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Death in Venice: Disease and Decay

THE CELEBRATED STORY OF A MAN OBSESSED WITH IDEAL BEAUTY.

A few months ago, I went to a seedy bar. A colleague of mine suddenly whispered ”That’s Björn Andrésen, over there”. I turned around and was stunned to see the man who was once known as ”the most beautiful boy in the world”. He made an appearance in Ari Aster’s Midsommar last year, so he was easily recognizable, even if it is impossible to see the boy from Death in Venice in him anymore. I was a bit starstruck. There is, however, every reason in the world for Andrésen to resist the movie that made him famous.

Hoping his health will recover
In the early years of the twentieth century, the highly regarded composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) arrives in Venice where he’s hoping his health will recover. He’s staying at the luxurious Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, and one day he’s taken aback by the sight of a boy in his early teens. He turns out to be Polish, called ”Tadzio” (Andrésen), and when he leaves the room he gives Aschenbach a look that stays with him. Over the following days, the composer can’t help notice the boy on the beach playing with his friends. Aschenbach becomes increasingly obsessed with Tadzio’s beauty, but also begins to notice a creeping unease in Venice. The smell of disinfectant hangs over the city. The usually servile hotel staff won’t tell him what’s going on…

Not a rosy love affair
In interviews, Andrésen has renounced Death in Venice because of his opposition to pedophilia. Understandable, obviously… but Thomas Mann’s story is not about a rosy love affair between a grown man and a boy who fall in love and live the rest of their lives together. It’s a story about a dying man who’s lost his family and finds an unhealthy object of desire in the middle of a plague. Mann was indeed inspired by personal experiences (staying at that very hotel on the Lido in 1911 and becoming fascinated by a child, a Polish baron), but he had the sense to recognize the darkness of his lust and wanted to write about ”passion as confusion and degradation”. That’s what he achieved, and Luchino Visconti has honored those intentions in his film. Not only was it shot in that famous hotel, but the filmmakers also used music by Gustav Mahler who died in Vienna in 1911; the composer influenced Mann, and his music (especially his fifth symphony) becomes a very effective illustration of Aschenbach and his talents in the film.

Bogarde is excellent as the man whose desire is intimately connected to disease, decay and death. The film is very slow but fascinating as it moves deeper into symbolism and Aschenbach’s dream-like agony, inspired in the novella by Sigmund Freud.

Watching Death in Venice in 2020 is an awkward reminder of our own current pandemic; in the film, the authorities don’t want to alarm the tourists and refrain from telling them about the cholera epidemic, but just like now the smell of disinfectant is everywhere…

The movie is also a reminder that there are many sides to a story. Visconti exposed the 16-year-old Andrésen to adult men’s desire by taking him to a gay club, irresponsible behavior that affected the boy in negative ways. That explains Andrésen’s attitude. It’s a lesson to learn. In the era of cancel culture though, it also has to be pointed out that the film remains a rewarding classic. 

Death in Venice 1971-Italy. 130 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Luchino Visconti. Screenplay: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco. Novella: Thomas Mann. Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis. Art Direction: Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Costume Design: Piero Tosi. Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Mark Burns (Alfred), Marisa Berenson (Mrs. von Aschenbach), Björn Andrésen (Tadzio), Silvana Mangano, Luigi Battaglia.

Trivia: Italian title: Morte a Venezia.

BAFTA: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Track. 

Last word: “I came to the interview with Visconti because I was just searching for a summer job. I was very innocent and naive. Visconti was very impressive, massive, but I did not fear him because I had no idea who he was. I had read the Mann novel to familiarize myself. I didn’t particularly like the book, it didn’t feel like my world at all or I couldn’t relate. Was I chosen for the job because of my beauty alone? I did not know I was beautiful and did not think of myself as such. I didn’t take advantage of my looks. I was very unaware of it all. Visconti seemed to want to take advantage of this, manipulative. I had Bogarde to protect me from this old ogre of a filmmaker.” (Andrésen, interview with Philippe Benson)

 

IMDb

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