Venice—the great watery serpent of indefinable plagues and forebodings, the last grand visitation of rotting romanticism as elegant theme park. This city’s atmosphere of Grim Reaper imagery is the quintessential setting for the pitiful end of Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s exquisitely prosed Death in Venice. There’s no locale on earth more conducive to let Aschenbach feel, as Mann wrote, “a dark contentment with what was taking place...(the) wicked secret of the city was welded with (my) own secret.” But too much of moribund Venice and rationalized sexual repression can do a reader in: Mann’s writer is already pegged a sexual malcontent by the fourth page and by the time his Aschenbach finds in a fourteen year old his Prince Charming and goes on about the boy’s Narcissism, you’re very close to exhaustion; you can’t wait until the sirocco overtake him so you can be relieved of his unfulfilled desires. Mann believed “writers are happiest with an idea which can become all emotion and an emotion all idea,” but he’s insistently Germanic with mythological veneration of beauty as pardon for the emotion that dare not speak its name. He’s gone beyond his Germanism; he’s eclipsed the spiritual and physical enthrall of beauty—the young Tadzio is, by end, not Hermes but Donatello’s David—and made Aschenbach an intellectual pedophile. The story isn’t so much a study of the dangers of beauty as consumption as it is punishment for private thoughts as crimes never committed. Luchino Visconti’s movie of the novella, even with changing Aschenbach from writer to composer, modelled after Mahler, is reconstructed with fidelity to Mann. Visconti and his crew—photographer Pasqualino De Santis, costume designer Piero Tosi and art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti—give us a languishing, glamorously stifling Venetian holiday at the turn of the century as a malignancy of class snobbery; the images reek with an aura of knowing denial. De Santis also catches the funereal gondola and its seats perfectly, just as Mann did, and brings us the green goo of the canals and the cold, damp walls and mazy passages that are like journeys into a menacing past. Even the author’s pathos that makes you squeamish—the barber’s vulgar touch-up of Aschenbach’s hair, cheeks and lips—is here in all its ingloriousness. Dirk Bogarde’s Gustav is made up like Mann, but he doesn’t have Mann’s imposing height or air of eloquence, and he could never be accused of being Germanic; every flabby cell confirms he’s an English pris. It’s this part that makes him wrong for the role but obviously appealing to those closeted academicians who rave about his performance—because educated inverts who don’t engage in the sex of their wishes and who hide between the stacks of their libraries often do become grotesque parodies. Bogarde manages the slow death of unrequitedness—a crumbling artist devoured by beauty and its controvertible attractions and hindered by restrictive societal proprieties; the less he says the better the performance. But Bogarde isn’t Aschenbach the German, and without that identity the story loses its tragedy; though Gustav is already in the fall of his lifetime, it’s his Teutonic masculinity that he betrays in his feeble attempts to reenergize. We’re supposed to be in horror when he uses any trick to recapture what’s gone forever. As Bogarde plays him, Gustav’s a dignified horror right from the start and so when he’s being primped up or when he slumps over to his death, with his hair dye running down his face, there’s no tragic punch. He’s a pathetic English Yuri out of a gay Pasternak—and his Lara doesn’t continue onward through the snow but out to sea, stopping long enough to give the old man his last jollies with a David come-on. (Recent biographers claim Mann had personal conflicts with his attractions to men—particularly to orthodox Georgian Ernst Glöckner. If true, this explains why his Aschenbach hadn’t the guts to go to the next logical step: a German true to his loins would have at least sneaked a peek into Tadzio’s beach tent. Alternately, as Elizabeth Hardwick writes, “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.”) The more Mann’s Aschenbach goes on idolizing Tadzio, the more you wonder where a boy could be found to physically live up to the description. Visconti did in Bjorn Andresen. If the effeminacy isn’t quite Grecian, he’s still a ravishing icon in his seafood whites; he's so delicate a creation that everyone wants him and at the same time wants to protect him. Mann suggests that Tadzio is oblivious tease without sexual experience, but Andresen is directed to be a precocious temptress. From the movie’s point of view, there can be no question where Tadzio’s looks come from—Silvana Mangano, a breathtaking Margaret Leighton. Attracted to Death in Venice partly as a tale of woe about unconsummated Adonis worship that Mann literally came upon while visiting Venice (almost all the details in the story are authentic to his observances, including the threat of wind-carried disease, prophetic encounters with an aging queen and his Tadzio); attracted partly because of his own sexual preference; drawn to it partly because so many intellectuals were pushing him to film it—can’t you hear the ivy leaguers sighing, “Oh, Luchino, it’s my story!”—and attracted partly, if not largely, to it because of his aristocratic iciness, Visconti’s as good a choice as any to make a movie of Mann’s frost-nipped melodrama. They both knew how to give you a case of the chills about sexual heat.

Back  Next  Home


Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.