A few years before the First World War, the renowned composer Gustav von Aschenbach suffers a serious health scare. He is ordered to take complete rest, so he decides to travel to Venice for an extended holiday. Staying at a high-class hotel, he notices a Polish family there. The children are mainly girls, but the family includes a young teenage boy called Tadzio. Aschenbach soon becomes increasingly obsessed with him. He never dares to speak to the boy, but over time Aschenbach’s every movement is dictated by the need to watch Tadzio and follow him around the city. It can’t last, and it won’t; Aschenbach’s refusal to control himself is going to lead to tragedy.
It’s rather difficult to outline the story of Death in Venice without making Aschenbach sound like a dirty old man, and the story knows that in some lights, well, he is. Towards the end of the story Aschenbach gets his grey hair dyed and starts wearing make-up in an attempt to look younger and more attractive, mirroring a minor character who does the same at the start of the film. Aschenbach was unnerved by this character, but has now descended so far as to practically become him. However, Death in Venice is rather restrained if you see it simply as a story about sexual paedophilia. We are never explicitly shown Aschenbach wanting to have sex with Tadzio, and he certainly wouldn’t have the courage to act on such a desire. It’s difficult to deny that a sexual element is there, but Aschenbach’s obsession is strongly emotional, rather than just sexual. He is confronted for the first time in his life with a beauty that he has no defences against. A friend tells him that artistic beauty cannot be achieved through labour. It’s simply there or it isn’t. Aschenbach strongly denies this, as he has spent his musical career trying to attain beauty through the unambiguous, precise structure that forms his work. Tadzio’s existence is the strongest argument against him that he could possibly encounter.
Aschenbach has not got a strong mental core. From the beginning of the film, he’s a nervous wreck, and he rarely does anything without it looking like an effort. This actually makes him seem a little more sympathetic than he could have been. He certainly doesn’t expect to meet Tadzio, and what happens is as much a surprise to him as it would be to anyone else. His actions are his responsibility, but his initial emotion may not be. It’s his responses that we condemn in the end, rather than the first shock he has. The best part of the film is Dirk Bogarde’s performance as Aschenbach. Aschenbach is really the only character we get to know, and Bogarde gives him the complexity that he needs for us to become invested in the story.
Bogarde is far from the film’s only strength, either. The story is involving, the cinematography and production design are outstanding, and the film’s extensive use of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies is used extremely well. As a film, it works…
… but as an adaptation of the source material, it falls very short. Death in Venice is a short story from 1912 by the author Thomas Mann, and it’s seen as one of the best short stories of the twentieth century. The film is mostly faithful to the short story, but it changes a fair amount that either damages it or is just confusing. To start with the confusing: the film features a scene where a younger Aschenbach visits a brothel. This is not in the short story – but it is in Mann’s later novel Doctor Faustus. Visconti appears to be combining Aschenbach with Adrian Leverkühn, the protagonist of Doctor Faustus, which makes no sense. The short story Death in Venice is about emotional repression and what happens when the dam breaks. Doctor Faustus is an allegory of Germany’s disastrous relationship with Nazism. There is no reason to force the two characters together, as Mann was doing very different things with them. Neither does Visconti do anything to justify the scene’s inclusion in the film, as it adds nothing to the film’s Aschenbach that we don’t already know.
The biggest mistake, though, is Visconti’s complete excision of the story’s mythical elements. As the short story continues, Aschenbach thinks increasingly of ancient Greek dialogues, whilst the people he meets often feel like agents of Fate forcing him in a certain direction. Even his initial impulse to travel is the result of seeing a tourist in his home town of Munich, who vanishes as soon as Aschenbach decides to go abroad. It culminates in a vivid climactic dream about the ‘stranger-god’, signifying the arrival of the final fall. The inclusion of the mythic in the short story matters because it adds to the mental frenzy that Aschenbach is trapped in. We get nothing like this in Visconti’s film, and in comparison to the short story it seems awkwardly well-behaved. Aschenbach may be in a frenzy, but it’s a frenzy we’re watching from a distance.
Neither is Tadzio immune. In the short story, we never hear him utter a single word of dialogue, which gives the impression that he’s more an unworldly being than human. This makes sense, as we’re seeing him through Aschenbach’s eyes. Obviously Aschenbach is not just going to see him as an unremarkable adolescent on holiday. But in the film, we hear Tadzio speak, and we see him too often, too close; he becomes all too human. The mythic is again lost.
You can end up wondering if Visconti and Mann are interested in different things. Mann’s Aschenbach is a victim of his own emotional repression and his lack of innate strength. Visconti’s Aschenbach is trying to deny that beauty and artistic genius can come from evil. You can combine the two, but there’s no denying that there is a difference. In my opinion, the difference is in Mann’s favour. In fact, the difference is in Mann’s favour all along the line. The film is good, but the short story is fantastic, and the film just doesn’t do it justice.