“Death in Venice” is certainly not Luchino Visconti’s best film, but this drama based on Thomas Mann’s novel of the same name is a perfect example of how this Italian was a masterful director and author with an incredible sense of detail. From the first scene to the last, everything here is made up and highly aestheticized, with perfect production design, stage, costumes, luxurious interiors, with which Visconti seems to really take us back to Venice at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Due to health problems, the ailing German composer (in Mann’s book he was a writer) Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) went there to recover both physically and mentally.
However, this equally repulsive, sleazy guy, whom the viewer somehow has to pity at the same time, will become obsessed with the beauty of the Polish adolescent Tadzi, who also arrived there with his family for summer vacation. The beauty of the blond-haired and blue-eyed boy will be recognized as complete perfection by a composer who seeks perfection in everything. The composer, who suffers from heart problems, will use every possible moment to observe the boy and try to spend as many moments as possible near Tadzi, and all this takes place at a time when Venice is ruled by a cholera epidemic.
The city authorities are trying to hide this information in the fear that all the tourists will leave the city, from whom it is obvious that even then Venice was mostly alive. The fascination with the boy will lead to the fact that the sick and otherwise attentive, prudent and cautious composer completely stops thinking about what is happening around him, and although “Death in Venice” caused considerable controversy right after the premiere, the relationship between Gustavo and Tadzi, just like and in the book, stopped at the platonic level. Regardless of the fact that “Death in Venice” is a film with an extremely slow rhythm, with relatively few dialogues, it is almost unbelievable how Visconti managed to transfer such introspective, internal, thought-provoking literary content to the screen and record an impressive drama from such closed, non-filmic material.
English actor Dirk Bogarde, who did not shy away from controversial roles, performed this problematic and not at all pleasant role very well. Since the sixties, Bogarde has chosen roles in Italian, French and German films as well as in British and American productions, and the role of Gustavo brought him the last nomination for British actor of the year. It’s a somewhat unusual, but powerfully poetic film in which Visconti managed to hit the rhythm perfectly, because at its core it’s a story about a man who is aware that his life is coming to an end, and he found something perfect already when he practically said goodbye to everything.
Exactly half a century after the filming of “Death in Venice”, the documentary “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” appeared about Björn Andresen, the then 16-year-old young man who embodied Tadzi. This documentary is a great continuation of Visconti’s film, because there we will find out the dark and sad story not only about the background of the entire film, but also the tragic fate of a young man from Sweden who probably no one could recognize behind his long gray hair and beard in Aster’s “Midsommar” as an old man who sacrifices himself by jumping off a cliff. “Death in Venice” is definitely a film that could certainly not be filmed today and whose subject matter would cause serious outrage, even though there is actually nothing explicit in the film itself, but Visconti (fortunately!) left it on a platonic level.