Thursday, 5 May 2011

Death in Venice: not as great as we thought - but it still matters to me

Writing about how films introduced me to classical music has got me pondering – not for he first time – why so many of us fell hook, line and sinker for Death in Venice when it was released in 1971, and why its critical reputation has suffered so badly since. Once upon a time, it featured regularly in lists of all-time great films – now it’s lucky to make it into a Top 100 of specifically foreign movies.

There were many reasons for its initial success. It was massively civilised, sophisticated and European.  It wasn’t American (the only American character in the film is a doddery old hotel guest warning people against eating the strawberries because they might be bad for them – a sort of proto-health nazi). There’s no violence in it. Very few viewers would not have fancied a fortnight’s holiday at the Grand Hotel des Bains in the heyday of Edwardian opulence (it opened in 1901). 

Dirk Bogarde’s performance had BAFTA written all over it. The young Swede playing Tadzio managed the neat trick of being almost supernaturally beautiful without looking like the kind of boy any red-blooded kid would feel compelled to duff up – i.e. he didn’t come across as a precious woofter. Visually, it was possibly the most beautiful colour film to appear up to then. The score was achingly lovely – apart from theAdagietto, there was more Mahler (a sublime excerpt from the Third Symphony) and a poignant Mussorgsky lullaby (sung by Masha Predit, a Russian singer who just happened to be a guest at the hotel when Visconti started filming). 

And Venice – even in the grip of pestilence – looked absolutely ravishing. Silvana Magnano as the boy’s mother was stunningly attractive. There were some splendid bit-part performances – the disgusting, heavily made-up old man on the vaporetto, the dentally-challenged, strolling troubador on the hotel balcony, the pompous hotel manager spouting nonsense about the likely duration of the Scirocco, the worried little English travel agent who finally tells the composer that cholera has broken out in Venice, and the oily barber who, having turned von Aschenbach into a parody of the revolting old roué we met at the start of the film, tells him, “Now, the Signor may fall in love whenever he pleases” (brilliant sequence, this).

The beach scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

But the years – and repeated viewings - have revealed flaws that I (and many others) were prepared to overlook in the first flush of enthusiasm.

It’s a film about a paedophile masquerading as a film about the nature of beauty. Tadzio (played by an 18-year old Swedish actor trying to pass for 14) is meant to symbolise the sort of natural, accidental beauty that makes the composer question his whole approach to Art (explored in a series of overwrought flashbacks where a colleague mocks von Aschenbach’s belief in the importance of order and hard work in the creation of beauty - in effect, the traditional Classical v. Romantic argument, or between the Dionysian and Apollonian approach to existence). 

We can’t  get round it, as the critic Lawrence J. Quirk tried to, by pointing out that stills of the youth “could be extracted from the frame and hung on the walls of the Louvre or the Vatican”, and that Tadzio is meant to represent beauty in the realm of Michaelangelo’s David or Da Vinci’sMona Lisa. Visconti starts off down that route, but spoils it all about half way through by turning the kid from an unselfconscious Platonic ideal of Beauty into a teasing little tart who positively eggs his pathetic pursuer on. (The director compounds the felony by inserting some homo-erotic tussling in the sand featuring Tadzio and a companion near the end.) The physical nature of von Aschenbach’s infatuation is compounded by the fact that Dirk Bogarde is just too young for the role (he was 50 when the film was released), and therefore young enough to act on his impulses. Von Aschenbach needs to be an old man with a weird but essentially pure infatuation – not a randy, middle-aged sex tourist drooling over an under-aged boy. 

(Thomas Mann’s original novella was based on s personal experience: according to his wife, her husband had been similarly smitten by a 13-year old Polish lad in a sailor suit while holidaying in Venice in 1911, but without going so far as to follow him around the streets of the city. Mrs.
 Mann’s uncle, a law professor in Leipzig, was understandably outraged when he heard about the writer’s infatuation – he’d have been even more perplexed if he’d seen a photograph of the boy, Baron Wladyslaw Moes, who, to put it charitably, was no Adonis.)

And then there’s the performance of Dirk Bogarde to consider (his young co-star couldn’t act at all, but I doubt Visconti picked the Swede for his acting ability). Bogarde, actually, just wasn’t that good in the role. Him being too young to play von Aschenbach wouldn’t have mattered as much if he could play old – but he just couldn’t. Every bit of business meant to suggest old age comes across as nothing more than that - an unconvincing bit of business. Not for one moment do we forget that this is a famous middle-aged actor giving a “look at me, am I not giving a simply wonderful performance” sort of performance. (He was better in at least half a dozen other parts.)

But on a personal level, none of that matters much to me. Apart from considerably broadening my musical horizons, the film also introduced me to what, from the moment I arrived there for the first time thirty-nine years’ ago, has been my favourite city. There is nothing – absolutely nothing - new to say about Venice, except, perhaps that, taken as a whole, it is the greatest collective work of art man has produced (but I bet that’s also been said many times before). And whatever Visconti got wrong in what is still an extraordinarily accomplished piece of film-making, I have to thank him and his brilliant cinematographer, Pasqualino de Santis, for drawing me to the place that has given me more aesthetic pleasure over the years than any other.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, it also started me off an an intensive drawing spree for at least eighteen months.

I wonder if everyone has a work of art - film, poem, novel, paining - that had an effect on their lives out of all proportion to its actual artistic merit?


  1. Barry Lyndon was the film that affectedme deeply but now I’d describe it as beautiful but terribly vacuous…casting Ryan O’Neill in the lead role almost guarantees that. I have no idea why it hit me amidships but it just did.
    Saturday, May 7, 2011 - 02:57 PM

  2. Tony Palmer's marathon series on Richard Wagner from 1983. I was already a great admirer of of the composer and sat through the nine hours of the film twice. The music, the scenery, the acting talent, the beauty of Marthe Keller....I was quite carried away if my memory serves me right. Then I watched it again last year - and carefully putting the music to one side [why do films or documentaries about Lieber Richard never mention "Parsifal"] - and thought it was an unadulterated load of tosh. Atrocious script, endless monologues about God knows what, the British acting aristocracy [Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, even old Arthur Lowe] arsing around having a laugh, Burton literally looked like he didn't know where he was and the whole production obviously awash with European co-funding and lack of restraint. The New York Times of the day [and the Americans only had to sit through the six hour version] said it all : "A milestone of sorts because it is a colossal disaster". Well, at least Ken Russell didn't get hold of the production [remember "The Music Lovers"?].

    Edvard Munch. I loved the paintings of Munch. About 16-years ago somebody very close to me died and I went to Norway to get a break and in the course of events ended up in the Munch Museet in Oslo. After scanning all the scenes of sickness, jealousy and death I broke down suddenly and have not been able to look at a picture of his again. A very morbid, disturbed individual who is difficult to ignore because his pictures are always being nicked so he is in the news and British cartoonist are forever using the figure in "The Scream" in their work. I wish he would disappear off into the ether.

    I used to like the Marx Brothers. Then they disappeared off the radar for years ["Night at the Opera" introduced me to Verdi via "Il Trovatore"]. Then I caught the film again the other night and when Harpo removed the impresario's wig with his hoover and went scuttling up the safety curtain at a rate of knots and produced a big candle....Game on again, as they say.

    Bach is the Boss? I think that title belongs to Bruce Springsteen. In my experience people who like Bach are either very musically literate, musical toffs who listen to Radio 3 [Simon Heffer, Michael Henderson] or serial killers [Dr Lecter and the Goldberg Variations]. Mind you, I am only an OAP so what do I know.
    Sunday, May 8, 2011 - 05:52 PM

  3. Harumphrey, literally all I can remember about “Barry Lyndon” were the interior scenes with thousands of candles – let’s face it, Kubrick had essentially gone nuts by then. His film of “The Shining” was a huge disappointment to this fan of the book, and about as scary as an episode of “Last of the Summer Wine”. His last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”, was one of the worst pictures I’ve ever seen – as vacuous as “Barry Lyndon”, but deeply unpleasant into the bargain. “Paths of Glory”, “The Killing”, “Dr Strangelove”. “2001”. “A Clockwork Orange” – and then turkey after turkey. Very sad.

    Tony Palmer’s a mystery, SDG. His work often looks fine at the time – then looks awful when you see it a few years later. This happened to me with his documentary series about rock music, “All My Loving”, which is unwatchable. He gave a talk at the Cambridge Union Society once about his documentary about Liberace, and I asked him the obvious question (unanswered in the programme) – could he confirm that Liberace was a raving homosexual, despite successfully suing the Mandrake of the Daily Express for stating the obvious? He said he didn’t really know – so not quite as bright as one might have expected! In his defence, Palmer has in recent years produced two absolutely brilliant extended documentaries about Vaughan Williams and Holst (the last was premiered on BBC4 a couple of weeks ago). The only jarring note came in the Holst film, when he suddenly introduced pictures of concentration camp victims in the middle of one of Holst’s pieces, written in the 1920s. An acid flashback, one assumes. I’m just hoping that, when they’re shown again, I don’t think they’re rubbish! Never saw “Wagner” – and after your description, will do my best to avoid. I’m guessing it’s failure is what derailed his career for so long.

    As for Ken Russell – what were we thinking? I remember Auberon Waugh giving “The Music Lovers” the treatment it deserved by concentrating entirely on the strange shape of Glenda Jackson’s pubic hair when reviewing it.

    The best use I’ve ever come across of Munch’s “The Scream” was as a horror mask used by the killer in the “Scream” series of US slasher movies.

    As for Bach, Simon Heffer says he’s saving him for his old age. What made Bach “accessible” (dread word!) to me was someone writing that it was all basically music for dancing at different speeds. Not sure this fits the B Minor Mass or the Passions, which I could already appreciate, but it meant I could suddenly grasp what he was doing in all his other works. I just wish I could remember who made the comments about dancing.
    Wednesday, May 11, 2011 - 05:56 PM