach’s feverish fantasies. We who were around when the movie was released in 1971 will recall Visconti’s not unanticipated non-innocent tilt that aesthetics of male beauty include sexual longing. (The “fever” mounts again in the overly-acclaimed Call Me By Your Name as we hear Elio’s father panting over ancient art.) “Woke” consensus today is that Visconti’s approach to adolescent seductiveness won’t be tolerated, and neither would Nabokov’s practiced Lolita. But these sexualizations have been present throughout history, continue as consequences from myriad realities we hide about sexual experience and what the evolving perturbations stemming from its variations do to us. The alleged consequences in real life for Andrésen have produced what will be inevitable companion piece to Death in Venice in future retrospectives—the 2021 documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, in which he’s officially a victim. Its moviemakers’ tenor is wholly sympathetic yet inconclusive: there aren’t any direct accusations of sexual abuse; in fact, we’re told Visconti forbade the film crew any such behavior toward Andrésen. There is intimation that something happened here or there or somewhere else with persons unnamed. Note the build of insertions, one of them lip-smacking lasciviousness. About a used-up Tadzio as “wandering trophy,” this postscript is a “Me too” weeper—taking five years to make—complete with performance art.
Attracted to Death in Venice partly as trueness about unconsummated Adonis longing he experienced for Alain Delon, attracted partly because the ivy leaguers were pushing him to film it—can’t we hear them sighing, “Oh, Luchino, it’s my story!”—and partly, if not largely, attracted to it because his own upbringing had similarities to the Mann family that helped instill dissociation as self-preservation, Visconti’s patrician roots and preoccupations make him a fashionable choice to pictorialize Mann’s frost-nipped melodrama. They both know how to give us a case of the chills about verboten fervor.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER (Revised 5/2021) All Rights Reserved.