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Review: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

4.5
Niles Schwartz

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Death in Venice

Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice opens with a steamer approaching Venice, the strings of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony gorgeously throbbing on the soundtrack. This opening suggests the Italian city as an entry of romanticized escape for Gustave von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a reserved German composer on sabbatical, but then the sequence’s staid rhythm is abruptly dispelled by a blast from the boat’s steam engine, as if to hint at all the scorching filth that underlies Venice’s hyperbolic beauty. Throughout the film, Aschenbach’s vacation getaway will devolve into a ruinously obsessive journey, as he becomes captivated by the beauty he’s spent a career idealizing, manifested in a 14-year-old Polish boy. And this while Venice, cosmopolitan center for European art and culture, falls prey to a cholera epidemic.

We intuit that Aschenbach has retreated from his native Germany after a hostile reception to the premiere of a new composition. Doctors recommend a long period of complete rest, and he ventures to the south alone. In Venice, Aschenbach’s noble pretenses are undermined almost right away by grotesque encounters with a made-up dandy and a nefarious gondolier. He isn’t met with the deference he’s used to receiving, but with recalcitrant mockery. In this way, Death in Venice has deep connective tissue to Visconti’s The Leopard, wherein the aristocracy of Old Europe comes to grips with its collapse. Here, Aschenbach feels like a vestige of that class of European: a 19th-century ghost who hasn’t realized his obsolescence.

Through flashbacks, the audience learns that Aschenbach’s music is committed to ideals of beauty. Whereas Alfred (Mark Burns), his friend and colleague, preaches of the triumph of the senses and the significance of ambiguity in art, Aschenbach believes that art should uphold the dignity of humanity. For him, the nobility of beauty and intellect triumphs over our rudderless senses. Yet just as disease grips Venice, Aschenbach’s sensorial enthrallment overtakes his sense of reason. He settles into his hotel, and as Visconti’s camera—doubling for Aschenbach’s gaze—spends several minutes canvassing the dense dining hall, our main character’s languor and detachment is impressed upon us.

It’s then that an aristocratic Polish family passes before Aschenbach and the man is instantly taken with the beautiful Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Even when the boy looks back at Aschenbach with an ambiguous smile, there’s a subtle sense that the boy’s preternatural glance has been constructed in the composer’s head. In one scene, Aschenbach spies Tadzio playing the piano, only for Visconti to then reveal that the boy isn’t there at all. At first, this kindling infatuation within Aschenbach is exciting for him, then frustrating, and eventually infuriating. And Death in Venice aesthetically complements Aschenbach’s unraveling: Visconti’s stylistic approach remains staid and evenly controlled in its presentation, yet the stready progression of flashbacks offers more questions than resolutions, plying the story with the kinds of ambiguities a conservative artist like Aschenbach disdains, suggesting that he’s being destroyed as if by a contagion carving its way through him.

Throughout, Tadzio’s perfection contrasts with Aschenbach’s loss of control. In The Leopard’s famous ball sequence, the noble patrons maintained their grace despite being so sweat-stained. But in Death in Venice, the sphinx of Old Europe has fully eroded. Aschenbach even attempts to remake himself in a barber’s shop as a younger man, blackening his graying hair and reddening his cheeks. “And now the signore may fall in love as he wishes,” the barber says, and yet as the cosmetically redrawn Aschenbach wanders through the stench of an ostensibly desolate wasteland, he embodies a ridiculous (and futile) retort to time.

Death in Venice is based on a 1911 novella by Thomas Mann, who often connected themes of disease and erotic enthrallment. For his adaptation, Visconti reached beyond his source material and incorporates elements from Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, wherein Germany’s abandonment of reason to tribal barbarism becomes analogous to an artist’s pact with the devil for acquiring genius. In that novel, composer Adrian Leverkühn’s means of sealing this deal is by visiting a prostitute who infects him with syphilis, a slow-moving contamination that isolates his body and mind just as it destroys them (the scenario is based on an apocryphal story about the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, whose work influenced so much of the trajectory of thought in the coming century). With haunting precision and muted sexual ferocity, Visconti stages the brothel scene from Doctor Faustus as a flashback, as Aschenbach—in place of Leverkühn—visits the prostitute Esmeralda (Carole André).

This flashback connects to Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio, as both Esmeralda and Tadzio are spotted playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on a piano. It’s not clear if Visconti’s Aschenbach, like Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, acquired syphilis from Esmeralda. But in connecting Tadzio and Esmeralda, Visconti implies Aschenbach’s metamorphosis from a dignified disposition to some irrational urge for destabilization (Esmeralda is also the name of the ship that carries him to Venice). The film is constructed of long camera setups with impeccably calibrated zooms to capture Old Europe’s denizens marching through crowded frames, conveying the hold of a master filmmaker in his twilight years over the action. Yet thrashing beneath that control, the film is submerged in ambiguities and incongruencies.

In his 1943 novel Joseph and His Brothers, Mann—in exile from Nazi Germany—wrote, “Do not assume the human being’s deepest concern is for peace, tranquility, the preservation of the carefully erected structure of his life from shattering and collapse. Too much evidence goes to show that he is headed straight toward ecstasy and ruin—and thanks nobody who holds him back.” True to Mann, Visconti’s Death in Venice details the self-evisceration of an individual’s—and nation’s—proud ideals. Not reconciling such ideals with the demonic is a grave error. The dying Aschenbach spies Tadzio in the sun kissed Adriatic, unable or unwilling to see the specter of fascism and two World Wars over the horizon.

Image/Sound

The only version of Death in Venice available to most viewers since 2004 was the Warner Home Video DVD, which offered a patchy transfer worthy of Aschenbach’s own corporeal entropy. Comparatively, Criterion’s release, which comes from a new 4K digital restoration, is akin to Tadzio himself. Throughout, the colors are newly, vibrantly saturated, allowing the widescreen compositions to shimmer in ways they haven’t since, surely, the film’s original theatrical release. There’s also an exceptional clarity to the spectrum of skin tones, from Aschenbach’s deathly pallor to Tadzio’s youthful, full-blooded beauty. Another drawback of the old DVD was its often unintelligible dialogue, as well as how it made the wall-to-wall Mahler compositions sound like they were pulled from a secondhand recording. Criterion’s uncompressed monaural soundtrack breathes new life into the film’s corpse, as it were, with the sound effects (such as the oars brushing through Venice’s ravines) boasting a profound crispness. The dialogue is perfectly intelligible and the dubbing—however flagrant—never strident. Mahler’s strings don’t blare out so much as sweep in smoothly like a tide.

Extras

The most informative extra here features literary and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini, who digs deep into the genesis and themes of the film, in particular its place in Visconti’s “German trilogy” alongside The Damned and Ludwig and the director’s lifelong adoration of Thomas Mann. A 1971 short film by Visconti documents his continent-wide search for a boy to play Tadzio. When we see Björn Andrésen being auditioned in Helsinki, it’s obvious that he’s the stand-out, but even Visconti admits the boy—too tall and too old—isn’t at all perfect (the process will probably touch a disturbing third rail for viewers, given how this search relates to the story of erotic attachment for a child just broaching pubescence).

The grandest extra, though, is an hour-long TV documentary about Visconti’s life and work titled Visconti: Life as in a Novel. It doesn’t offer anything in particular that will be new to the filmmaker’s more ardent fans, but it features engrossing interviews with some of Visconti’s more notable collaborators, such as Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Silvana Mangano. There are also excerpts from a 2006 interview with Piero Tosi, whose journey with Visconti went from working as a lowly design assistant—who could only talk to the filmmaker through intermediaries—to finally graduating to the role of costume designer on several of Visconti’s later films, including Death in Venice.

A brief 1971 film festival interview with Visconti is of interest in how the aging director admits he doesn’t understand the new generation of filmmakers. Ported over from the Warner DVD is Visconti’s Venice, a rather ho-hum behind-the-scenes documentary filmed during Death in Venice’s production. Finally, the disc’s accompanying essay, “Ruinous Infatuation” by Dennis Lim, is a rewarding encapsulation of the film as a work of adaptation and how Visconti tackles the challenge of a turning a novella rife with metaphor and symbols into something tactile.

Overall

Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns, Nora Ricci, Marisa Berenson, Carole André, Silvana Mangano. Director: Luchino Visconti Screenwriter: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: February 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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