London, March 1971

A friend of mine contends that while writers, artists, and composers generally improve as they get older, film directors almost invariably tend to decline. The techniques they learned in their youth, he argues, have usually been superseded by the time they reach their 60s and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to adjust to each new stylistic fashion. It’s a generalization, of course, but I can think of many great names in cinema history that bear it out; and I must admit that after seeing The Damned I was beginning to think that Luchino Visconti might soon become one of them.

Not, however, after Death In Venice (Warner Rendezvous). For, whatever reservations one may have, this is as close to being a masterpiece as anything we’re likely to see in the cinema this year. Based on Thomas Mann’s famous novella about an ageing writer’s obsessive pursuit of a beautiful young Polish boy he meets on the Lido in Venice, it is remarkable for its apparently effortless evocation of a vanished period and life-style, for its more or less faithful rendering of the original, and for its haunting visual splendour. It is also mercifully free from the kind of semi-operatic inflation of human passion that spoilt a good deal of Visconti’s work during the 60s.

I would fault the film on only two counts. Firstly, in order to weave into the narrative the hero’s internal monologues about the rival claims of the senses and the spirit, Visconti endows him with a pupil with whom he fiercely debates the nature of beauty. By changing Von Aschenbach from a writer to a composer, he makes it plausible that he would actually have a pupil; but the discussions between the two men still seem strained and artificial. Secondly, Visconti slightly alters the balance of the story by making the young Polish boy encountered in Venice aware of his own sexual attractiveness. Indeed, as Von Aschenbach follows him through the squares and courtyards of the city, the boy frequently stops to throw him what looks like a mischievous, come-hithering glance. Instead of being a Platonic ideal of earthly beauty, he becomes something of a tease; and this undermines the central point that once an artist has looked on worldly perfection, then he must inevitably die.

However, these objections aside, the film is superb. In particular, Visconti’s ability to conjure up the past has rarely been seen to better advantage: the Palm Court orchestra that pumps out extracts from The Merry Widow in the lounge of the Hotel Des Bains immediately before dinner, the international holidaymakers who gossip and sport on the Lido in front of their gaily-striped tents, the epicene hangers-on at the waterfront awaiting the arrival of the tourists—all these contribute to the impression that one is watching not so much a recreation of Venice as it was in 1911 but that one is actually eavesdropping on reality. Equally important is the confident leisureliness of the tempo. Visconti never forces the narrative or tries to imbue it with a spurious dramatic urgency: instead, he brings out the haunting elegiac quality of Von Aschenbach’s slow progress towards his grave.

In this he is greatly aided by Dirk Bogarde’s admirable performance as the composer. In the first place, Bogarde gets across the slightly spinsterish fussiness that often besets those who live too long alone: notice the impatiently fluttering fingers of the left hand, the shuffling, knee-sagging walk, the instinctive dabbing at the mouth with a handkerchief after eating a strawberry, the bursts of intemperate anger whenever his will is crossed. But, to balance this, Bogarde also gives us the quiet rapture of the man who recognizes the stirring of long-suppressed emotions inside himself. When he returns to Venice, after an abortive attempt to flee, a look of unequivocal joy crosses his face; and as he watches the boy, Tadzio, sporting on the beach with his comrades, one is reminded of the conclusion of Mann’s hero that the artist “must needs be wanton, must needs rove at large in the realm of feeling”.

As the boy himself, Bjorn Andresen is appropriately beautiful and, for the most part, gravely mysterious; and it’s nice to see Silvana Mangano again as the boy’s mother, even though her rôle is a non-speaking one. But in the end, the credit chiefly rests with Visconti himself for giving us such a poised, elegant, and loving re-creation of Mann’s classic.

Michael Billington