Readers have been long aware of the genesis of Death in Venice: author Thomas Mann, visiting the city with his wife, literally observed his inspiration for young Tadzio, chronicling not only the mythological beauty but also how others around him were caught in the spell and became subsequent characters. What most of the readers hadn’t known back in 1912 when the novella was published, and for some years thereafter, were the subterranean connections Mann implied when Aschenbach realized “a dark contentment with what was taking place...[the] wicked secret of the city was welded with [my] own secret.” Though Mann’s attractions to adult males intersect throughout his life, they didn’t include the idolatry of male youth. His attempts at hiding or avoiding any physical acts of sex with men still debated, his leanings are not; in spite of German apologists claiming platonic adherence, those yearnings manifested in what is described as an “intense” four-year relationship with German violinist Paul Ehrenberg. But, as his writing career was taking off, and with an avowed goal to achieve “greatness,” translating into winning the biggest literary prize, he broke off whatever he had with Ehrenberg to marry, as acknowledgment of the reign of conservatism and, lest we forget, the indiscretions and ramifications 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 romping around nude as a young teen and commented how 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 the emotion now seems to have eclipsed the spiritual and desirous enthrall of discovery and tipped into an intellectual (and generically termed) pedophilia. 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: be it textual or visual, masturbatory adoration of proscribed beauty kills. Though regarded as misstep to have changed Aschenbach from writer to Mahleresque composer as pretext to use his music with the ostensible intent to expose him, without substantiation, as closet case, the major undermining by the director is pretending Dirk Bogarde could ever be Germanic or Czech, Mahler’s nationality; every flabby cell confirms he’s an English poof. Lacking even a minimum of requisite Teutonic masculine pride, scarcely managing the slow demise of crumbling artist devoured by the unattainable, he doesn’t conjure tragedy in a death primped in squeamish pathos of a cosmetician’s vulgar touch-ups of hair, cheeks and lips. Slumping over as hair dye runs down both sides of the face, he turns the sap into a pathetic Yuri out of a perverted Pasternak, with his Lara strolling not through the snowy streets but out to sea, stopping long enough to give the old man his last jollies with a David come-on. The appeal is to the closeted who don’t tempt their darker wishes, who hide between the stacks of 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. (Is a pardon due? In a 1986 interview Dirk Bogarde Above the Title available on youtube, Bogarde recounts the day the death scenes were filmed: without advance prep, Visconti came up to him and said they would shoot them in a few hours—after Bogarde would endure a torturous application of death mask makeup made from industrial chemicals he’d later read on the labels were not to be used on face or near eyes. At the Lido, he discovered he’d be emoting before a cadre of Visconti’s friends noisily sloshing champagne and clicking their Instamatics.)

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 escalating 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; so delicate a creation 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 of the author’s love of Tadzio is his beauty and not sexual, Visconti then uses Andrésen as precocious temptress. We who were around when the movie was released in 1971 were not surprised by Visconti’s non-innocent tilt of aesthetics of male beauty. (Scouring Mann’s diaries, we’re not surprised by his admissions, as it is clear he was wanking through the labor he expends on Aschenbach’s feverish boy-love heaps.) “Woke” consensus today is Visconti’s approach to adolescent seductiveness won’t be tolerated, and neither would Nabokov’s practiced Lolita, no matter the age of consent. 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, perhaps damning in the need to issue the caveat and evidently not stopping crew members from exhibiting him at gay clubs. There is intimation something happened here or there or somewhere else with person(s) unnamed. Note the build of insertions, one of them lip-smacking lasciviousness. About a used-up Tadzio as “wandering trophy,” this postscript, a “Me too” weeper taking five years to make and without unequivocal disclosure of any voluntary same-sex sex, is rendered as 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 instilling 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.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER (Revised 5/2021) All Rights Reserved.