Friday, February 20, 2009

Visconti's Death in Venice

In his 1971 adaptation of the Thomas Mann novel Death in Venice, director Luchino Visconti cast Dirk Bogarde in the role of composer Gustav von Aschenbach. While the casting seemed to be effective overall, it also raised some issues against the original novel. As Geoffrey Wagner notes, "the real difficulty is the appearance of Bogarde, looking like an absent-minded professor who is in reality a lecherous fag…"[1]. But while the characterization of Bogarde's Aschenbach as a "lecherous fag" might prove slightly exaggerated, the fact that this poses a "difficulty" might require some further exploration. How does Aschenbach's homosexuality fit in to the larger picture of Death in Venice and why, regardless of Wagner's opinion on Bogdade's appearance, might this be difficult? With an analysis of Visconti's film, I intend to show that the same-sex attraction in Death in Venice serves to further elaborate on the conditions of art and life as relating to the homosexual context of the early 20th century. To do this, I will first examine the historical context of both the film/book's plot in the early 20th century and its relation to the Visconti production of the early 1970's. How is Visconti's film and Aschenbach's same-sex attraction work in both the plot's and the film's respective historical places in time. Following I will look at the concept of the (gay) artist in Visconti's film. How does the idea of the homosexual artist relate to both the fictional Aschenbach and to Visconti himself. Finally, I will explore the relationship that the homosexual artist in history, through Death in Venice, has to art and life. What significance does Aschenbach's attraction to Tadzio have in light of his character as a (supposedly) failed, dying artist and how does Visconti use this to deliver his message.

First I shall consider the historical context of the book's plot as well as Visconti's 1971 production. While Death in Venice can work well as a timeless "parable about longing and obsession" it is also very much a "mise-en-scène of the homosexual condition in a certain historical epoch"[2]. This historical epoch, if we are to accept Mann's wife's memoirs about their actual holiday in Venice which inspired the book[3], would have been 1911, a year before the book was published and still very relevant when the book would have been first read. Not so was the case with Visconti's work, which in the early 1970's could already be categorized as a period piece. By then, Mann's book and as consequence Visconti's film would have been only a "final celebration of a departed … sexual regime", "nostalgic and anachronistic within the rapidly changing gay cultural context"[4]. In essence, Mann's book's relevance at the beginning of the 20th century was of a quite different nature than Visconti's film was in the early 70's. While Mann's book considered gay issues as they were happening, Visconti's film reminded us of the way they used to be and as consequence showed us how they have changed. The presence of young Tadzio's character, while not so jarring in the early 1900's, posed a definite challenge in the early 70's, especially with "the tightening taboos on pedophilia within sociomedical-juridical discourse… [and] changing conceptions of the economic role and sexual identity of the child"[5]. Further, Tadzio poses a problem in Visconti's film due to the fact that he "had to be visualized and thus particularized instead of appearing more or less just as a projection of Aschenbach's mind"[6]. Since "Visconti has no time to insinuate Tadzio into Aschenbach's consciousness as deftly and delicately as …the original author"[7] did, it rendered the exchanges between Tadzio and Aschenbach more as actual events than the internal thoughts and contemplations of Aschenbach's character that Mann might have intended.

Regardless of his representation in Death In Venice however, Tadzio represents the ephebe male type as defined by Thomas Waugh[8]. But while Tadzio is the ephebe, Aschenbach is by no means its polar opposite, the "he-man", but rather represents the third body, the "implied gay subject, the invisible desiring body of the producer-spectator - behind the camera, in front of the photograph, but rarely visualized within the frame"[9]. As such, Aschenbach dons the disguise of the third body, his eyeglasses, makeup and mortality[10] serve not only to disguise himself in order to survive as an invisible stigmatized minority but also to desexualize him in the erotophobic regime that he is a part of[11]. But while Visconti was hardly part of an erotophobic regime, he nevertheless sets up Aschenbach in such a way as to create autobiographical parallels as the aging gay artist. "The image of… Aschenbach on the porch of the Venice hotel, is that of both the alienated artist charting the machinations of social power from the wings and the gay man tuning into the sexual undercurrents of his surroundings"[12]. Indeed, the "autobiographical discourse can be read on a quite literal level" when considering "Visconti, in his sixties, undertaking his final progression of aging artistic figures"[13].

But why would Visconti create this parallel to an era where attitudes to homosexuality were different and to an aging gay artist on the verge of mortality fighting with his inner demons in the face of sublime beauty? Is he struggling with similar inner demons as Aschenbach is when his artistic merit is challenged and he is faced with his mortality? To a certain extent - yes. According to Bacon, the minimal narrative tension in Death in Venice "creates the sense of attempting to stop time, overcome death and old age by stepping out of time into the eternal spheres of beauty of forms"[14]. But while stopping time and overcoming death might seem futile, Visconti's Aschenbach might serve another function. His existence in a time past but not too far away to be forgotten reminds us of the ever-changing nature of life and his mortality points to life's ephemerality. Further, his role as the gay artist, third body figure makes the connection not only with the Director as the aging gay artist but also serves to create a contrast between the themes of beauty and its corruption, life and death, art and its demise. In essence, Aschenbach's same-sex attraction to something supremely beautiful serves to provide this contrast and counterbalance its perfection. As Bacon notes, "the achievements of the spirit through the creation of beauty are counterbalanced by the decadence that seems to be eroding the basis of the civilization that has produced it" and "while the spirit may continue to exist in works of art, biological and social corruption inevitably take their toll"[15]. While Aschenbach's character is not the polar opposite of Tadzio's ephebe (as discussed, he is not the "he-man" figure), he in fact serves as a polar opposite of what Tadzio represents. Abstracted, Tadzio's ephebe in Death in Venice stands for ultimate beauty, youth, life, art, while Aschenbach makes for the complete opposite of all this. Their connection then serves to show the inevitable necessity for each other among these two opposites and "the contrast between the tragedy of Aschenbach's inability to accept this and the way his story is rendered through the serene and sensuous splendour of the film becomes a metaphor for the basic paradoxes of our relationship to art and to life: inasmuch as art can be a way of transcending the contingencies of life and even overcoming its fundamental transience, inasmuch as art can be a path toward resignation, it also runs the risk of becoming alien to life"[16].

To conclude, we have seen how Visconti's Death in Venice operates in the historical context of both the plot of Mann's book and of the film's 1971 production. We have seen how changing attitudes and social-norms between the two places in history (beginning of 20th century and early 1970's) have contributed to shape both Visconti's adaptation of Mann's book and attitudes to its same-sex relation with a young boy. Further, I have considered the character of the aging gay artist embodied by Dirk Bogarde's Aschenbach. While noting the autobiographical parallels between the character and the film's director, we have seen how the character of the gay artist functions as both Waugh's "third body" and as a contrast to Tadzio's ephebe without being the ephebe's traditional opposite (the "he-man"). Finally, considering these elements, we looked at the way that Visconti uses them in his adaptation of Mann's novel to point to the contrast between the themes of beauty, youth and life vs. decay, old age and death. By providing this contrast, both through the thematic elements of Mann's novel and through the visual ones in the film adaptation, Visconti points to the inseparable nature of opposites in both art and life. Aschenbach's contrast to Tadzio and their link despite this contrast points to the larger reality of the link that beauty and art has to corruption and decay, to the inevitable necessary balance between them, and to the necessity of one for the continued existence of the other.

[1] Bacon, 1998, p161

[2] Aldrich, 1993, p4

[3] Mann, 1975, p62-63

[4] Waugh, 1993, p436

[5] Waugh, 1993, p436

[6] Bacon, 1998, p161

[7] Bacon, 1998, p161

[8] Waugh, 1993, p431

[9] Waugh, 1993, p432

[10] Waugh, 1993, p435

[11] Waugh, 1993, p434

[12] Waugh, 1993, p439

[13] Waugh, 1993, p437

[14] Bacon, 1998, p172

[15] Bacon, 1998, p172

[16] Bacon, 1998, p172


Aldrich, Robert. "The Attraction of the South for Northern Homosexuals." In The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art, and Homosexual Fantasy, 4. London: Routledge, 1993.

Bacon, Henry. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Mann, Katia. Unwritten Memories. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Waugh, Thomas. "The Third Body: Patterns in the Construcion of the Subject in Gay Male Narrative Film." In Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, 431-447. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

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