A REVIEW OF THE FILM DEATH IN VENICE (1971)
Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde and Björn Andrésen, was released in 1971, in Italy with the title Morte a Venezia, 130 minutes long.
Not quite flawless *****
Some others here have written so eloquently and fully about this film's many virtues that I see no point in saying more about them. I shall instead say why I find it not quite flawless, but first I shall underline my appreciation of it by observing I love this film despite being intensely bored by some acclaimed films with little dialogue or action. Mostly I think this must come down to the film being such a rich visual treat, but hearing that some find it boring despite that, I wonder if this might not be a rare case where it is a great advantage to have read the novella first, as I did, for Mann's description of Aschenbach's developing and conflicting emotions is absolutely masterful. Perhaps this helps one feel as Aschenbach feels more than one could just from Bogarde's excellent acting.
Visconti allowed himself more than two hours to bring to life a very short novel. There was thus none of the usual necessity to cut any of the novel, and since the latter is a masterpiece, every reason to be faithful to it. Nothing that matters has been cut and the film is generally faithful. Nevertheless, its only slight flaws come from being not faithful enough.
The main change in the story is that Aschenbach is changed from a writer to a musician. The reasons are understandable and I don't think it matters much except that Visconti made it the basis for a series of flashbacks in which Aschenbach has slightly corny debates about the purpose of musical creation. I find these tiresome distractions.
A lesser flaw for me is the choice of 16-year-old Björn Andrésen to play 14-year-old Tadzio. I realise from the numerous superlative remarks made about his beauty that most will disagree with me on this. I agree with others it was critical to the film's success that Tadzio's actor be beautiful and I can appreciate Andrésen's beauty enough to understand how Visconti's choice succeeded. Though personally I find him too pallid (and his hair too '70s for an otherwise wonderfully authentic depiction of 1911), my objection is not that he was not beautiful enough, but that it would have been easy and better to find an equally beautiful 14-year-old to play the role. There is quite a difference between boys of 14 and 16 and Mann had his reasons for depicting Tadzio as looking 14. Andrésen's rather feminine appearance for his age is a poor substitute for the more natural androgyny of 14. I think Mann's choice of 14 was intended both for the broad appeal of this quality and in considered juxtaposition to Aschenbach's age: the one near the beginning of his romantic sensibility while the other was at its end. Much to his credit, Visconti did set out to find a younger boy, so he was not making the ignoble concession to social correctness other directors have made under similar circumstances, and I would not mention it if the film was not otherwise so nearly perfect.
As many appear still to be unaware of it, it may be interesting to mention that Death in Venice is partly a true story. Mann having already decided to write a story about a great writer who succumbs to passion for a youngster and to base the writer physically on the recently deceased composer Mahler, the rest of the story fell into place in detail when he arrived in Venice and promptly fell in love with a boy; in his own words, "nothing was invented." Gilbert Adair wrote a book on this called The Real Tadzio, exploring also the life of Wladyslaw Moes, who claimed to be the real boy (which I doubt for reasons I have explained in a review of it).
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on imdb.com, amazon.com and rottentomatoes.com on 31 July 2014.