A film brimming with sentimentality, gorgeous long shots of an iconic city now lost, and a protagonist who has lost his dignity and health, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice also incorporates powerful music from Gustav Mahler, which is wholly moving and at times devastating. The movie is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel of the same name. Visconti changed the main character, Gustav, is minor ways that seem to benefit the story-telling of the media of film. There have been mixed reviews of Visconti’s interpretation, but the film is powerful on its own, and will likely inspire a reading of the novel.
Filmed in foggy frames that effectively typify a hot, humid and cholera-ridden Venice, shots are sometimes jaw-dropping; scenes of strolling aristocratic women in flowing white beachwear and holding small umbrellas are reminiscent of a Sorolla painting. The juxtaposition of water and stone, the mackerel sky sunsets, the ornate Grand Hôtel des Bains, Venice once had the power of romantic overload, but a kind of Dionysian overload, connected to the passions and excess of man of which some of us welcome at times, in direct opposition to the structured restraint of Nietzsche’s Apollo. Fitting into this ideal at first, Gustav doesn’t seem to notice any beauty at all except for one young man, with whom he steadily becomes obsessed, and we watch his slow, inward disintegration, his panic about aging, and his idealizing erotic beauty at the expense of dignity and intellectual contemplation — Dionysis pursuing Gustav to the end.
The subplot of a cholera epidemic, hidden from public view (it seems even then Venice was concerned about the necessary evil of tourists), brilliantly works into the story of Gustav’s demise.
Grab a bottle of wine and contemplate the Platonic ideal of beauty amongst pragmatism. For further poignant contrast, compare the cruise ship Venice of today to that of Gustav’s time.