Death in Venice

In the third volume of his memoirs, An Orderly Man (1983), the actor Dirk Bogarde tells the story of the first screening for Warner Bros. studio executives of the film Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti. Naturally they were curious to see how their money had been spent. “When the lights went up in the Los Angeles projection room”, he writes, “there was not a sound, and no one moved. Visconti said that this encouraged him enormously: obviously they had been caught up in the great emotional finale of the film.”  Far from it. They were appalled.

To break the stony silence, one nervous executive piped up “Well: I think the music is great. Just great. It’s a terrific theme. Terrific! Who was it did your score, Signore Visconti?” On being told the music had been written by Gustav Mahler, he replied “Just great … I think we should sign him!”

We should be grateful that the studio executives did not succeed in scuppering the film for it was largely thanks to Visconti’s masterpiece that the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) reached a truly worldwide audience and it made the beautiful Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony his best loved and most recognisable work. The choice of his music was of course no accident; when Thomas Mann (1875-1955) wrote his novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice), he gave the central character, the writer Gustav von Aschenbach, the same physical characteristics and dress sense as Mahler in homage to the great man who had died in 1911 (and on the eve of Mann’s own visit to Venice). Mann was in awe of Mahler; once after a performance of his Eighth Symphony, Mann had sent him his novel Royal Highness with a disclaimer which read “It is certainly a very poor return for what I received – a mere feather’s weight in the hand of the man who, as I believe, expresses the art of our time in its profoundest and most sacred form”.

In the film, Visconti makes the connection with Mahler even more explicit by casting Aschenbach as a composer and giving him Mahler’s own awkward gait (contemporaries quipped that Mahler walked in 5/4 time).  This gave many the misleading impression that the film was in some way about Mahler himself but the inspiration for the character of Aschenbach came from a quite different source.

Masks. Venice
Masks. Venice

In May 1911, Thomas Mann checked into the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido with his long-suffering wife Katia and her brother Heinrich for a holiday; he also had an assignment to write an essay on Richard Wagner who had died in Venice in 1883. On the first day they noticed an aristocratic Polish family in the hotel dining room. Katia recalled much later in her memoirs Unwritten Memories (1974) “…the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor’s suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him and he thought of him often”.

The boy was years later identified as Władysław Moes, a Polish nobleman, and the inspiration for Tadzio in the novella; Mann himself was the kernel of an idea for the character of Gustav von Aschenbach.  Many other details come from their stay in Venice, as Mann himself admitted in A Sketch of My Life, “Nothing in Death in Venice is invented. The traveller by the Northern Cemetery in Munich, the gloomy boat from Pola, the aged fop, the dubious gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the departure prevented by a mix-up over luggage, the cholera, the honest clerk in the travel agency, the malevolent street singer, or whatever else you might care to mention – everything was given”.

But it would be a mistake to regard Death in Venice as just a thinly veiled confession of Mann’s own repressed homosexuality for this is a complex and beautifully written work which pits the conflicting demands of reason and the passions against each other and the inherent dangers in succumbing to either. The stage set for this struggle is Venice, brilliantly evoked by Mann as a city of transcendent beauty, poisoned by disease, corruption and decadence.

The story is quite straightforward. Gustav von Aschenbach is a middle-aged, widowed but burnt-out writer from Munich who goes to Venice to recuperate. A straight-laced and disciplined man by nature, he becomes captivated and increasingly obsessed by the beauty of an adolescent youth, Tadzio (to whom he never speaks but nevertheless follows around).  He neglects his work and, failing to heed the health warnings, he dies during a cholera epidemic, his last view being that of his beloved Tadzio on the beach.

Lo Spinario. Musei Capitolini, Rome.
Lo Spinario. Musei Capitolini, Rome.

Classical references abound throughout the text. Tadzio is a rather stereotypical incarnation of the Classical Greek conception of beauty and he is compared to the Roman bronze sculpture The Spinario. There are also references to Plato’s Phaedrus in which Plato says that the soul yearns to fly back to its spiritual source through a state of loving self-abandonment. But it is the spirit of Freud that hovers most over the pages: the dark and menacing Venetian alleys where ‘unspeakable horrors’ lurk resemble Freud’s primitive id which seethes below the surface of personality and threatens to disrupt the calm exterior and demands of the ego. Mann admitted Freud’s influence in 1925 when he wrote “The death wish is present in Aschenbach though he’s unaware of it”.

Visconti embellishes his film with elements from Mann’s other works, such as the cold, imposing character of Alfried which is based on the tragic Adrian Leverkühn from his later novel on music Doctor Faustus which was written during his exile in the richly artistic émigré community in Los Angeles. As Mann had consulted Theodor W. Adorno (a pupil of Alban Berg) while writing it, Adrian Leverkühn was widely thought to have been modelled  on Arnold Schoenberg and it led to a famous falling out between Schoenberg and Mann, with Schoenberg once accosting a neighbour in a Los Angeles supermarket, shrieking “Lies, Frau Marta, lies! You have to know I never had syphilis!”

Mahler. Symphony no. 5 in C♯ minor, Adagietto: autograph manuscript, 1903 Oct
Mahler. Symphony no. 5, Adagietto: autograph manuscript, 1903. Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum.

It is however the music of Mahler which resonates throughout the film, lending a grandeur and a wrenching emotional depth, in particular the ravishing Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony.  Mahler had originally written the movement as a love letter to his future wife Alma but in the film, Visconti uses it four times (almost in its entirety) for quite different purposes, masterfully integrating it into the emotional context of the film.  It is first heard as a restful accompaniment to Aschenbach’s arrival in Venice at dawn. Next it is heard when Aschenbach first leaves the hotel as he mumbles ‘Farewell Tadzio, it was all too brief, may God bless you’ and continuing until his joyous return later in the day. On the third occasion it accompanies a poignant recollection of his late wife and daughter, and continues through his dandification by a barber and his subsequent collapse into tears of laughter in a street. Finally it is used on the deserted Lido, where he is alarmed to see Tadzio fighting with his friend; he subsequently collapses and dies.

In his memoirs, the actor Dirk Bogarde, who played Aschenbach in the film to wide acclaim, gives a vivid account of the making of the film and the attempts to secure the film’s release in spite of the stern opposition from the Hollywood executives. The young actor playing Tadzio, Björn Andrésen, was nothing like his on-screen persona “The last thing Björn ever wanted”, Bogarde writes, “was to be in the movies. What he did want was a Honda. The biggest and most powerful ever made”. He was never required to speak in the film (to the relief of Visconti) and on one occasion when he arrived ashen faced on the set after a night on the tiles, he was asked when he had gone to bed. “Heck man”, he replied, “I didn’t go to bed, we danced and danced. It was groovy, man”.

Following the disastrous showing to the film executives in Los Angeles, there was a real fear that the film would be killed off for being too controversial. Requests were made for cuts and there were rumours that the film should be changed to give it a ‘happy ending’. But salvation arrived from an unexpected quarter, the Venice in Peril Fund, a British charity supporting the restoration of Venice. Its chairman, John Julius Norwich, wanted the film to open as a charitable event attended by the Queen. Visconti telephoned the executives in Los Angeles “If you say that it is off, that you will not show it, then you will tell the Queen of England. Not I. I do not. Never”. At the reception at Burlington House following the Royal premiere, an American film executive was overheard exclaiming “what I can’t understand is how the Queen of England could bring her daughter to see a film about an old man chasing a kid’s ass”.

Baron Władysław Moes as a boy
Baron Władysław Moes as a boy

And what became of the people and the locations which inspired Thomas Mann’s novel? Władysław Moes, the original inspiration for Tadzio, only discovered his immortalisation in literature in the 1920s when his cousin noted the similarities in the novella to him and his friend Jan Fudakowski, the boy he had scrapped with on the beach years before. The two friends reunited after 60 years in London following the release of the film, having led lives shattered by the intervening wars and the political turmoil in Europe. (Fudakowski had settled in England and for a while had worked as a caretaker in a Jesuit college in Grantham, a stone’s throw from Margaret Thatcher’s birthplace, a grocer’s shop). And the Grand Hotel des Bains, the genesis for Death in Venice, is now sadly shuttered, awaiting redevelopment as luxury apartments, not for the dwindling local population but for outside investors.

One can only guess what Władysław Moes made of the final, moving scene of the film in which Tadzio gestures towards the dying Aschenbach to the convulsing strains of Mahler’s Adagietto, as if inviting him towards oblivion. In the music, Mahler quotes from his famous Rückert-Lieder ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’), closing the movement with the valedictory phrase “I live alone in my heaven, in my love, in my song”.  Perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless Hollywood executive who thought that Mahler had written the music expressly for the film; it is after all a perfect match.


Kevin Painting

Published 4 November 2015 on primephonic