Death In Venice Review

I remember we had one of those at my father’s house. The aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny, at first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only at the end and until it does, it is not worth thinking about until the last moment... when there’s no more time left to think about it.

Luchino Visconti, nobleman and Marxist, gained a reputation during his lifetime which seems to have somewhat faded since his death. As one of the ‘Big Three’ of post-war Italian cinema – along with Fellini and Antonioni – he enjoyed remarkable creative freedom and was frequently tagged a ‘genius’ who made ‘masterpieces’. The backlash – which began during the 1970s – tends to see him portrayed as a great filmmaker who got lost in his own ambitions and ended up as a shadow of his former self. In retrospect, neither view is really tenable. Certainly, he made some films which have the right to be labelled as masterpieces - Ossessione, Senso, The Leopard - but he also produced some incredibly self-indulgent and pretentious works which seem laughable now - Ludwig his surprisingly po-faced and tedious folly about Ludwig II of Bavaria being perhaps the worst. But I can’t think of any filmmaking visionaries who didn’t make some crap in their time and what Visconti did achieve in his best work is still incredibly impressive. Death In Venice, a film which has undergone various peaks and troughs of popularity, is to my mind a great film undermined by serious weaknesses but bolstered by some extraordinary scenes, an inspired soundtrack and a remarkable central performance.

Based on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, the film tells the story of the last few weeks in the life of Gustav Von Aschenbach (Bogarde), a composer who has come to Venice in an attempt to find some peace from the complications of his personal life in Germany. A musical purist and rigorous seeker after perfection, Aschenbach has seen his career decline and his relationships decay. Intending to stay for only a short period, he becomes entranced by the beauty of a young boy, Tadzio (Andreson) and finds excuses to stay just a while longer. He lingers, despite possessing privileged knowledge about a cholera epidemic sweeping the city, and meets his own doom in his quest to understand the meaning of perfection, as embodied in the form of Tadzio.

The following review contains spoilers for the film. If you feel this will affect your enjoyment then please skip down to my comments on the disc

The story is extremely simple and raises the question of how much plot is really needed in a film. The novella makes extensive use of interior monologue – although the Aschenbach of the text is a writer – and very little really happens, at least in conventional terms. The film follows this, using languorously extended mise-en-scene to suggest spiritual and intellectual states of being and sometimes rather obvious symbolism to indicate that Aschenbach is lurching towards an inevitable and undignified death. From the black smoke of the steamer bringing him to Venice to the final suggestion that in the barber’s shop he is being embalmed as a simulacrum of the way he might once have appeared, Aschenbach is on a path from which he cannot diverge. The final grains of sand are indeed running out and now Aschenbach can see it, he realises that it’s too late to do anything about it. There’s a palpable sense of unease which underpins the whole film and it’s not too much of a stretch to see Venice as Aschenbach’s own personal hell. Decay, fire and torment are everywhere, death is around the corner and ‘little devils’, in Visconti’s own words, are omnipresent. Aschenbach is even carried to the Lido by his own personal Charon, albeit one who disappears before he can receive his thirty coins. In a sense, the composer is dead from the beginning of the film and what we watch is his slow realisation of this and his desperate attempts to cling on to what remains of his life. This does, of course, make for a fascinating comparison with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, another vision of Venice as Inferno in which a man, trying to embrace life, ends up running towards his own, pre-ordained death.

So time has almost run out, not only for Aschenbach but also for the world which he inhabits. The aristocracy, holidaying in fashionable Venice during the hot summer of 1911, could hardly know it but their world was rapidly coming to an end. In three years time, the advent of the First World War would sweep away the Belle Epoque, just as the rise of the Risorgimento would destroy the world inhabited by Prince Salina in The Leopard. Visconti is fascinated in many of his films by the moments when an individual member of society recognises that their whole way of life is about to be forever changed – it’s there in the 1866 Venice of Senso, during the death throes of the Austrian occupation, it’s there in The Damned as we see how the perversity of an individual family is about to become the political policy of an entire nation and it’s abundantly present in Rocco And His Brothers in the sense of the impossibility of Southern values and culture surviving in the North. Death In Venice is indeed about Aschenbach’s death but it’s also about the death of an epoch and this is one of the subtexts which makes it so extraordinarily moving.

Another death that we witness is a more abstract one; the death of Aschenbach’s notions about the nature of art. In the novella, he questions himself constantly about his own sense that art springs from complete spiritual perfection. The film dramatises this debate by introducing the character of Alfred (Burns) who argues with Aschenbach in flashback about the source of creativity, suggesting that art comes from sensuality and physicality and is necessarily messy, difficult and irrational. Aschenbach cannot face this – he describes it as ‘the mysteries’ – and it is when he finds himself confronted by the messiest of all sensual emotions – love – that he meets his downfall. Some critics have complained that the flashbacks are artificial and introduce a central problem in that the nature of the relationship between Aschenbach and Alfred is never explained. This is understandable – they tend to carry on like an ageing gay couple – but I have always considered Alfred to be nothing more or less than the composer’s alter-ego, the repository of everything he considers to be ‘other’. Alfred rarely interacts with any other characters and his cruelty and complete lack of faith in Aschenbach make a lot more sense if we consider him to be part of Aschenbach’s mind and not a real character. More important is that Alfred’s argument – “Art is ambiguity, always” – wins through the person of Tadzio, a living embodiment of the ambiguity of physical perfection. Aschenbach thinks he is appreciating Tadzio on a spiritual level as a Platonic ideal but he realises that this has become hopelessly confused with Eros. His feelings of love conflict with his avowed spirituality and the result is some kind of breakdown.

I don’t mean this to sound as if I think Aschenbach is meant to be some kind of ageing queen afraid of coming out of the closet. I know some people have interpreted the film in this way but I don’t think that his love for Tadzio is necessarily sexual (although in a very important way, it is physical). What disturbs the composer isn’t that he fancies the arse off a teenage boy, it’s that the concept of ‘love’ – any kind of love - is something which he has spent so many years blocking that it no longer makes any sense to him. In the film, we see brief flashbacks of a happy marriage and a child, followed by the heartbreak caused by the child’s death, and I think what results is that Aschenbach retreats from his senses completely, into the quest for spiritual perfection. Nor do I think that Aschenbach would be someone who would be aware that he was even in a closet in the first place; he lacks the self-awareness to be consciously ‘straight’, let alone bi-curious or a nervous homosexual.

This sense of a man for whom the internal is suddenly disrupted by the sensual, undeniable external, is emphasised in Dirk Bogarde’s beautiful performance. Bogarde was probably too young for the role but he manages to convey a great deal by seemingly doing very little. His looks, his shrugs, his physical suggestion of a man at the end of a long decline – all of these are brilliantly achieved. The slight prissiness of his performance at the start goes, partly because he has less dialogue later in the film. By the end, he breaks your heart because he manages to show the dignity crumbling behind the hair-dye and the rouge. When Aschenbach allows the barber to blacken his hair and when he himself makes himself up to create his notion of what might be considered attractive, he is trying to restore his notion of purity by destroying the signs of ageing which suggest the triumph of corruption. Bogarde is at his best during the final scenes. This is a daring and courageous performance which, like Brando in Last Tango In Paris or Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, works so well precisely because you can see how close the actor is coming to being unwatchably embarrassing. He’s going to the edge and beyond and he dares the viewer to stick with him. He carries the film – in some respects, he is the film. None of the other actors have a great deal to do, although Silvana Mangano looks lovely as Tadzio’s aristocratic mother and there is a memorably disquieting appearance from a small group of clownish singers. Bjorn Andresen presents a more difficult critical problem. He doesn’t really give a performance in the accepted sense but as an embodiment of physical perfection he is exactly right. One gets the feeling that if he were allowed to deliver any extended dialogue that the illusion would be shattered but thankfully, he remains largely mute.

Along with Aschenbach and Tadzio, there is another major character in the film but he never appears in person. This is Gustav Mahler, whose Third and Fifth Symphonies appear during the film with particular emphasis placed on the Adagietta of the Fifth which first plays over the opening credits and keeps reappearing. Mahler was a figure who had a profound influence on Thomas Mann and his death in 1911 came as a huge shock to Mann. Although it would be a brave critic who stated that Aschenbach in the film equates to Mahler, the tragic life of the real-life composer seems to have some bearing on the fiction. Mahler was haunted by the spectre of death throughout his life, having great difficulty coming to terms with the deaths of his parents and sister in 1888 and later being brought close to breakdown by the death of his daughter from scarlet fever in 1907. His musical career in Austria was constantly hounded by anti-Semitism and his move to New York in 1909 was brought about by a calculated press campaign of vilification. It’s not hard to see Mahler in the tired figure of Aschenbach, burdened by personal tragedy and public humiliation, although one shouldn’t take the comparison too far. Mahler’s genius was almost certainly greater than that of Aschenbach and his final months in America were marked by personal popularity and creativity. However you see this comparison, there’s little doubt that the music is a vital component of the film and has become inextricably linked to it. Mahler’s own sense of tragedy and the inevitable approach of his death once he discovered his heart condition add a great deal to the film and I suspect this was exactly what Visconti intended.

Death in Venice is a long, sometimes slightly ponderous film but it is also one which exhibits immense directorial control. Visconti isn’t afraid to linger on a suggestive image or to keep us waiting while he observes every inch of Bogarde’s face. Some may find this technique hypnotic and others may find it unutterably tedious. But I think it’s a masterstroke. Of course, there are weaknesses. The broad playing of the supporting cast is sometimes unintentionally comic, the emphasis on Andresen’s body has a homo-erotic spin that reminds us of Visconti’s own sexual orientation and takes us out of the film, and one or two scenes simply don’t work. Bogarde’s screaming rage at the railway station is particularly awkward and unconvincing. But the overall effect is so powerful that reservations can easily be swept aside. Whereas the appeal of The Damned was that of rip-roaring gothic melodrama – Peyton Place with Nazis - this second film in his ‘German Trilogy’ is a quiet study in emotional torture that uses its slow pace to offer something to the viewer. Come with me, it asks, and be patient and I’ll show you something extraordinary. The reward for the viewer’s patience is the kind of complete emotional meltdown which is both disturbing and cathartic – similar experiences are offered by films as diverse as Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Bergman’s Winter Light, all deliberately paced films which demand a lot from the viewer but offer something far more satisfying than the short-lived exhilaration of most movies..

The Disc

I’ve waited a long time for this film to be released on DVD and Warners haven’t let me down. Although the disc is a little light on extra features, the transfer is very good indeed.

The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. I haven’t seen the film in its proper ratio before and it’s a revelation. Although there is some print damage evident, the richness of the colours and the amount of fine detail amply compensate for this. There is a considerable amount of grain present, rather more than necessary, but there is no serious problem with artefacting. Overall, I haven’t seen the film look this good before and the exquisite cinematography of Pasquale De Santis is well served.

The soundtrack options are English, French or Italian, all in the original mono thankfully. All good tracks and the mixture of languages which feature in the film mean that you might as well watch in the original English dub which has Bogarde’s voice. The all-important music score comes across beautifully.

There are three extra features. “A Tour Of Venice” is a small gallery of production stills from the film, most of which are in black and white. “Visconti’s Venice’ is one of those period-piece Warner featurettes which amuses for all the wrong reasons. There’s a lot of Visconti posing on a boat and some voiceover comments from Bogarde which are more valuable than you might at first think. But it’s brief at just under 10 minutes and doesn’t really add much to the disc. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer which is so pompous that it has to be seen to be believed. Subtitles are offered for the film and the featurette in English and several other languages.

Death In Venice is a fascinating and challenging film that you may well have a strong reaction to, whether positive or negative. It’s certainly worth seeing and even though it’s 33 years old, it has aged very well. This DVD presents it nicely but it would have been nice to have a commentary track or some serious contextualising material.

Death In Venice is released to buy by Warners on the 12th April

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Last updated: 29/05/2018 06:51:23

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