19th Mar2019

‘Death in Venice’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Marisa Berenson, Mark Burns, Silvana Mangano | Written by Nicola Badalucco, Luchino Visconti | Directed by Luchino Visconti


Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Der Tod in Venedig focused on a German writer named Gustav von Aschenbach, who decides to take a holiday to Venice, where he falls in love. The greatest change in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film adaptation, Death in Venice, is the fact that Gustav (Dirk Bogarde) is instead a composer. The troubling scenario concerning the main character’s paedophilic intentions remains, and is perhaps intensified in this, the best-regarded screen adaptation.

Through flashbacks we learn that Gustav has come to Venice to recover from an illness, possibly brought about by the death of his young daughter. His wife (Marisa Berenson) will not be joining him. Gustav enters a world of aged, crumbling architecture, bathed in a light that always seems to be dwindling – a reflection of his own declining physical and mental state. Imagine Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now mixed with Visconti’s The Leopard and you’re somewhere close.

A lonely outsider, Gustav sits among the throngs of people in the Grand Hôtel des Bains, simply watching. One evening his eyes fall upon Tadzio (Björn Andrésen) – and from that moment never leave him. Middle-aged Gustav becomes obsessed with the fourteen-year-old. We watch Gustav watching Tadzio from afar: on the beach, in the streets, by day and by night. As the threat of cholera looms across the city, Gustav’s obsession intensifies while his health suffers. His passion is killing him, literally.

We learn a little during flashbacks to Gustav’s conversations with a fellow artist. Gustav was always a closed book – a man with a pathological need for control, to the extent that all other humans are denied entry to his world. All except his daughter: she who broke through the intellectual facade and perhaps triggered in him the internal conflict between Apollonian reason and Dionysian passion.

As with The Leopard, Visconti’s film is distinguished by astonishing production design, extreme ambiguity, and painfully languid pacing. Some of the staging – a bustling restaurant, a vast swathe of beach, or the tight streets of Venice – is glorious to behold, as much like living art as anything from the equally painterly Barry Lyndon (in which poor Berenson was given a similarly thankless silent-wife role).

Sometimes Visconti seems to frame his images in shadow, like death inexorably closing in. And when Gustav is turned away from the train station and is forced to return to Venice, to his beautiful boy, the delight that is barely visible in his face can be seen in the colour grading, as the screen is flooded with vibrant tones. Visconti is constantly zooming in and pulling back out, reminding us of Gustav’s distance and separation from the rest of society. Visconti’s control of the image is matched by Ruggero Mastroianni’s editing – these are images that demand to be absorbed slowly.

All well and good, then, from a technical perspective. The crippling issue with the film is the deeply problematic relationship between Gustav and his dangerously youthful prey. Speak of classical beauty and the search for purity all you like, but make no mistake: Tadzio is an object of lust for our protagonist, and we share the predator’s gaze for a majority of the film. It would be disturbing enough, even without Andrésen’s troubling anecdotes about his treatment on set.

But if you’re willing to overlook this tastefully-framed paedophilia, it may be possible to search for a deeper meaning to what is essentially the slowest chase sequence ever committed to film. There is a clear metaphor in Gustav’s pursuit of a younger model, given his own anxiety about death and his increasingly desperate methods to cheat it. “There is no impurity so impure as old age,” says Gustav’s friend, and there is something undeniably moving in the sight of Gustav sweating and shivering in the sun as his hair dye runs down his temples like black blood.

Death in Venice tackles some profound and forever-relevant subject matter: the arrow of time, the cruelty of ageing, and the impossibility of reconciliation between the senses and the spirit. It’s also staggeringly beautiful at times. It’s just a pity that the core of its characterisation – the story of a man and his desire for a young boy – makes it a challenge in the ickiest of ways. It’s an easy film to admire for its craft, but less so for its content.

Special Edition Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, a 2008 documentary about the director, featuring Visconti; actors Burt Lancaster, Silvana Mangano, and Marcello Mastroianni; filmmakers Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli; and others
  • Alla ricerca di Tadzio, a 1970 short film by Visconti about his efforts to cast the role of Tadzio
  • New programme featuring literature and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini
  • Interview from 2006 with costume designer Piero Tosi
  • Excerpt from a 1990 programme about the music in Visconti’s films, featuring Bogarde and actor Marisa Berenson
  • Interview with Visconti from 1971
  • Visconti’s Venice, a short 1970 behind-the-scenes documentary featuring Visconti and Bogarde
  • Trailers
  • Plus: An essay by critic Dennis Lim

Death in Venice is out now on Criterion Blu-ray.


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