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Death in Venice

Death in Venice
Warner DVD
1971 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 130 min. / Morte a Venezia / Street Date February 17, 2004 / 19.98
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns, Nora Ricci, Marisa Berenson, Carole André, Björn Andrésen, Silvana Mangano
Cinematography Pasquale De Santis
Costume Designer Piero Tosi
Art Direction Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Film Editor Ruggero Mastroianni
Written by Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco from the novel by Thomas Mann
Produced by Robert Gordon Edwards, Mario Gallo, Luchino Visconti
Directed by Luchino Visconti

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice has a vaunted reputation, but Savant found it tough sledding. It's a slow account of one man's descent into obsession over a boy he sees in a Venetian hotel, circa 1910. Dirk Bogarde's repressed German composer isn't very compelling, and the changes in his character are difficult to follow. That, and director Visconti's languid style makes it hard to decide what he's after, beyond showcasing the film's splendid decor and designs.

Warners' Death in Venice DVD is beautifully transferred and will surely be hotly desired by its fans. It's truly heartening when the studios make the effort to bring out these famous foreign films.


Suffering from an ailment, frustrated composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) checks into the fanciest hotel in Venice and is fussed over by its manager (Romolo Valli). While recalling painful memories his professional associate Alfred (Mark Burns) and his marriage to a beautiful wife (Marisa Berenson), Gustav becomes obsessed with a precocious and sexually ambiguous Polish boy named Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), staying with his family at the same hotel and watched over by his mother (Silvana Mangano). Gustav is concerned that the plague is coming to Venice, but cannot leave as long as Tadzio is there, although they're never even introduced.

Death in Venice is a filmic adaptation of a famous novel, one that must have had an intense interior world, if the basic plot outline is the same as Luchino Visconti's film. The basic narrative here is easy enough to follow, but the main character is difficult to understand. He's a stuffy composer with vague health problems and severe difficulties dealing with people. Formal and private, he talks almost exclusively to servants and hoteliers, becoming a neurotic mess when his 'inferiors' return his pompous formality in kind. A Gondolier ignores his instructions. The overly attentive hotel manager purposely lies to him, minimizing the dangers of plague.

Visconti uses crude flashbacks to set up Gustav Aschenbach's artistic conflict. Music associate Alfred argues with him constantly about the nature of art. Gustav thinks art stems from concentration and turning away from emotion and the chaos of life, whereas Alfred argues that the only real art expresses all those 'living' elements, that the only real artists are wild sensationalists unfettered by the rules of society.

Presumably it's all deeper and more compelling in the book. In the movie, the mechanical flashbacks show us little about Gustav except that he's stubborn and intransigent, and badgered by an annoying friend. We're meant to assume that Gustav is already a famous composer, but we're given no evidence, unless the melancholy and emotional Gustav Mahler compositions that cover the film is supposed to be his music. Gustav doesn't do anything musical in his hotel stay, and doesn't even have a reaction to the waltzes coming from the lobby orchestra.

Instead, we have two-hours of unrequited, frustrated, repressed adoration that most reviewers of the film interpret as homosexual longing quietly screaming to express itself. We see a tragedy wiht his daughter in those flashbacks, but don't really learn much about him. What happened to his wife? (did I miss something ... this might be embarrassing.) Are Gustav and Alfred meant to be lovers? The Gustav-Alfred arguments suggest that the obsession might be only an aesthetic fascination, the kind of inspiration Alfred says is lacking in Gustav's music. The way it plays in the film, Gustav is a crumbling personality, unable to cope with his own adoration of an underaged boy. Tadzio, a well-to-do Polish kid on vacation, is the one who seems to be sexually ambiguous. The homosexual vibes come from his direction, as he constantly acknowledges Gustav's interest with return glances.

Gustav Aschenbach checks out of the hotel, but then uses a luggage mishap as a happy excuse to check back in again, so he can continue observing Tadzio. This is the bulk of the content of the movie. Physically, Gustav doesn't seem all that unhealthy until the very end. We know he's alarmed about the plague, but nobody else seems to be. There's so little communication in the film, we aren't sure if Tadzio's Polish mother even knows what Gustav is saying when he tries to warn her.

(spoiler) In the end, Gustav starts wearing some extreme makeup, exaggerated face powder and lipstick. Without more information, we don't know if it's a legit custom, a fad, or if he's turning into a strange sexual dandy, a more subtle version of the painted grotesque we see on the boat in the beginning. His makeup also reminds us of the clown-like leader of a entertainment troupe that serenades and entertains the hotel guests one night. There are other symbolic emblems and 'meaningful' ideas about the nature of voyeurism to consider, but overall, these two hours and eleven minutes are so slowly paced, there's little joy in seeking them out.

(big spoiler) When Gustav allows himself to be painted and made up like a corpse, is he meant to be finally relaxing, giving into his emotions & sexual instincts, as Alfred had prescribed? Does he think he's making himself younger, for the teenaged object of his affections? Or is he just breaking down emotionally? Dirk Bogarde has been hailed as a genius for this performance, but I don't see anything coherent in it. He was excellent when playing evocations of gay men in movies from other periods, Victim and Modesty Blaise. Gustav seems happy to die on the beach watching Tadzio wade in the water like Venus on the half-shell. He totters around for the last reel or so, and then all of a sudden is in dire straits. His hair dye melts down his fevered face.

Visconti's movie has some extremely handsome design aspects. The costumes are breathtaking and the ambience around the sumptiously-appointed Venetian hotel is rich and detailed. The colors of Pasquale di Santis' photography are also a pleasure to look at.

But the movie has a surprisingly inexpressive shooting style. Trucking shots are used sparingly, with most of the film covered with a long lens that pans and zooms over the beaches and hotel interiors. Individual guests are picked out rather arbitrarily until the camera finds Tadzio. The main setpieces take place in the lobby, the dining room and on the beach. They go on forever, and do little but highlight decor. The director communicates his mood by having little or nothing happen, and I can only guess we're supposed to be intrigued by the constant parade of little details.

It takes three minutes for the titles to drag by, three more for a boat to reach a dock, and a full ten minutes for Gustav to reach his hotel. There's the Mahler music to listen to, but unless one is already in the mood to appreciate a leaden pace and a static contemplation of the beauties of Venice, there's a lot of waiting involved in watching this movie.

Now, maybe if I had read the Mann book I'd have a completely different opinion. The critical adoration heaped on Visconti's genius is fairly intimidating. 1

And let's face it, it's easy to review Luchino Visconti's impressive career and reputation as givens and so avoid a direct discussion of Death in Venice. I've seen Ossessione, Senso, Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard (supposedly uncut on the old Z cable channel) and even his segment in The Witches, The Witch Burned Alive, and they were all great. If I'm way off base on the subject of Death in Venice, be kind. I usually like ponderous movies. Visconti's The Damned is on the way. I understand it's a whole different kettle of fish.

Warner's DVD of Death in Venice should be an immense pleasure for lovers of this acclaimed Luchino Visconti production. The transfer is very good-looking for color and sharpness, with just some fleeting specks of dirt in the titles.

An old Warners' promotional featurette follows the director through a day's shooting and tries to create an aura about him, stressing the expected exacting attention to detail and the creative efforts of his designers and costume people. We're shown one setup and told he's rephotographed it all day long, and it finally looks right when the sun is about to go down and the character of the light changes. Although there's lots of staged footage of Visconti riding in canal boats to his set, he remains rather remote.

Another feature called A Tour of Venice is a handsome set of production stills. The well-written package copy uses quotes to position Death in Venice as an intense art film with a masterful period ambience.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Death in Venice rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette Visconti's Venice. Still gallery, trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 8, 2004


1. A welcome note from Jon Paul Henry, 2/09/04:
Dear Glenn Erickson, When Death in Venice came out, I was in first year college, and our humanities teacher took us to see it. None of us had read the book, but he said it was a classic, a Nobel winner, and since going to a movie sounded like fun, we all went. It was slow, yes, but the music was good, and we were watching cocooned in an aura of reverence - great book, great director = great movie (naturally).

By the time we emerged from the theatre, our instructor was apoplectic. The film was a travesty of the book, he said, reducing the artistic conflicts of the book to an older man cruising a young boy on a beach. Next class, he apologized to all of us for having subjected us to such trash. Vigorous discussion ensued.

Later on in college, third year, I read the book, and it occurred to me that Mann's novella was easily susceptible to just the interpretation Visconti had given it: artistic aura notwithstanding, one can indeed read the book as Gustav's pathetic attempted coming out, with Mann's subtext being that any such attempt amounts to suicide.

As for the movie, yep, it's slow and, in my opinion, definitely over-rated. It reads sort of like an attempt to refilm Last Year at Marienbad, but with, you know, "content" as well as set decoration. It's the kind of film that artspeak reviewers will say has "hypnotic" visuals and/or "langourous" ambience, i.e., will probably put you to sleep.

Cheers, and thanks again for calling 'em like you see 'em. Jon Paul Henry


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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