Death in Venice: No 14 best arthouse film of all time

Luchino Visconti, 1971

There is possibly a no more overwhelming death in cinema than the one that ends this adaptation of Thomas Mann's novella of homosexual desire. Feted composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), his face smeared with tragically unbecoming makeup, sits on the beach at Venice Lido watching the object of his affections. To the unbearably bittersweet strains of the adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony, Aschenbach sees the beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio, get beaten up by an older boy, before he himself is carried off in a Wagnerian liebestod.

In Mann's novella, Aschenbach is a novelist. Visconti's decision to make him a composer instead opened the treasure houses of Mahler's 3rd and 5th symphonies. Otherwise the film is faithful to its source: Aschenbach has come to Venice to recover from personal and artistic stresses. Instead, overtaken by an unrequited passion for an unattainable boy, he courts death by failing to heed warnings about the cholera epidemic sweeping the city.
There is something almost laughable about Aschenbach's prissy hauteur – a laughableness that only deepens when one learns from Bogarde's memoirs that the director smeared cream on his lead's face from a bottle marked "Do not let this come into contact with the skin". Thus, Bogarde was in agony as he played dead for the camera. Death in Venice recalls WH Auden's poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, about how suffering "takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". At the end, filled with the joys and unwitting cruelty of youth, Tadzio and his bully make up and walk past Aschenbach in his chair, not even noticing that the great artist has died.

Contributor

Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Andrei Rublev: the best arthouse film of all time

Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966

Steve Rose

20, Oct, 2010 @10:54 AM

Article image
L'Atalante: No 3 best arthouse film of all time

Jean Vigo, 1934

David Thomson

20, Oct, 2010 @10:52 AM

Article image
Battleship Potemkin: No 18 best arthouse film of all time

Sergei Eisenstein, 1925

Steve Rose

20, Oct, 2010 @10:37 AM

Article image
The Conformist: No 13 best arthouse film of all time

Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970

Stuart Jeffries

20, Oct, 2010 @10:42 AM

Article image
Pather Panchali: No 12 best arthouse film of all time

Satyajit Ray, 1955

Stuart Jeffries

20, Oct, 2010 @10:43 AM

Article image
Tokyo Story: No 4 best arthouse film of all time

Yasujiro Ozu, 1953

David Thomson

20, Oct, 2010 @10:51 AM

Article image
La Dolce Vita: No 23 best arthouse film of all time

Federico Fellini, 1960

Steve Rose

20, Oct, 2010 @10:32 AM

Article image
The White Ribbon: No 9 best arthouse film of all time

Michael Haneke, 2009

Catherine Shoard

20, Oct, 2010 @10:46 AM

Article image
Aguirre, Wrath of God: No 11 best arthouse film of all time

Werner Herzog, 1972

Stuart Jeffries

20, Oct, 2010 @10:44 AM

Article image
The Rules of the Game: No 20 best arthouse film of all time

Jean Renoir, 1939

Steve Rose

20, Oct, 2010 @10:35 AM