Luchino Visconti’s film version of Thomas Mann’s novella has been criticized for taking too many liberties with the original. But I think the film is underrated. Visconti, an out gay man, made a strong artistic choice — to play up the story’s homoerotic subtext at the expense of its classical, aesthetic subtext — and stuck with it. What he came away with is a powerful, if ultimately frustrating, meditation on the relationship between homosexuality and artistic failure.
In Mann’s novel, Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer in his early 50s, goes to Venice to overcome his writer’s block. There he becomes fascinated by Tadzio, a preternaturally beautiful teenage boy, a blond, Polish aristocrat based on the real life Baron Władysław Moes. In Visconti’s film, Aschenbach becomes a composer — a not unreasonable transformation since the character was partly inspired by Gustav Mahler — but the outlines of the plot remain the same. Aschenbach stalks Tadzio through the Grand Hotel des Bains on The Lido, pining for the boy’s unattainable beauty until he dies of a cholera epidemic ravaging the city.
For Thomas Mann, as the critics have noted, Tadzio is a classical and aesthetic idea, not an object of lust. Visconti’s daring choice is to make it clear that Aschenbach wants Tadzio as more than just his muse. He wants to fuck him. Were Visconti a heterosexual, this would be a profoundly homophobic narrative. As it is, it’s probably a reflection of Visconti’s self-hatred, but it doesn’t matter. Whether or not Visconti hated himself for being gay is beside the point. That he’s able to use his internalized homophobia to get at the heart of artistic, and ultimately masculine failure and despair is what makes Death in Venice a great film.
Was Thomas Mann gay? We really don’t know. He was married and had children. “Gay curious” might be more accurate. Gustav von Aschenbach, in turn, is not gay, not in the book, not in the film. But, if he’s not gay, then he also fails as a heterosexual. His child dies. His wife dies. His prim, artistic discipline entombs him inside a sterile formalism. If Death in Venice is a frustrating film to watch, then it’s partly because Dirk Bogarde, Visconti’s Aschenbach, is so good at building a character who’s uncomfortable in his own skin. A disciplined artist in his 20s or 30s is one thing. The vitality of his youth helps keep the rigid habits necessary to write either novels or symphonies in balance. But a man in his 50s who’s maintained that kind of discipline since his early 20s is in danger of smothering the wellsprings of his art, of crushing the urge to create by the process of creation. For Ernest Hemingway, the most disciplined of all American writers, the answer was alcohol. For Thomas Mann, it’s an unconsummated homosexual passion.
If Björn Andrésen, Visconti’s Tadzio looks a bit too much like a singer in a boy band, Lief Garrett meets one of the Hanson brothers, an androgynous fantasy for teenage girls, then Dirk Bogarde is genuinely repellent. Bogarde is a handsome, if nondescript looking actor, but here he, quite intentionally, makes himself ugly. It’s not a flamboyant, colorful ugliness a la Christian Bale in American Hustle, but a gray, quiet, lifeless ugliness. Aschenbach is a fussy little man who’s not only aging, but lacks masculine force to begin with. As he pursues Tadzio, as the cholera epidemic that will take his life closes in on Venice, we learn, in a series of flashbacks that show his life’s work being methodically shot down by fate, crushed by a world that doesn’t understand him, or strangled by his own personal failings, what brought him to his dead end in the famously beautiful city of canals. He has a wife — the beautiful Marissa Berenson — and a child. They both die. He goes to a brothel. He’s impotent. Above all, while an acclaimed composer, the sources of his inspiration have dried up. He argues with Alfred, a hyper-aggressive friend and artistic collaborator played by an obnoxiously over the top Mark Burns. Alfred screams at him that art is about the senses. Aschenbach protests that, on the contrary, art is about cutting yourself off from your senses, that it’s about seeking the Platonic ideal through discipline and form.
If gay men from da Vinci to Whitman and Oscar Wilde have always made a mark well beyond their numbers in the creative arts, then it’s partly because gay men don’t have children. Since they cannot connect to eternity by pushing their DNA into the next generation, the only connection they have to the next generation is what they can create during their time on earth. Aschenbach is not a gay man. He’s a straight man. So why does he ultimately succumb to a doomed homosexuality passion for a teenage boy? Luchino Visconti is one of cinema’s great artists. But in some respects he considered himself a failure. His greatest film, The Leopard, was butchered upon its release in the United States and wasn’t widely available until the 1980s. What’s more, a Visconti film takes work. None of them are very enjoyable to watch. The Damned is a 150 minute torture session. The Leopard is beautiful, but heavy and slow moving. Death in Venice is over 2 hours of physical discomfort and decay. Visconti, like Mann’s Aschenbach, was a disciplined, fanatical artist. But somewhere, deep inside, he must have felt, like Aschenbach, that that “artists are rather like hunters aiming in the dark. They don’t know what their target is, and they don’t know if they’ve hit it.”
The city of Venice is one of the glories of western civilization, a work of art as well as a city. But in Mann’s novel and Visconti’s film, it’s as corrupt as it is beautiful. Not only is it being stalked by cholera, its residents are decaying physically at a rate faster than Aschenbach. Upon his arrival, a red faced, clownish old man horrifies him. A red headed street musician, a man in his 30s or 40s with no teeth, serenades him against his will. Waiters, gondoliers, hotel owners, city officials are devious, secretive profiteers who fail to warn visitors of the coming plague so as not to lose the tourist dollars. Only Tadzio, the beautiful unattainable teenage boy, a Pole, a foreigner, is as beautiful as the city itself. The film’s climax comes when Aschenbach witnesses Tadizio in the lobby of the Grand Hotel des Bains sit down at the piano and slowly plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Tadzio is a clumsy, indifferent pianist, but the purity of his physical beauty matches the purity of Beethoven’s music. Tadzio embodies the spirit, if not the form of Beethoven’s romanticism. He succeeds where Aschenbach — and by implication Mahler —- fails. Later, we see Aschenbach — and by implication Mahler — conduct his latest work. lt’s not only a failure. The audience boos so loudly he is almost afraid they’re going to rush the stage and rend him in pieces. He wants to get away from the people he should have been trying to connect with. He escapes, into seclusion, then illness, then ultimately to Venice.
In the poem Sailing to Byzantium, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats speculates on how art can rescue a mortal from death. “An Aged man is but a paltry thing,” he says, “a tattered coat upon a stick unless soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing with every tatter in its mortal dress.” Aschenbach is that coat upon a stick. But his soul doesn’t clap its hands or sing. Yeats, like Aschenbach, knows that he’s “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.” His only hope to live on is art form, disciplined creation. “Gather me up into the artifice of eternity,” he says, a famous line that could be Aschenbach’s personal motto as well as the hope of every childless, gay artist. But Aschenbach, unlike Yeats, will never clap his hands and sing and louder sing for every tatter in his mortal dress. He will die, a tattered coat upon a stick.
Yeat’s ends his triumphal poem by saying that “Once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing, but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enamelling.” Aschenbach, unlike Yeats, will never be gathered into the artifice of eternity. Tadzio is no longer an aesthetic form. He’s an object of lust, not healthy lust, but sick, twisted, defeated lust. Visconti, the out gay man, portrays Gustav Aschenbach, the heterosexual, as a pedophile stalker who surrenders to homosexual desire as a direct result of his failure as an artist. If American critics have been so uncomfortable with such a politically incorrect message, Luchino Visconti, the Southern European aesthete, is no politically correct American Puritan. He looks down into the hell of Aschenbach’s artistic and spiritual defeat without wincing.
In Visconti’s film, Yeat’s Grecian goldsmith becomes a Venetian hairdresser. “You’re too important a man to let slavish devotion to naturalism limit you,” the hairdresser, surely the most intellectual hairstylist in cinematic history, says. “I’ll give you back what was yours. Then you can fall in love.” By trying to defeat the aging process, Aschenbach becomes, not a form “to set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium,” but a monster, a Teutonic Michael Jackson in an ancient Italian city. The intellectual, even Satanic Venetian hairstylist dies the graying German’s hair black. He paints his face white. He smears lipstick on his lips. Gustav Aschenbach, the severe Northern European professor, is now a painted Venetian clown, his face a kabuki mask, red lips like The Joker, a face powdered white, dyed black hair that drips hair dye in black down his cheeks like blood. He has become one of those physically decayed, spiritually corrupt Venetian street people and hustlers that, up until now, have so horrified his prim, bourgeois sensibilities.
“There is no impurity,” the dying Aschenbach recalls Alfred saying as he watches Tadzio play on the beach, “so impure as old age.”