Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice

Alexander Hutchison

*previously published in LFQ (the Literature & Film Quarterly, Vol 2:1, Salisbury State U.)

Form as a dimension of meaning has little to do with morality; and yet as the prize of discipline it is invested with ethical character. This is the central paradox of Visconti’s Death in Venice just as it is of Mann’s novella. I will discuss elements of form and dissolution in the film, the discrepancies between meaning and manner, between profits of the plague and the price of perfection. I assume a knowledge of both novel and film. The novel remains the best guide to the film’s structure.

In Il Gattopardo and L’Étranger Visconti worked close to respected literary texts. In Death in Venice he follows Mann’s schema so faithfully at times that one inevitably attends to what he has chosen to omit or add or transform. The film takes up the action of the novel only as Aschenbach is approaching Venice. After that the significant omissions are few, but like the initial cut they provide insight into Visconti’s choice of structure and the mood which is sustained throughout the film.

Metaphoric structure takes precedence over action. Visconti has tightened that structure by selecting encounters which reproduce the leitmotifs Mann provides, but he de-emphasizes other elements which would disrupt the mood. Mann’s original setting in Munich has been left out, including Aschenbach’s encounter with the pug-nosed, red-haired foreigner on the steps of the Funeral Hall, his sudden desire to travel, the vision of the crouching tiger in the jungle, all mention of his “coldly passionate service” to his art, and any details of his biography. The effect of this is to contain the landscape and the mythical dimension of the action: flashbacks relate to other times and places, but they refer to Aschenbach’s preoccupation during his term in Venice and introduce biographical information only within the chronology of his death in this city that echoes the name of the goddess of desire.

The screen slowly lightens as the titles end, and we realize that we have risen to the surface of a rippling sea. Smoke from the Esmeralda carries across the pale sky. It could be dusk, but we soon discover it is morning. Aschenbach is seated on a portside deck, wrapped against the chill, glancing at a book of poems, dozing fitfully, taking little interest in the views from the ship – the mud-flats, the panorama of the city, the bersaglieri drilling in the public gardens, the domes of the Ste. Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal (a church, incidentally, built by vow of the senate during a plague) – and he rouses himself only after the health department launch has come alongside. He seems nervous, a little morbid, but beyond that we have no knowledge of his motivation for the trip nor for his expectations. Without warning, as he is about to disembark, he is accosted by a debauched old man with dyed red hair, rouged lips and a pasty face who mocks him in greeting and farewell, slurring his words almost unintelligibly and punctuating his remarks with sinister laughter: “Au revoir, excusez, et bonjour, your Excellency! ... And by the way, sir ... (moistening his fingers obscenely at his lips) … our compliments to your leetle sweet … to your preetie leetle sweetheart.” It is the first of several similar affronts. At the end of the film, Aschenbach, bearing a shocking resemblance to this tormentor, has confirmed the old man’s insinuations and dies slumped in a deck-chair as the boy Tadzio beckons him to the sea. Meanwhile the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which led us into the film and which is associated throughout with the measured approach of death, plays out to the end. It is within this classical form of sea, city, music and the masks of death that the action of the film is contained.

Within that form are the elements of dissolution. Mann’s exposure of the plague and its corruptions is more radical than Visconti’s, and in his description of the bacchantes with their “blinding, deafening lewdness” he unleashes forces which would shatter the mood of the film as surely as they “crush and annihilate the substance of the man who dreams them.” Mann restates with emphasis; Visconti reinforces with restraint.

For example, when Aschenbach first eats strawberries on the beach, Mann remarks on the warmth of the weather and describes the delicious numbing of the senses that Aschenbach experiences. Much later, when the city is gripped with Asiatic cholera, Aschenbach heedlessly buys soft, overripe berries to relieve the dreadful thirst he developed when he pursued Tadzio through the filthy streets. In the film, Bogarde fastidiously bites twice into a strawberry just before we overhear a gentleman close by warn his companions that it is “very dangerous” to eat uncooked fruit or vegetables in this weather. Shortly after this Tadzio teases the governess by dancing out of her reach around the seller of strawberries and stealing one of the fruits from his tray. She chases after him, trips and falls face down in the sand to squeaks of laughter. The fatal link already exists between Tadzio and Gustave, here masked by simple fun.

With regard to other signs of disorder, Mann lets us sense the plague with our noses in odors from the lagoon, the disinfected streets, the carbolic stink of the singer at the hotel. Visconti, predictably, emphasizes the visual aspects – showing the ubiquitous cautionary notices published by the unseen “authorities,” and it is not the smell of the disinfectant that affects us (although it does Aschenbach) so much as the splashing of it in milky spurts on walls and sidewalks and by the fountains. As for the entertainers, at first sight (and sound) of them we know the plague has penetrated the grounds of the hotel, and the singer’s assault on Aschenbach, which combines ridicule with sexual menace, is heightened by Visconti’s careful manipulation of the distance between them.

The mocking, demonic aspect of musical form in the film is represented by the laughter and singing of these entertainers, and their music can be grouped to a greater or lesser extent, with the ridiculous bugle toots of the bersaglieri, the piano playing of Tadzio and Esmeralda, the raucous cords struck by Alfred, and the finale to Aschenbach’s disastrous concert. I have previously mentioned the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and this piece, along with the elegiac song heard as Aschenbach comes to the beach for the last time, controls the sympathetic mood of the film. It is played four times and marks the film’s quarters. Initially and at the close it corresponds to the visual contour – the flow of the tides. This is the emotional groundswell – a wonderful piercing sound – and also, Michael Chanan claims, a “triumph of perfect formal balance.” The film’s midnight is marked by Mahler’s setting of Zarathustra’s Mittersnachtlied, which is a tonal highpoint combining the disruptive, the ecstatic, and the admonitory in what Bruno Walter called “the apotheosis of Dionysian penetration.” In contrast to the Mahler themes, and as an indication of the separation between Aschenbach’s consciousness and his comfortable bourgeois surroundings, the hotel orchestra plays a selection from Franz Léhar’s The Merry Widow. Die Lustige Witwe was first performed in Vienna in 1905, and the composer had a number of popular successes in the next several years. It is typical of Visconti’s judgment in these matters that he should provide this perfectly fitting musical accompaniment for his leisurely tracking camera eye in the lounge.

There is not the same variety of music in Mann’s Death in Venice, where everything is dominated by the “deep coaxing flute” of the foreign god, and the long drawn-out u in Tadziu. But music is central to the theme of Doctor Faustus, and it is not difficult to see why Visconti changed Aschenbach’s vocation from a writer to a musician after the pattern of Adrian Leverkühn, nor is it difficult to see how in a Faust theme Neitzsche’s Mittersnachtlied sounds homo fuge.

Particularly in the flashback sequences there are many parallels between the action of the film and incidents in Doctor Faustus. Michael Chanan has pointed out the references to Esmerelda, and I will elaborate on that point later, but first consider the Devil’s gift, the “houre-glasss.” Having settled into his room at the Grande Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach opens the shutters and stands on the balcony overlooking the beach. Even viewed from behind his agitation is obvious. Then the film’s first flash-back shows him lying on a couch with a doctor in attendance, his companion Alfred at hand, and a sympathetic crowd standing back a little as the doctor deplores the state of Aschenbach’s heart and recommends to Alfred that his friend have a “complete rest.” Alfred kneels beside the couch as Gustave recovers somewhat and opens his eyes. Alfred, addressing him by his first name, is deeply moved. Next, a cut to the same room, presumably later that evening. The camera pans from Alfred playing softly at the piano to Aschenbach sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette. The room is still filled with flowers: white, strong-smelling lilacs, iris, Easter lilies. Aschenbach is talking of the hour-glass which stands beside the lilies on the piano ledge. He remembers there was one in his ”father’s house.” And continues:

The aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that at first sight it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes it appears that the sand runs out only … only at the end. And till it does, it’s not worth thinking about. Till the last moment when there’s no more time … when there’s no more time to think about it.

As he finishes, his agitation reminds us of his distressed appearance in the film’s opening sequences. He is morbidly upset.

His speech combines elements from Mann’s Death in Venice and also from Doctor Faustus. In the novella the hour-glass is introduced in the scene when the singers have made their exit. Tadzio has left the balustrade and Aschenbach is delaying the waiters while he finishes his drink on the terrace. “Night advanced. Time was crumbling.” Aschenbach remembers the hour-glass in the “house of his parents” and feels that the “rust red sand” has formed a speedy vortex as it empties from the upper half. Since the reference is late, the scene does not have the effect of setting the tempo of the rest of the book to the extent that Aschenbach’s meditation sets the tempo of the film. In Doctor Faustus “the houre-glass of the Melancholia” has been made a satanic leitmotif. When the last red grains run through the neck Leverkühn will be “fetched.” At his first meeting with Satan he has been offered time – “the devyl’s ware“ – twenty four years of power within which to achieve the breakthrough in his music. As he makes his offer, the Devil’s archaic language echoes Aschenbach’s deliberation: the sand “does not minish at all to the eye in the upper cavitie, save at the very end; then it does seem to speed and to have gone fast. But that is far away, the narrow part, it is not worth thinking about.” This does not necessarily equate Aschenbach with Leverkühn; it does indicate that part of the film’s chronology will be “quite bedivelled time.”

Two events jog Aschenbach’s memory of Esmeralda before we are shown his visit to the bordello. The first is the voyage on the ship that carries her name. Later, a tune picked out by Tadzio on the hotel piano is taken up by a ragged ensemble as a flashback shows Aschenbach sitting ill at ease beside a blue-gartered, stein-bibbing whore while the madame announces his arrival to Esmeralda. As Aschenbach walks to the door of her room and peers in, Esmeralda continues playing – the tune is Beethoven’s Für Elise – and, although partially hidden by the upright piano, she twice moves her head slowly to stare at him standing in the doorway. We have the strong impression that he has visited before. Eventually she stops playing, deliberately omitting the last few bars, walks over close to him, kicks the door to, looks in the mirror to unbutton her bodice, turns again to him and, eyes bright, strokes his cheek with the inside of her wrist. It is the gesture that obsessed Leverkühn, who received it on his first visit to the brothel, as well as Serenus Zeitblom the narrator: “So now I saw him move blindly to the piano and strike chords – what chords he only afterwards knew himself. I saw the snubnosed girl beside him. Heterae esmerelda: her powdered bosoms in Spanish bodice – saw her brush his cheek with her arm.”

Adrian, having fled, returns quite deliberately a second time to visit the girl and, despite her “act of sympathy” in telling him that she is infected, has intercourse with her, unwittingly sealing his bargain with the Devil. In the film there is a quick cut after the caress to a shot of Esmeralda transformed – hair down around her shoulders, lying on a couch below a full-length mirror, propped up with cushions behind, her knees spread wide, and wearing a look of mingled contempt and invitation. As Aschenbach, dressed to leave, drops some money on the table she grips his hand so tightly that he has to pull hard to break away. Outside the room he leans against a partition in distress as we catch a glimpse of Esmeralda through the doorway moving sulkily off the couch. At his exit we hear the girl begin to play Für Elise once more.

Although the scene is ambiguous, the director makes it clear the Aschenbach has made an effort to resist the temptation of the girl and of the brothel itself. If he has refused or has been unable to make love to her, then she wishes some deeper commitment from him. When we see her first we are struck by how closely she resembles Aschenbach’s wife, but she is soon transformed as described above, and her deceptions are revealed: the tune which flattered and enticed him returns to mock him; the appearance of caritas, in the image of his wife, is uncovered as cupiditas. The brothel is a place of mirrors, distorting, distracting. What it shows is good; what one finds is vicious and empty. Throughout the film, mirrors point to vanity, a false appearance, betrayal: the place of mirrors is the barber-shop where the promise is the restoration of youth and love – in fact, there Aschenbach is prepared for death, altered so he resembles the demonic old man who accosted him on board the Esmeralda. A great oval mirror stands at the end of the corridor which Aschenbach enters after his return from Cook’s and his decision to join the secret of the plague to his own desperate situation. “What kind of road have I chosen?” he asks hopelessly. The scene reminds us of the incident in the novella where the writer lays his head “in utter drunkenness” against the hinge of Tadzio’s bedroom door.

How closely does the encounter with Esmeralda link Aschenbach with Leverkühn? As I indicated, Leverkühn’s fate is sealed by his return visit. By willfully contracting her disease he knows the Devil’s evil, renounces his philistine health and self-control, discovers the fascination of “metastasis into the metaphysical, metavenereal, meta-infectivus.” Aschenbach apparently resists the temptation; but in fact, his memory of the visit confirms his destruction too. Alfred has already acted the Devil’s advocate in this matter: “Think what a dry and arid thing good health is – especially if it’s of the soul no less than the body.” He urges Aschenbach to become contaminated, to embrace ”a condition which is irredeemably corrupt and sick ... But joy to an artist “ (my italics). If Aschenbach cannot take evil as the food for his genius, Alfred condemns him to mediocrity. Gustave resists as strongly as he can, but the musical link provides the damning clue. Even if he did escape her in the scene described above, it is clear that Tadzio is the “dreadful contamination” he thought to avoid. He is already afflicted.

As a distinguished composer – the representative artist – caught in a demonic scheme of things, Aschenbach clearly invites comparison with Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, and there are other resemblances between the film and the novel – but the coincidence is not always exact, the similarities in characterization are not completely sustained, the conjunction of comparable details is suggestive rather than definitive. For instance, when Alfred declares genius to be a “divine gift ... no ... a divine affliction ... a sinful, morbid flashfire of natural gifts,“ or when he accuses the composer of being “the man of avoidance,” he is parroting the preamble and subsequent remarks of Serenus Zeitblom, PhD, whom he scarcely resembles in other respects. And when he extols music as the science of ambiguity he is echoing Leverkühn’s description of how to turn the equivocal into a system. This last example is an obstacle to the interpreter who would wish to identify Aschenbach with Leverkühn; but taken alone it hardly justifies Chanan’s claim that Alfred is the character linked with Leverkühn. Leverkühn’s reserve, his noli me tangere aloofness connects him with Aschenbach; and, carrying the religious element a little further, their demonic nature is conveyed often in terms of Christian parody: Mann describes Leverkühn’s “Ecce-homo countenance” at the end of the novel, and Aschenbach on a number of occasions reminds us in iconic terms of Christ – the representative instance is when he sinks down exhausted beside the empty cistern in an attitude of deposition and laughs in the ironic manner that Leverkühn made his habit. Often it seems Visconti’s central character has Aschenbach’s shell and Leverkühn’s soul.

The idyllic scene where Aschenbach is playing with his wife and child in a meadow before the mountain lodge is, of course, in sharp contrast to the penalty of lovelessness which Leverkühn has to suffer – but it is possible that Visconti and Nicola Baddalucco in writing the screenplay used the Leverkühn - Rudi Schwerdtfeger - Marie Godeau triangle in Doctor Faustus to suggest the development of jealousies between Aschenbach, Alfred and Aschenbach’s unnamed wife. Particularly in the concert scene near the end of the film we have the sense that Alfred’s hysteria is in part motivated by sexual jealousy. As Schleppfuss taught in Doctor Faustus. “Whenever the subject was the power of demons over human life, sex always played a prominent role.”

The film does not provide, with regard to aesthetics, the subtlety, the depth of analysis that the novella Death in Venice can accommodate. Nor could we expect it. The film has nothing in terms of complexity to match the dialogues between Socrates and Phaedrus on the nature of desire and virtue, but we are given main points in the dispute. Aschenbach, in conversation with Alfred, has declared his belief in beauty as the product of labour. As he sits at dinner on the first evening at the hotel he recalls their discussion, and as he recollects his expression of this belief he nods his head in reinforcement. He still believes it. For Alfred beauty is spontaneous creation – it belongs to the senses. And the artist must find his inspiration in the ambiguous, even the degenerate: he must find joy in the affliction of genius. When Aschenbach insists on being a model of strength and balance, seeking his achievement in a pure Apollonian order, Alfred attacks his “rigid morality,” his refusal to be “contaminated” with life, and threatens him with “mediocrity.” As Alfred in the first discussion on beauty says “That’s how beauty is born – like that – spontaneously – in utter disregard for your labour or mine ... it pre-exists our presumption as artists,“ Visconti catches Tadzio in close up to reinforce the point.

The film’s final flashback shows Aschenbach humiliated by a hostile audience, some of whom crowd into the room where he is recovering and are only driven out by the efforts of his wife. Alfred, shrilly hysterical, demonic, claims victory, confirmation: “It’s all gone, nothing remains. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Your music is still-born and you are unmasked.” When Aschenbach pleads with him to send the people away, Alfred replies: “Send them away? I will deliver you to them ... They will judge you. And they will condemn you.” As he threatens this, he grabs Aschenbach as he leans back on the couch and menaces him physically. Gustave’s wife, frightened, crouches with her head on Gustave’s chest while he protests, “No, Alfred, no ... no.” The melodrama is partly explained by an immediate cut to Aschenbach’s hotel room where he screams “no” as he wakes from a nightmare. But Alfred’s mocking voice carries over: “Truth – human dignity – all finished. Now there is no reason why you cannot go to your grave with your music. You have achieved perfect balance. The man and the artist are one: they have touched bottom together.” When Gustave pulls at the light chain, we see the rose he is to wear at his death set in a glass of water on the bedside table. Alfred’s final rebuke is to deny him chastity: “Chastity is the gift of purity, not the painful result of old age. And you are old, Gustave – and in all the world there is no impurity so impure as old age.“ He finishes, and an image of Tadzio fades in like a vision over the face of Aschenbach. The head of the burning youth fills the center of the screen.

I have given this sequence in some detail because I hope it will clarify some of the points at issue: especially the question of Alfred’s betrayal. The aesthetic question – the nature of beauty – is entangled with the moral vision. Alfred speaks for the gods of a drunken spirit, offering a “reflected” splendor which seduces the artist: it makes him “flare up in pain and hope” and sexual ecstasy, then deserts him when lust has turned, inevitably to ashes.

Statue and mirror! ... the beautiful itself. Form as the thought of God, the one pure perfection which lives in the mind and which in this symbol and likeness had been placed here quietly and simply as an object of devotion. That was drunkenness: and eagerly, without thinking the aging artist welcomed it.

This is the shape and likeness of the boy Tadzio – a Narcissus, a mirror and object of fate, a vessel, charming, enigmatic, spontaneous “l'amour et la mort” – the flute of Eros, the guide of the dead. Catching sight of him, Aschenbach is betrayed. “Wer die Schönheit angeschaut mit Augen, ist dem Tode schon anheimgegeben.1

It is in the matter of betrayal that Visconti makes his most important revisions on the text of Death in Venice. Mann’s ironic pessimism centers on the consequences of Aschenbach’s own falsehood to his art and ideals: Visconti dramatises not only the composer’s conspiracy against himself, but clearly makes others agents in that conspiracy. The main theme of Ossessione and Senso – a theme that touches all of Visconti’s films – is the destructive power of sexual passion in relation to betrayal. It is a “permanent item” as Nowell-Smith says. To reinforce that theme, in addition to creating the character of Alfred, who begins by demonstrating his devotion to Aschenbach and ends by cruelly abusing him, Visconti very quickly makes Tadzio a “traitor” too.

When Aschenbach returns to the hotel from the beach after seeing Jaschu kiss Tadzio, we observe him first in the lobby where, in an odd brief prelude to his profound humiliation, he drops his spectacles. He recovers them (to the amusement of some women sitting nearby) and makes for the elevator. As he stands inside, a number of boys from the beach, including Jaschu and Tadzio crowd in after him. They are giggling, and although Aschenbach is uncertain, he appears amused too. He loses his smile however, when Jaschu whispers something in Tadzio’s ear and Tadzio grins. At the second floor, white hat off, his hair shaken out. Tadzio exits alone, as if dared to it, walking backward and gazing provocatively at Aschenbach in the elevator. The other boys make gestures and noises of encouragement.

Describing the incident in the novel, Mann is chiefly concerned to show Tadzio at close quarters for the first time and mentions that the boy looks anaemic, rather sickly – a thought that gratifies and reassures Aschenbach, although he refuses to reckon with it. Mann even talks of Tadzio’s modesty. There is almost no suggestion of a deliberate seduction. In the film Aschenbach returns to his room in considerable distress: all his actions show his temper and humiliation. Eventually he slams his hand at a rack of clothes and starts to pack. Alfred’s voice comes over: “That’s not shame… that’s fear.” Visconti makes it plain that Gustave’s main reason for leaving Venice is his reaction to Tadzio. Mann dos not give him that awareness until later, and initially lets him blame the “offensive sultriness” of the weather: he juxtaposes Tadzio’s signs of frailty with the repulsive conditions in the city – both stimulating and enervating.” Visconti leaves Tadzio physically unflawed, but creates a conspirator.

I would like to describe the sequence leading up to Tadzio’s second betrayal, from the moment that Aschenbach, pleased by the accident that has kept him in Venice, pleased too by his display of self-righteous indignation, announces he will return immediately to the Lido. Close by, a man collapses and Aschenbach is a spectator to his last gasping efforts at breath. Bogarde carries the scene perfectly – smug, elated, his neck and head dipping and nodding like a pigeon until the moment he freezes at the sight of death. A little child approaches the dying man, and her presence shows how skillfully the director can manipulate point of view without weakening the ominous impact of the event.

There follows the jubilant return of the launch, Aschenbach’s salute to the boy from the window of his room, and his occupation of a deck-chair and table at the beach near the Polish family. As he relaxes and looks around we hear his wife call his name, and there is the lovely scene in the meadow before the mountain lodge. The idyll ends as his wife looks down the valley at the clouds rolling from the mountains. The approaching storm fades into Tadzio running out of the haze and sea, somersaulting on the beach. He tussles with other boys, scoops up something from the sand and comes to show his mother his presents – some shells, a razor clam, a sea horse – as the governess wraps him in a towel. It is a scene which exploits all the senses: the chafe of the towel against skin and wet sand, the fussing, soothing voices of the women, and the smell of the orange the boy tosses in the air. One of his sisters speaks Tadzio’s name as the soundtrack carries the first few bars of the Mittersnatchlied.

Aschenbach turns to the table to work at a score. Tadzio passes wrapped in a long white towel and walks with classic elegance towards the sea. “Was sprichte die tiefe Mitternacht?” Then a cut to evening with Aschenbach watching the sunset from his window, before another transition to the covered board-walk at the beach, once more in broad daylight. Tadzio is standing with some other boys, including Jaschu, who run off as Aschenbach approaches. Aschenbach pauses. Tadzio, with deliberation, swings slowly three times on the poles supporting the awning as Aschenbach, helplessly, follows close behind. When he reaches the end of the boardwalk, he has to hang onto one of the poles for support. “Die Welt ist tief! Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht!” Tadzio moves off; Aschenbach, barely able to stand, makes his way along behind some bathing houses.

Following the climax the music changes; Tadzio is discovered at the hotel piano, and Aschenbach catching sight of the manager asks: “Can you tell me why there is nothing in any of the newspapers about what is happening here? It is his first direct question relating to the plague, and of course he receives an evasive reply.

Again, Visconti has based the incident on circumstances described in the novella, but his presentation gives a very different picture of the relationship. In the novella Aschenbach is on the verge of speaking to Tadzio on the boardwalk, but Mann makes the writer “fail” in his effort to put the relationship on a “sound, free and easy” basis, and he “surrenders” to the impulse of license by passing the boy with bowed head. Mann goes on to say that this license is deeply wedded to the instinct for discipline in the artist. He then describes the birth of a day which turns into a “sacredly distorted world full of panic life” where Tadzio is Hyacinth, and he analyses the attraction between Aschenbach and Tadzio, before Aschenbach’s desire, now reciprocated in some measure by the boy, culminates in his secret declaration of love. A comparison of these parallel but dissimilar sequences reinforces the impression that, in the film Tadzio rather that Aschenbach is at this point the agent of license – certainly he is not the “frail, unthinking object” described in the novella. His invitation is blatant. Aschenbach, confronted with it, is incapacitated. This makes his later declaration of love more poignant and desperate.

The embrace of Dionysus has another aspect, however, as both Mann and Visconti emphasize. Dionysian intoxication can also be creative: the affliction may become a stimulus toward productivity. Mann’s Aschenbach produces a tract on a “certain large burning issue of culture and taste” which he models on the form of Tadzio’s beauty. In the film, Aschenbach, inspired by the same model, turns to his score and works on a piece which I assume is the equivalent of the Mittersnachlied. This assumption does not entail an acceptance of the identity of Aschenbach with Mahler or with Nietzsche – even though details of Aschenbach’s biography correspond with the details from the biographies of these two artists. Aschenbach’s family life is more closely related to Malher’s biography in the film than in the novel. And the brothel sequence described in Doctor Faustus was taken originally from Deussen’s Recollections of Nietzsche. But the point is not that one can establish an equation between the film’s composer and some single contemporary figure. Aschenbach’s relationship to Nietzsche is as important as his relation to Mahler. His relation to Mahler is as important as his relation to Wagner. His relation to Wagner is as important as his relation to Mann. His relation to Mann is as important as his relation to Visconti. This is exactly why Venice is the “inevitable location” that Erich Heller describes:

For it seems a city built by the very Will to Power in honour of Death. Teeming with Life, it is yet entirely Art, the residence of Eros Thanatos, the Leibestod, the music of which it inspired, just as it inspired Nietzsche’s one almost perfect lyrical poem. Venice is to Nietzsche ‘another word’ for both music and the South, of that happiness of which he was unable to think without a sudden ‘shudder of fear.’

Wagner died in Venice. The poem Heller mentions is “Venice,” included in Ecco Homo and sung by the mad Nietzsche on his train journey home with Overbeck. None of these significant details, however, takes precedence over that major fact that Visconti, like Mann participates in a tradition for which he has reverence. That one describes the sunset, the other dawning, does not change the day, nor does it exclude others who have lived through it, especially those whose lives in myth or history have already attained symbolic or representative stature.2

Coming when Aschenbach’s spirits are highest during his stay in Venice, the Mittersnatchlied marks the aesthetic and moral center, and in a film where the architecture of mood complements the architecture of form it is the highpoint of formal and emotive organization. What follows is dissolution – the slow descent to death. On one side is the last exercise of his moral will – the decision to leave the city; on the other his surrender to the “advantages of chaos” when, having discovered the city’s secret from the elderly Englishman at Cook’s he remains quiet, perversely “triumphant in his possession of the truth,” and does not warn the Polish family to leave – although he imagines such a warning – and does not leave himself.

In Meditations of a Non-Political Man, Mann described Nietzsche as “incomparably the greatest and most thoroughly initiated psychologist of decadence.” As such, it is fitting that Zarathustra’s voice is heard here transmuted in Mahler’s setting. Nietzsche represents, too, a refutation of the code of genius as objectivity derived from Schopenhauer and cultivated by Aschenbach. Nietzsche speaks for the “unknown god” revealed as Dionysus. In the novella this was balanced by the dialogues of Socrates and Phaedrus. There is no such platonic leitmotif in the film; in its place are the sequences where Aschenbach is seen with his wife: first the interlude in the meadow, then as they weep at the funeral of their child, and finally in the concert where she attempts to protect him from the mob and the Judas-like Alfred. Visconti subordinates the aesthetic question to the issue of personal morality. The abuses of art, the artist’s “sympathy with the precipice” are here less important that the loss of love. These flashback scenes – and their link to the present action of the film through the photographs of Aschenbach’s wife and child – are very important in maintaining our sympathy for the central character in the end. They give the lie to Alfred’s accusation that Aschenbach is “afraid to have direct, honest contact with anything,” but they do show how he virtually loses contact with a reality that is tender and lovely. As part of this continuity I would also mention Visconti’s deployment of flowers – love’s last emblem ironically is the rose Aschenbach wears at his death – and the “special participation” of Sylvana Mangano who is the loveliest substitute for the “well-preserved though somewhat tired and peaked” woman whom Mann pictures as Tadzio’s mother.

It is in connection with this type of continuity that I emphasize the film’s metaphoric structure. Linking incidents, images and details of characterization, Visconti borrows Mann’s leitmotifs and develops them. Consider the “messengers of death.” As I have already pointed out, Visconti eliminates the figure of wandering Death who appeared at the opening of the novella; he also transforms “the goatee from the inside cabin” into the old fop. But the other agents of malice and sickness he stations throughout the city as Mann did before him. He accentuates the sexual scuttle and cackling of the singer to add to his derision. He enlarges the role of the manager so that he presides over a more sinister field of operations. And from the ferryman who lost his fee, through the rigid hierarchy of the servants at the hotel, to the beggars who approach Aschenbach while he blindly follows Tadzio, he shows how all of these agents share in the plague and the profits of the plague.

When characters form a literal and symbolic “office” in this way, one becomes aware of the creation of other formal patterns – for example, by attending to the pattern of sound and silence in relation to character as well as by noting speech content. The demonic abuse of language is traditional in scripture, myth and allegory, and it is pertinent to consider it here. Many of those who speak to Aschenbach confuse or attempt to deceive him. There are few who do not speak out of self-interest or malice. It is not that it is all gibberish – it is more sinister the more plausible it appears – but Aschenbach, harassed, often fails to make sense of it, and when he believes it he is betrayed. This pattern proceeds from the encounter with the old man on the boat, and includes the gondolier, the boatman, the manager, the officious man at the station, even the clerk at Cook’s, the barber (“I will restore what belongs to you immediately”), and, most importantly, Alfred. And there are also those who say nothing who are nevertheless deceitful, like the man at the stall who refuses to reply. And Esmeralda. Tadzio. In contrast, Aschenbach’s wife is the surest pattern of good: she calls his name once and then keeps her silence. Her voice is heard in the Adagietto, and in the same fashion in the song heard at the end as Aschenbach walks from the boardwalk to the beach to sit without shade. There is an absolute distinction to be drawn between her calling of Gustave, her subsequent silence, that music, and the other pattern I describe.

So temporal and psychological actuality are subordinated to moral sequence and duration. Visconti condenses time sequences, providing a reality which does not necessarily reflect verisimilitude. He consistently cuts from scene to scene without giving any sure indication of elapsed time. Mann describes the passage of “day after day” between Aschenbach’s return from the station and his writing of the tract on aesthetics; Visconti cuts straight from Aschenbach’s salute from the window to his walk down on the beach – apparently later that afternoon. The only indication given of a significant intervening period of time is that in contrast to his exhilarated, youthful appearance at the window, Aschenbach stoops a little and looks older. Through make-up and direction, Visconti ages and revitalizes Bogarde’s appearance to indicate Aschenbach’s alterations in spirit. Consider the contrast between Aschenbach’s appearance on his outward trip in the launch to the station and on his return to the Lido. The first shows the composer absolutely cast down, disconsolate at taking his leave from Tadzio. He is shot as if from the bottom of the boat, sitting hunched forward, resting his chin on his hands on top of his cane. On the return, an odd, diagonal camera movement is made up and across the lower half of his body until the shot is from well above head height. Aschenbach stands, looking like a man who has shed fifteen years or so, responding with enthusiasm to surroundings of which he was formerly oblivious.3

The film’s flashbacks present important moral and aesthetic polarities: Alfred’s devotion and betrayal; the love shown by Aschenbach’s wife compared to the “grip” of Esmeralda; Aschenbach’s assertions of will and balance, and his mocking defeat at the hands of the bourgeoisie; his own capacity for joy and love, and the presence of seductive evil. These sequences are condensed, self-contained, yet they provide an “imagined” or “retrospective” chronology which covers a much larger period of time than Aschenbach’s stay in Venice but is contained within this lesser chronology. This “actual” chronology is itself contained within the “real” chronology set by the hour-glass. “Time does not press,” says Aschenbach in irritation to the porter who comes to hurry him to the launch; but in truth he finds it does, so he checks his watch as soon as the man has turned to go.

At the close of Visconti’s Death in Venice the presence of the camera on the beach appears to point to its own capacity for illusion. But the paradox goes beyond questions about artistic deception. It concerns “art on the verge of its own impossibility,” as Heller says. Form that is constantly threatened with formlessness: this is the irony that confronts Kierkegaard’s “moralist incognito.” And in every detail of this film, which records the dissolution not only of the central character, but of a city, of art – in fact, of civilized existence – there is evidence of the artist’s determination to form. All artists attempt it; a few, like Mann and Visconti and those they emulate, convince us that they can shape it in their work. They show the last change of mind: how to win from the irremediable a measure of hope and time.

©Alexander Hutchison/2000
University of Paisley


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