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“A brilliant innovation in queer film studies ... Each of these
wonderful treatments has much to teach us, not only about the
art of film but also the queer ways in which films can transmit
meaning to audiences.” —Cineaste
A Queer Film Classic on Luchino Visconti’s lyrical and
controversial 1971 film based on Thomas Mann’s novel, about Will Aitken
a middle-aged heterosexual artist (played by Dirk Bogarde)
vacationing in Venice who becomes obsessed with a youth
staying at the same hotel as a wave of cholera descends upon
the city. The book analyzes the film’s cultural impact and
provides a vivid portrait of the director, an ardent Communist

and grand provocateur. Known variously as “The Red Duke”
and “the director of the dirty bed sheets,” Visconti, along with
Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica,
and Federico Fellini, revolutionized Italian film and became
one of the giants of world cinema. Although he never spoke
directly about his homosexuality, it was an open secret, and
many of his works, like Death in Venice, were suffused with
it—from the first neorealist film, Ossessione, to Rocco and His
Brothers to The Damned and the epic Ludwig.

“This is a model of how to intertwine personal response,

empirical detail, precise filmic description, and wider
theoretical issues without ever collapsing these into each
other. And it is written with a wonderfully judged wryness
and fluency that beautifully evokes and vindicates a
magnificent, troubling film.” —Richard Dyer, author of Stars


Entertainment (Film) / Gay & Lesbian
ISBN 978-1-55152-418-4
$14.95 Canada / $14.95 US
Arsenal Pulp Press | Vancouver

A Queer Film Classic

Will Aitken
DEATH IN VENICE: A Queer Film Classic
Copyright © 2011 by Will Aitken

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any part or used by
any means—graphic, electronic, or mechanical—without the prior written permis-
sion of the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may use a brief excerpt in a review,
or in the case of photocopying in Canada, a licence from Access Copyright.


211 East Georgia Street, Suite 101
Vancouver, BC V6A 1Z6 Canada

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the
Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council for its publishing program, and the Gov-
ernment of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for
its publishing activities.

Efforts have been made to locate copyright holders of source material wherever pos-
sible. The publisher welcomes hearing from any copyright holders of material used
in this book who have not been contacted.

Queer Film Classics series editors: Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh

Cover and text design by Shyla Seller

Edited for the press by Susan Safyan
Photograph of the author courtesy of Immony Men

Printed and bound in Canada


Aitken, Will, 1949-

Death in Venice / Will Aitken.

(A queer film classic)

Includes bibliographical references and index.
Issued also in electronic format.
ISBN 978-1-55152-418-4

1. Morte a Venezia (Motion picture). 2. Visconti, Luchino,

1906-1976—Criticism and interpretation. I. Title.
II. Series: Queer film classics

PN1997.M683A58 2011 791.43’72 C2011-906403-0

For Amy Geller and Gerald Peary

In memory of Peter Brunette


9 | Acknowledgments
11 | Synopsis
13 | Credits
17 | Preface
23 | One: Luchino Visconti
87 | Two: Imaginary Prisons
112 | Three: Last Impossible Loves
169 | References
175 | Filmography
179 | Index

Thank you, Anne Carson and Bruce Garside, for reading

and commenting on various drafts of the manuscript—your
contributions and your friendship are invaluable. Thanks as
well to Paul Hawkins, for his close reading. It’s been a plea-
sure to work with everyone at Arsenal Pulp Press—special
thanks to Susan Safyan, my excellent editor there. And fi-
nally, thanks to Tom Waugh and Matt Hays, the co-editors
of Queer Film Classics—a monumental task they’ve handled
with great vision, imagination, skill, and tact.


Distinguished German author Gustav von Aschenbach ar-

rives at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, a narrow
island off Venice. A widower, he travels alone. His room
overlooks the sea, but the salt air can’t dispel his heavy
melancholy. That evening, he descends to the hotel’s belle
époque lounge to read his newspaper before dining alone.
There, surrounded by the chatter of his splendidly arrayed
fellow guests, he first spots Tadzio, a blond Polish adolescent
who is staying at the hotel along with his mother, sisters, and
the family governess.
Awestruck by the boy’s beauty, Aschenbach remains in the
lounge long after his fellow guests have departed. The boy’s
mother, a great beauty herself, arrives, and the family goes
into the dining room. But the boy pauses at the doorway
and looks back at Aschenbach. An obsessive love begins. At
one point, Aschenbach attempts to escape it by determining
to leave Venice, but a mix-up over his luggage gives him a
spurious excuse for gratefully returning to the Lido and the
golden boy.
The aging writer surreptitiously observes Tadzio whenev-
er the occasion presents itself, and soon his pursuit becomes
more active. He follows the boy and his family throughout
Venice, even as signs of a cholera infestation become more

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evident. All the while he must conceal his passion, for he is a

public figure of great moral probity.
Venice reeks of disinfectant, garbage rots in the streets,
bonfires burn untended, but as long as Tadzio’s family re-
mains at the hotel, Aschenbach stays on, even as his own
health declines. He sweats, he staggers, he collapses in the
street, but nothing can halt his pursuit.
So weak and ill he has to be helped to his beach chair,
Aschenbach collapses into it, watching as Tadzio and his
friend Jaschiu frolic and then fight. Tadzio turns away from
his friend and wades into the sea, where he seems to gesture
at Aschenbach. He attempts to rise from his chair, to reach
out in the boy’s direction, but collapses and dies. Cabana
boys carry him away.


Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia), 1971, Italy, 130 min

Color, Sound, 35mm, 2.35:1, MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Luchino Visconti
Producer: Luchino Visconti
Executive Producer: Mario Gallo
Production company: Alfa Cinematografica

Writing Credits:
Thomas Mann (novel)
Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco (screenplay)

Principal Cast:
Dirk Bogarde: Gustav von Aschenbach
Björn Andrésen: Tadzio
Silvana Mangano: Tadzio’s mother
Mark Burns: Alfred
Marisa Berenson: Frau von Aschenbach
Romolo Valli: Hotel manager
Leslie French: Travel agent
Franco Fabrizi: Barber
Nora Ricci: Governess
Sergio Garfagnoli: Jaschiu, Polish youth
Ciro Cristofoletti: Hotel clerk
Masha Predit: Russian tourist

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Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis
Film editing: Ruggero Mastroianni
Art direction: Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Costume design: Piero Tosi

Gustav Mahler, Adagietto (Fourth Movement), Symphony
no. 5; Misterioso (Fourth Movement), Symphony no. 3
Modest Mussorgsky, “Lullaby”
Ludwig von Beethoven, “Für Elise”

Cannes Film Festival (1971): 25th Anniversary Prize,
Luchino Visconti
David di Donatello Awards (1971): Best Director, Luchino
BAFTA Film Awards (1972): Best Art Direction,
Ferdinando Scarfiotti; Best Cinematography, Pasqualino
De Santis; Best Costume Design, Piero Tosi; Best Sound
Track, Vittorio Trentino, Giuseppe Muratori
Nastro d’Argento (1972): Best Director, Luchino Visconti;
Best Cinematography, Pasqualino De Jantis; Best
Costume Design, Piero Tosi

Shot in Venice and Rome

World premiere, March 1, 1971 (London)

Death in Venice

Distributed by Warner Bros. Picture Distribution on

March 5, 1971
DVD available from Warner Home Video (USA)


I was twenty-three when I first saw Death in Venice in the

autumn of 1972. I went to see it with an older, rather ear-
nest friend who, as the last strains of the Adagietto movement
from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony faded, turned to me and said,
“What do you think Visconti’s message is?”
Enough of a Wildean to bristle at the thought of a film,
or any other work of art, carrying a message, I said, “Don’t
mess with chicken.”
From that evening on, I dismissed the movie from my
mind. Or tried to. I told myself that my objections to it
were primarily aesthetic. The film was too pretty by half
and, with its slow dawns and languid dusks, too frequently
teetered over into kitsch. Death in Venice struck me as the
homo equivalent of French painter Paul Chabas’s gauzy and
enduringly popular canvas, September Morn, which features
a naked adolescent girl wading in a lake with one arm dis-
creetly drawn over her pubis.
But I was also dismissive because the film disturbed me.
Like so many straight critics at the time, I was offended that
Visconti had made explicit what Mann had, for the most part,
kept implicit (there’s a fleeting orgiastic passage in the book).
The movie had far too many long and, well, penetrating
looks, not only showing Aschenbach’s adoration of Tadzio
but also what looked like frank reciprocation from Tadzio

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himself. The boy seemed knowing to the point of tartiness

in his provocatively cut one-piece bathing costumes. In the
book he was a distant figure, always receding, valedictory.
In the film he came forward in all his golden lusciousness.
He looked almost the aggressor as he posed and smirked
whenever Aschenbach shambled by. And his beauty was so
dazzling as to seem be unfair, unjust, in the way great beauty
always is. I wanted to have him—aware that, even at twenty-
three, my desire for him, if consummated, would break both
taboos and laws—and I wanted to be him. I wanted to return
to that golden, prelapsarian innocence I’d never had.
It says a lot about the year 1971 that a major Hollywood
studio (Warner Bros.) would put up two-thirds of the budget
($1.6-million) for an Italian film about a middle-aged Ger-
man man’s fatal attraction for a pubescent Polish boy who
looked like a very young Greta Garbo. In scanning the list
of other films also in official competition at the Cannes Film
Festival that year, it’s clear that Death in Venice wasn’t alone
in courting controversy. Louis Malle’s satiric comedy Souffle
au coeur (Murmur of the Heart) dealt with mother-son incest;
Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, released at the height
of the Vietnam war, took an openly pacifist stance; Loot was
the adaptation of British playwright Joe Orton’s polysexual
farce of the same title; and Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout fea-
tured an interracial adolescent romance, with extensive nu-
dity, between a Caucasian girl and an Aboriginal boy.
Even in this provocative company, critical reaction to

Death in Venice

Death in Venice ran from dissatisfaction and shock to baffle-

ment and outrage and beyond to outright condemnation.
Many male heterosexual critics paused in their pans to ex-
plain to Visconti that the “homosexual” content of Thomas
Mann’s novella wasn’t really homosexual at all but had more
to do with Platonic ideals and other more ethereal, and
thankfully less fleshly, concerns. Time magazine summed up
all that was wrong with the movie: “Mann’s ‘Death in Ven-
ice’ is, in fact, no more about homosexuality than Kafka’s
Metamorphosis is about entomology. This film is worse than
mediocre; it is corrupt and distorted … it is irredeemably,
unforgivably gay.”
More strictly speaking, the love apparent in both book
and film is pederastic—what anthropologists call “male
age-structured homosexuality,” involving an adult male and
a boy between the ages of twelve and seventeen or eigh-
teen, the so-called Athenian model for intergenerational
love. Purists point out that Mann’s and Visconti’s versions
of pederasty remain unconsummated, but in all the strained
labeling that goes on with both book and film, not one critic
writing about Death in Venice wondered whether pederas-
tic thoughts automatically make a man a pederast any more
than having murderous thoughts makes one a murderer.
Also, it’s abundantly clear that Aschenbach’s obsession with
Tadzio is a one-off. It’s never happened to him before: that’s
its very power.
Despite the critics, Death in Venice became a box-office

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sensation with straight and gay audiences alike, and became

Visconti’s greatest box-office success as well. For heterosex-
uals in the early 1970s, it was a daring film to see, palliated
by its provenance as a literary masterpiece (a contemporary
of Mann’s accused him of making ”pederasty acceptable to
the cultivated middle classes”) and its seductive panoramic
views of the city of Venus. For gay men, its unapologetic de-
piction of one male’s love for another was heartening, even
though, as with most films featuring same-sex couples at the
time, that love ended in death, at least for the pursuer.
I knew about the distinction between pedophilia and ped-
erasty but found the whole issue confusing, since both words
can mean love for a child. The ancient Greek term from
which both words derive can mean either “child” or “boy”
in much the same way “man” can mean an individual male or
“mankind” in general. Scholars say the Greeks had no word
for homosexuality; the closest they came to it was paideras-
tia, which literally means “boy love,” with “boy” defined as
pubescent or older. There are also scholars who now insist
ephebophile—a lover of adolescent boys—should replace the
term pederasty altogether. The term pedophile is a modern
coinage (the Oxford English Dictionary cites the word only
from 1941, though Richard von Krafft-Ebbing coined the
term paedophilia erotica in his 1886 work, Psychopathia Sexu-
alis) and has no bearing on either book or movie.
Attempts at teasing out the distinctions among these qua-
si-scientific terms left me, as the film had done, with a vague

Death in Venice

sense of queasiness. As a result I hadn’t bothered to look at

Death in Venice for a second time until Thomas Waugh, the
co-editor of this series, suggested I write about it.
I’d intended this book to be about Visconti’s two Vene-
tian films, Senso (1954) and Death in Venice, but in the writ-
ing Death in Venice took over. Returning to it forty years on,
I discovered it’s not the film I remembered, but then I’m
no longer the person who saw it then either. It’s far richer
and more generous-spirited than I’d ever imagined, and it’s
far more nuanced as well. Its brilliance lies in the depths
of its ambiguities and its layering of meaning, so much so
that though I don’t feel I could ever say definitively what
this film is, I feel slightly more confident that I can at least
elucidate some of its many mysteries. For long passages—it
would be wrong to describe Death in Venice as having sec-
tions or even sequences, for its structure is more musical
than cinematic—Aschenbach lives under shame’s shadow,
even as he experiences the most intense and overwhelming
love of his life. He may not reveal that love to anyone, and
so shame veils his desire and his celebration of it. Still, cel-
ebrate he does in his cramped and solitary manner, to the
point of self-annihilation.

One: Luchino Visconti

Celui qui n’a pas vécu … avant la Révolution ne connaît pas

la douceur de vivre. (Those who haven’t lived … before the
Revolution do not know the sweetness of living.)

The family opera

It’s not unusual for a gay boy to think he’s been born into the
wrong family, his peacock crest unappreciated by a flock of
dowdy pigeons. Luchino Visconti (1906–1976) had the great
good fortune to be born into an extravagance of peacocks.
His mother, donna Carla, was a storied beauty who wore
so many layers of mousseline de soie to the opera that it veiled
not only her but also obscured her husband—not an easy ac-
complishment, for don Giuseppe was a figure out of Aubrey
Beardsley’s black-and-white renderings of fin de siècle gor-
geous men. The mascara he customarily wore to the opera
brought out his dark eyes, while the powder on his cheeks
accentuated the paleness of his skin in contrast to the black
curls cascading over his brow.
Apart from dressing lavishly, it took no great effort for
the Viscontis—at the turn of the twentieth century the
pre-eminent noble couple of Milanese society—to go to
the opera. Teatro alla Scala was just up the road from the
Visconti palazzo at 44 Via Cerva, a grand residence built in

Queer Film Classics

the ­seventeenth century, with so many windows there were

servants specially assigned to the task of opening and closing
The most famous opera house in the world was almost
an extension of the Visconti palazzo, for Luchino’s pater-
nal grandfather, Duke Guido Visconti, had been president
of La Scala, and his extended family contributed heavily to
its coffers. His dark beard disguised by quantities of lace, he
also liked to dress as a ballerina and dance with the corps de
ballet during opera performances. Arturo Toscanini, the La
Scala conductor from 1896 to 1908, deplored this and other
Visconti excesses, claiming the family thought they owned
La Scala.
Luchino Visconti di Madrone was born at eight in the
evening on November 2, 1906, an hour before the La Sca-
la curtain rose. He was the fourth-born of the seven Vis-
conti children and was reared, with great discipline and
even greater eccentricity, according to his class. Most of
his schooling occurred at home with private tutors. One of
these, an Englishman of Spartan tastes, commanded that the
children should enter and leave the palace by stout ropes
hung from the high windows.
His stylish, worldly parents were not what Luchino later
called “idiot aristocrats.” If they lived their lives on a theat-
rical scale—giving grand society balls where they reigned
as stars—they were also industrious and culturally sophis-
ticated. Donna Carla was a bourgeoise who married into the

Death in Venice

aristocracy, but the Er-

bas, whose enormous
fortune came from
pharmaceuticals (in-
cluding a popular laxa-
tive, Latti di Magnesia
Carlo Erba), were one
of the few “industrial”
­families already ac-
cepted by the Milanese
aristocracy. Donna
Carla was a gifted
p i a n i s t — L u c h i n o ’s
madeleine was musi-
Figure 1. Horst’s revealing 1936 portrait cal rather than ed-
of the young Visconti. ible; his mother played
Franck’s Prelude, Cho-
rale and Fugue in the evenings after he’d gone to bed. She
embraced and popularized the Art Nouveau style, often
dressing in gowns from Liberty of London, but was also en-
tranced by modernism—the Fauves and the Futurists, Di-
aghilev and his fantastically costumed Ballets Russes. Like
many of her class, she devoted much of her time to good
works, two years after Luchino’s birth donning a Red Cross
uniform to help victims of the Messina earthquake in Sicily.
But it was don Giuseppe who set the standard for pas-
sionately frenetic activity. In addition to his patronage of

Queer Film Classics

La ­Scala, he also founded a company that marketed scents,

soaps, and powders to the middle classes, naming products
after his various paramours. Perhaps his greatest and most
peculiar accomplishment was creating a kind of theme park
avant la lettre. The Viscontis owned a ruined fourteenth-
century castle called Grazzano in the countryside south
of Milan. Don Giuseppe restored the castle and created a
mock-medieval village around it, importing peasants from
the surrounding countryside to inhabit it and decreeing they
should all wear costumes of his own design.
Donna Carla encouraged the village women to weave silk
and embroider, usually in the Art Nouveau or neo-Byzan-
tine style; their work ended up adorning private compart-
ments on the Orient Express. In the little village church, a
fresco in the Pre-Raphaelite style depicted the Holy Family,
their faces portraits of living members of the Visconti family.
Grazzano was life lived as performance—the village, castle,
and park are still a going tourist concern—and it was likely
one of the places beyond La Scala where Luchino absorbed
lessons about bending people, architecture, fashion, and na-
ture to his will.
If many families are more adept at creating an appearance
of happiness than at actually experiencing it, donna Carla
and don Giuseppe seemed to have excelled at conjuring
an almost magical Visconti aura of grace, wealth, and style
while acting out interior dramas of bitter and tumultuous
complexity. Since noble marriages have traditionally been

Death in Venice

more financial or territorial than romantic in nature, mari-

tal fidelity tends to be viewed by the aristocracy as a quaint
middle-class affectation. Both partners had extramarital af-
fairs—eventually living separate lives and finally divorcing
in 1924 after acrimonious court battles, mostly fought over
property rather than adultery. Don Giuseppe was the more
profligate, with an array of lovers of both sexes. He played
at discretion, but how discreet could he be in a city where
everyone knew his name? Nonetheless, he told one lover
that if the man were ever to learn his identity, don Giuseppe
would disappear “like Lohengrin,” in a swan-drawn skiff.
His personal catchphrase was known to be à chacun son hobby,
but the flock of young protégés who came to his funeral, in
1941, were turned away.

Gai savoir
The association of the Visconti family with homosexuality
wasn’t limited to don Giuseppe or to his favorite son Luchi-
no. A legendary and likely apocryphal joke about Frederick
Barbarossa’s siege of Milan in 1158 relates that, before raz-
ing the city, he sent his herald to announce his intentions.
From the tallest tower the herald cried out, “All men and
children will be raped, all women will be slain.” Realizing his
error, he at once sought to correct it: “Pardon, pardon, what
I meant to say was”—but he was cut off by a Visconti ances-
tor who cried out, “Too late. What has been said has been
said.” True or not, this anecdote suggests homosexuality and

Queer Film Classics

the Visconti name had been linked in the Milanese popular

imagination for close to a millennium.
Luchino was slow to accept his own homosexuality. Al-
though from early on he exhibited the artistic temperament
that can set off alarm bells of concern for more conventional
parents, donna Carla and don Giuseppe were more delight-
ed than discomfited when he became an ardent opera fan at
the age of seven, or press-ganged his siblings into perform-
ing Shakespeare plays that he directed and costumed for the
palazzo’s small neo-Rococo theater, or dyed all the family
napery mauve to match the hydrangea centerpieces when his
parents staged a dinner party. He even had a smelly poodle
named Fifi.
Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, he re-
mained very much a product of his class and upbringing—
wealthy, spoiled, and often feckless. Only his devotion to the
arts suggested there might be anything unusual about him.
In later interviews he noted that he almost became a Fascist.
Military discipline and the easy camaraderie of professional
soldiers appealed to him and, though aristocrats sneered at
Mussolini for his vulgarity, they nevertheless applauded his
iron-fisted efficiency: he was good for social order, and so-
cial order was good for the economy. The enmity between
his parents extended to their attitudes toward Il Duce: don
Giuseppe found him fat and uncultured, while donna Carla
was more sympathetic to the Fascist reverence for church,
motherhood, and family.

Death in Venice

In the face of the scandals and rumors surrounding their

separation and eventual divorce, donna Carla withdrew
from society and became increasingly religious, giving up
her colorful silks for black, nun-like costumes. Don Gi-
useppe became more ardently social and flamboyant than
ever. Luchino, though he was more like don Giuseppe, left
the Visconti palazzo to live with donna Carla and remained
to a great extent estranged from his father. But the influence
of his family on his life and on his work, and the enchanting
spell his mother cast on him, would remain constants to the
end. “Life is a hive,” he told an interviewer while filming
­Death in Venice. “Everyone works and lives in his own cell.
Then we all gather in a central nucleus around the queen
bee. [That] is when tragedies erupt.”
In 1933, when he was twenty-seven, Luchino Visconti
traveled to Germany in order to see Nazism up close. He re-
fused to talk about this visit later in life, but according to his
sister Uberta, “Luchino had been at a parade ... probably in
1934: he described the discipline and strength of handsome
youths who were carrying something, a huge pole, I think.”
While in Germany he also saw Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph
des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), the notorious pro-
pagandist documentary about the 1934 Nazi Party Rally
in Nuremberg that included its own share of huge poles,
sizzling plump sausages, squirting fire hoses, and cavorting
bare-chested Hitler-Jugend.
There were also deeper reasons for his interest in Germa-

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ny. Visconti was from the northern Italian province of Lom-

bardy (Milan is its capital), which takes its name from the
Germanic tribe the Lombards (or Longbeards), who invad-
ed Italy from the north during the sixth century. Lombard
rule ended two centuries later with the coming, again from
the north, of the Frankish king Charlemagne (the Viscontis
claim him as a distant ancestor), and from that time Frank-
ish, Bavarian, and Lombard nobility became inextricably in-
tertwined. Milan in winter often feels more like Vienna than
Rome, and Visconti’s personality combined German imperi-
ousness with Latin heat, the former possibly accounting for
the Teutonic heaviness of some of his later films.
If his father identified with Lohengrin, Visconti’s obses-
sion as a young man was with Siegfried as mythical hero, the
ideal Aryan; around the time of his flirtation with German
fascism, he spoke of him constantly. The operas of Verdi
may have been his first love, but Mahler and Wagner weren’t
far behind, and the novels of Goethe and Thomas Mann af-
fected him deeply, so much so that at different points in his
life he envisioned adapting both Buddenbrooks and The Magic
Mountain to the screen. “In one way or another all my films
have been dipped in Mann,” he once told an interviewer.
A number of Visconti biographers have suggested that
his homosexuality sneaked up on him or that he “drifted”
into it, seeing the sexual favors of beautiful boys as well as
of beautiful girls as a part of his princely droit du seigneur.
One even suggests he turned to homosexuality after con-

Death in Venice

tracting a venereal disease from a woman. In his twenties he

also developed a passion for what another writer referred to
as “horses, tweeds, and whips.” For several years he became
a serious breeder and rider of racehorses, founding both a
stable and a stud farm. It was, after all, the sport of kings,
and for him racing was “theatre—true theatre,” each race a
spectacular and thoroughly unpredictable performance. His
deep interest in horses may also have been nostalgic—it’s
been suggested that his first juvenile sexual contacts were
with his family’s stable boys.
In addition to horses, he raced automobiles and owned a
Lancia Spider, a low-slung two-seater convertible, and liked
to drive it fast on the racetrack at Monza, north of Milan. On
a foggy morning in late September 1929, Visconti decided
he wanted to go to Monza, and roused his chauffeur, Mace-
rati, to go with him. Macerati was reluctant to accompany
him: one of his children was ill. Visconti won out—he ended
up chauffeuring his chauffeur. There was a freak accident,
and Macerati’s throat was cut. He died a few hours later.
This event marked the end of Visconti’s luminous and
luxuriously protracted childhood. Wracked with guilt, he
arranged to support Macerati’s family (and continued to do
so until his own death in 1976). Ever one for the dramatic
gesture—enduring his anguish at home with donna Carla
may have struck him as too humdrum and domestic—he de-
camped to Africa to the Tassili region, the then nearly inac-
cessible Saharan plateau. Hiring a Tuareg guide and a porter

Queer Film Classics

with a donkey, he headed into the raw and dazzling desert

landscape. It was a journey of expiation but also of discovery;
leaving his guides, he often wandered off alone to meditate
while wearing his borrowed Tuareg burnous. Whatever his
role, Visconti always camped it to the hilt. As one friend
said, “He may have had unhappy experiences, but you don’t
find any semi-experiences.” Like donna Carla, he believed
in the existence of God, but his religion, unlike hers, was
intensely private, and rarely figured in his films.

Rules of the game

After two months in the desert, Visconti returned to Milan
and, finding it a small and restrictive backwater, decamped
to Paris, where he met the usual suspects of the between-
the-wars moveable feast of artists and poseurs, riff-raff and
potentates, vicomtesses, and whores of all sexes. Although he
still kept his stable of horses in Milan, over the next decade
he spent more and more time in Paris, where his aristocratic
lineage and fluent French gave him automatic entré into the
intimate circles of high society, and his homosexual appetites
provided easy access to the demimonde, not that the two
communities have ever been that far apart in Paris. He was
taken up by Coco Chanel, who became infatuated with him;
she introduced him to an opium-smoking Jean Cocteau and
his lover, the heroic-jawed actor Jean Marais.
It was Chanel who also introduced him to Jean Renoir,
son of Impressionist painter Pierre Renoir and already a

Death in Venice

respected French filmmaker (Orson Welles would later call

him “the greatest of all filmmakers”), with La Chienne (The
Bitch, 1931), Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved From Drown-
ing, 1932), and a number of other silent and sound films to
his credit. The meeting was a life-changing one for Visconti,
for in the mid-1930s Renoir was closely affiliated with the
Front populaire, an alliance of the French Communist Party,
the Radical Socialist Party, and various syndicalist groups.
In 1936 they succeeded in forming a government with Léon
Blum as prime minister—the first socialist as well as the first
Jew to be elected to that position. In celebration of that mo-
mentous victory, the Front populaire called a general strike.
According to his sister Uberta, Visconti and Chanel went
to a Front populaire demonstration—the couturier sport-
ing masses of her trademark costume jewelry—where they
“mixed with huge sweaty men.”
Over a three-year period Renoir made a trio of populist
films heavily influenced by the Front populaire—Le Crime de
Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monseiur Lange, 1935), La Vie
est à nous (Life Is Ours, 1936), and La Marseillaise (The Mar-
seillaise, 1938). Although never a Communist Party member,
he was deeply sympathetic to the party’s aims. Chanel in-
troduced Visconti to Renoir on the set of La Vie est à nous,
and Renoir soon hired him as third assistant director for a
Maupassant adaptation he was planning, Partie de campagne
(A Day in the Country, 1936). Renoir never finished the film,
but his producer and editor cobbled together a final version

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for release. For Visconti, Partie de campagne proved to be

his Damascene road, the cinematic path to both his political
awakening and his political conversion.
“I really opened my eyes then,” Visconti later told an in-
terviewer. “I came from a fascist country, where it was im-
possible to know anything, to learn anything. I had a shock.
When I went back to Italy I was transformed.” His expe-
rience on La Vie est à nous, commissioned as election pro-
paganda by the French Communist Party, determined his
direction “artistically and morally.” He arrived there as a
spoiled son of the aristocracy and if not quite “a full-fledged
Fascist,” at least a fascist fellow traveler, someone whose
eyes, in politics, were “as closed as those of a new-born kit-
As third assistant director he was in charge of costumes et
coiffures, which is why Renoir hired him, knowing the young
man’s eyes were sharp concerning both. Suddenly thrown
into the communal atmosphere of a film set peopled by
large-living leftists, whatever political beliefs he reflexive-
ly held as a son of his class were thrown into turmoil. His
conversion may not have been as abrupt and complete as he
later described it, but there’s no underestimating how pro-
foundly his entire worldview was subverted by his contact
with Renoir and his circle.
He may have been left particularly susceptible to such
a sea change in attitude by a similar bouleversement in his
private life. There is some debate about how Visconti met

Death in Venice

the glamor and fashion photographer Horst P. Horst (born

Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann in the same year as Visconti).
Some say Chanel brought them together, others that they
met at a dinner party given by Marie-Laure de Noailles, the
“red vicomtesse” and art patron. Whatever the case, Horst
must have struck Visconti as the embodiment of the hard-
jawed Hitler-Jugend blonds he encountered during his stay
in Germany. Horst was chiseled in both face and body, a
“blond creature in lederhosen” whom Vogue photographer
George Hoyningen-Huene had introduced to Paris’s beau
monde (the older and the younger photographers had soon
became on-and-off-again lovers). Horst arrived in Paris
with an intriguing pedigree of his own: although born into
“trade”—his father was a well-to-do shop owner—Horst
had studied under the legendary Swiss architect Le Corbus-
ier and had chosen self-exile from Germany because of his
disgust with Nazi aesthetics and politics.
Horst may well have recognized Visconti as his autocratic
Mediterranean doppelgänger, a quiet, dark, and brooding
young man with an enormous presence. His early portrait
of Visconti is both crystalline and theatrical, in keeping with
the European photographic aesthetic of the era, and ever so
slightly surreal. Visconti, eyes fixing the viewer’s, reclines in
an ancien régime chair, one elegant hand resting on his knee.
His face and body, angling across the pictorial frame, provide
an added tension to the portrait, as does the fact that Horst
chose to light his subject’s noble brow while ­modeling the

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rest of his features with moody chiaroscuro. It’s the backdrop

of cirrocumulus clouds that, almost religiously lighted, seem
more Magritte and ironic than spiritual, reinforcing the sit-
ter’s lofty attitude while slyly commenting upon it. Visconti’s
eyes appear both observant and guarded, as though he’s fas-
cinated by his photographer but also slightly intimidated by
Horst’s passion for his work, and for Visconti himself. The
intense erotic charge is hard to miss.
This photo also captures an essential Visconti quality
that would persist throughout his life. “He seemed to be
constantly seething,” Horst commented later, “in his Latin
temperament.” Much more sexually sophisticated and re-
laxed about his homosexuality than Visconti, Horst claimed
“Visconti kicked against his homosexuality,” and tried to
keep their volatile affair, which lasted three years, secret.
“He knew nothing about sex,” Horst told Visconti’s biogra-
pher Laurence Schifano, “although he was very passionate.
But puritanical too. There was something rigid about him”
(137–38). The young Italian also lacked a sense of humor
and was incapable of laughing at himself. The photographer
noted that Visconti wasn’t promiscuous and was quite jeal-
ous, quarreling with Horst when he spent too much time
speaking English with another young man.
In addition to acting as his sexual and amorous mentor,
Horst invited Visconti to visit his studio and darkroom,
where Visconti absorbed all that he could about the aesthet-
ics of photography. As a jockey had noted earlier of Visconti

Death in Venice

during his horse-racing days, “... he learned everything by

looking. He never asked questions.”
Gaia Servadio, Visconti’s liveliest if not most reliable bi-
ographer, claims Visconti felt the “weight” of homosexuality
as “a hereditary disease” and that he was not proud of being
different. In many ways he was a highly conservative man,
especially about the importance of the family. This would
only grow more extreme as he aged and as homosexuality
became increasingly politicized. His ambivalence about his
sexuality and concomitantly about his love for Horst led him
to contemplate and even propose marriage to a young Aus-
trian woman of his class, Princess Irma Windisch-Graetz,
who was nicknamed “Pupe” or “doll.” She called him “Lu-
chi” and was drawn to his “artistic” nature and to his Cathol-
icism, finding him an ideal companion. The Princess’s father
was lukewarm to the idea of marriage (having received dubi-
ous reports of his prospective son-in-law’s behavior). Vis-
conti continued writing “Pupe” love letters during his tem-
pestuous affair with Horst, but eventually the engagement
came to nothing.
Had Visconti married the princess, he would have been
following not only in his father’s footsteps but also in those
of his elder brother Guido, who married but then imme-
diately lived separately from his wife. Guido, in the time-
honored Italian tradition, had acquitted his family obliga-
tions and was free to pursue his true interest. In breaking
with this tradition, and in gradually distancing himself from

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a­ ristocratic and even fascist attitudes and ideals, Visconti

was, through refusal, coming to define the man he wished to
be: an independent homosexual leftist determined to make
his way as an artist.
Even the contents of his suit jacket pockets confirmed
this emerging identity to the keen-eyed Horst. “He car-
ried with him three books printed on ‘bible paper,’” Horst
told an interviewer. These small volumes, which Visconti
had designed for easy portability and, given their chapbook
dimensions, possibly for their easy concealability, had been
specially printed, bound in red leather, and embossed with
gold lettering. Quite a triumvirate of writers in his pocket:
a volume from Proust’s grand roman-fleuve, À la recherche du
temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); Thomas Mann’s novella,
Death in Venice; and André Gide’s Les faux-monnayeurs (The
Counterfeiters). Both Proust and Gide were, of course, homo-
sexual, and their respective novels deal with homosexuality
overtly (as in the Sodome et Gomorrhe volume of À la Recher-
che), more clandestinely in other volumes, and in the wide
spectrum of homosexual and bisexual characters (such as in
Les Faux-monnayeurs). Thomas Mann, on the other hand,
was outwardly a very proper bourgeois patriarch with a large
brood of children to prove it, but his diaries, published after
his death, revealed his intense longing for men, adolescents,
and even pre-adolescent boys.
Proust, Mann, and Gide were also formidable models for
a young man just beginning to find his place in the arts—he

Death in Venice

started to make one short experimental film (which featured

his beautiful sister-in-law in Grecian-style garments riding
about the city on a Milanese tram) that remained unfinished
and was lost forever when the Visconti palazzo was bombed
near the end of World War II. There were similar failed at-
tempts at writing novels.
With the approaching war, Horst and Visconti drifted
apart. When German occupation of France seemed immi-
nent, Horst fled to the United States. Back in Italy, Visconti
dabbled in costume and décor designs for the theater. In
January 1939, he was called to his mother’s bedside. She died
shortly afterward, at the age of fifty-nine. Her loss sent him
into a crisis of faith. He drew closer to the church, but even
this couldn’t save him: he slipped into despair.

This is not Italy!

A fortuitous telegram arrived from Jean Renoir. Mussolini,
who shared with his Axis partners Hitler and Hirohito a
strong passion for the cinema (the former loved Walt Dis-
ney’s Snow White [1937], while a Mickey Mouse watch was
among the latter’s imperial insignia), asked Renoir, who had
just completed his anti-war film, La grande illusion (1937), to
come to Italy. The Fascist dictator invited the leftist film-
maker to teach at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia,
which Mussolini had founded in 1938, not long after he’d
established Cinecittà, the state-run studio geared to making
films with strong pro-Fascist tendencies and messages. He

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also wanted the Frenchman to direct a film version of La

Tosca. Renoir asked Visconti to help with the writing of the
script; the two soon became close friends. Visconti’s wide
knowledge of opera and Italian history made him essential
to the production.
When the war began, Italy initially remained neutral. But
just as filming started on La Tosca, Italy entered the war and
Renoir had to return to France. He later noted in My Life
and My Films, “I particularly regretted parting from Luchino
Visconti because of all the things we might have done to-
gether but did not do ... I was never to see Luchino again.”
The film was finished by an assistant, and by all accounts,
including Visconti’s, was very bad. No copies of it survive,
though Renoir’s ideas about how the film should have been
made ended up influencing one of Visconti’s greatest films,
At about the same time Visconti, thanks also to Renoir,
came within the ambit of the Italian film magazine Cinema,
which had the most editorial freedom of any magazine in
Italy at the time. Its editor was Mussolini’s son Vittorio, who
was too lazy to bother to read the articles written by Cin-
ema’s young and often clandestinely Communist writers, and
the Fascist censors didn’t dare object to or censor a maga-
zine run by Il Duce’s son. Because he came to Cinema with
Renoir’s imprimatur, Visconti was immediately accepted by
the magazine’s writers, if not entirely trusted. He told them
he wanted to become a director.

Death in Venice

To that end, he had already moved to Rome and at first

rented a flat in Via Kirchner (he would later buy a mansion
in Via Salaria). Speaking of his films much later in his life,
Visconti said, “I’m interested in extreme situations, those
instances when abnormal tension reveals the truth about
human beings.” This statement could equally be applied to
his own life during wartime (actually, it might easily be ex-
panded to fit his entire life). The more intensely he became
involved with the young and often impoverished Cinema
writers—he began to pay them for researching and writing
synopses, outlines, and film treatments that he hoped to turn
into films—the more he realized that most were heavily in-
volved with the anti-Fascist movement. But many of them
were unsure of this rich arrogant man who was a decade or
more older than most of them. “After all,” one of them said,
“he was always an aristocrat.” At the same time he was in-
valuable to them, for he provided perfect cover. Under the
guise of writing screenplays they could meet and plot at his
flat or in cafés, for the authorities wouldn’t think to suspect
the Duke di Madrone, with his close ties to the Italian royal
family, of treachery against the Fascist state.
One of these young men was Michelangelo Antonioni,
who much later would be considered, along with Viscon-
ti and Roberto Rossellini, one of the three giants of Ital-
ian post-war cinema. The first time they met, Visconti was
all in black, in mourning for don Giuseppe, who had died
two years after donna Carla, in 1941. “I was impressed,”

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Figure 2. The drifter and the Spaniard face off in the first neo realist
film, Ossessione. DVD still.

­ ntonioni said, “by his utter self-assurance and by his way of

looking at the passers-by as if they were his.”
The young Cinema writers may also have been chary
about Visconti’s homosexuality. With his mother’s death in
particular, his days of discretion were behind him. He fell
violently in love with an actor named Massimo Girotti, who
co-starred in Visconti’s first film, Ossessione (Obsession, 1942)
and wrote love letters to him. Girotti, who was heterosexual,
replied with a letter that insulted both Visconti and his fam-
ily. The fearless, high-strung Visconti challenged the actor
to a duel, and went with his second to the man’s flat (duels

Death in Venice

between gentlemen had become an anachronism even in

Italy, where the first rule book for dueling had been writ-
ten centuries before). Massimo apologized for his letter and
everyone dined together, as Visconti’s guests, at Rome’s best
An almost too obvious irony exists in the fact the first Ital-
ian neorealist film—or as purists sometimes quibble, “the
harbinger” of neorealism—was made by a wealthy member
of the Italian nobility. Visconti succeeded in directing his
first feature film, Ossessione, at the height of Italian Fascism
and in the very heart of Fascist film production (the Visconti
family jewels helped finance the controversial project).
In Paris, before the war, Renoir had given Visconti a copy
of James M. Cain’s wonderfully pulpy potboiler, The Postman
Always Rings Twice. Without giving Cain credit, Visconti
used the book as a jumping off point for Ossessione, re-styling
it to fit his own needs and giving it an Italian setting (the
film was largely shot in the northern province of Ferrara),
though retaining much of its structure and dialogue. In this
film, he first explored what would become a central theme
of many of his films: the combustible mix of money, family,
and sex, a nexus with which Visconti was more than familiar
from childhood. The story was elemental—a young drifter
arrives at a country inn owned by a woman and her unat-
tractive older husband; the husband has money, the young
man a beautiful body; together he and the wife conspire to
murder the husband.

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Visconti downplayed the suspense of the original novel

and concentrated more on developing both characters and
setting. Using the naturalistic background as a counterpoint
to the melodramatic intensity in the foreground, Visconti
added a new character, the Spaniard, who has also set his
sights on Massimo Girotti’s young drifter. What differenti-
ates Visconti’s adaptation from the two Hollywood versions
that followed, starring, respectively, Lana Turner and Jessica
Lange, is that the erotic center of the movie is the drifter
rather than the devious wife. Sweaty, hirsute, suggestively
lighted, and sensuously passive, he assumes the role of the
desired object. We’re invited to linger over his physique from
both the wife’s and the Spaniard’s point of view, as though
he were a delectable Hollywood starlet. Also, to better set
off his male beauty, Visconti ordered that Clara Calamai, al-
ready a highly glamorous and established star of so-called
telefoni bianchi films (often featuring moneyed people, lavish
apartments, and modish white telephones) of the 1930s, be
made to look and sound more “working class,” with dishev-
eled hair, unattractive makeup, and a raucous voice.
Visconti later maintained that the Spaniard “was the most
important element of the film,” because through his con-
duct he represented freedom, a character who existed out-
side the web of greed, desire, and fate that entangled the
film’s central triangle: “ ... through him I wanted to repre-
sent the central themes of my work.” In making him one of
the only sympathetic characters in the film (the other is a

Death in Venice

female prostitute), Visconti manipulated viewers to identify

with and even admire a homosexual man. Depicting without
naming homosexuality in a film made in Fascist Italy was
a daring—some would say foolhardy—thing to do, though
homosexuals weren’t dealt with so summarily as within the
Third Reich (homosexuality had been legalized in Italy
in 1889 and then re-criminalized by the Fascists in 1931).
Similarly, the female gaze and the homosexual gaze—that
is, when the penetrative camera allows the audience to see
through each character’s lustful eyes—were uncommon in
Italian or any other mainstream cinema at that time, and yet
they recur as the woman and the Spaniard study their man.
(There’s also a quick glimpse of two young men dancing in
each other’s arms in a taverna.) As French actor Jean Marais
pointed out, “Ossessione struck a totally different note from
everything else that was being made” (Servadio 1982, 80).
At the film’s first screening in Rome, Vittorio Mussolini
stalked out of the cinema shouting “This is not Italy!” The
audience was split between enthusiastic applause and insults
and catcalls. When the film was screened in the city of Fer-
rara, a magistrate immediately seized it. In another town,
the archbishop came after the first screening to consecrate
the cinema. Ossessione was finally banned by the Fascists, but
then at a private screening at his villa, Benito Mussolini him-
self watched the film and was reported to have enjoyed it,
so the film was put back into circulation, though often in
truncated form and just as often banned in provincial cities

Queer Film Classics

and towns. Mussolini would also take a copy of the film with
him into exile in the Republic of Salo, the short-lived puppet
government established by the Germans in northern Italy,
using the former dictator as a figurehead.
When Visconti had sent early footage from the film to
his editor back in Rome, the man replied by coining a new
cinematic term: “I don’t know how to define this … maybe
it should be called neo-realist.” Certainly in Ossessione, Vis-
conti united many of the elements that would define Italian
neorealism: shooting not in studio but on location (as Renoir
had done with Partie de campagne); the mixing of professional
actors with non-actors, frequently ordinary people found on
location; telling a story about poor or working-class people
from their point of view; and focusing on their moral and
economic struggles to survive in a harsh and indifferent
environment. To this mix Visconti added steamy sex and a
kind of melodrama that seemed almost operatic, which later
critics often objected to because the passionate turmoil that
compelled his characters to greater excesses seemed radical-
ly at odds with the barebones nature of the film’s style and
setting. Visconti countered this criticism in two ways: “My
work has always been operatic. I have often been accused of
that but take it as a compliment,” and, “I love melodrama
because it is located at the borders of life and the theatre ...
theatre and opera, the world of the baroque.”

Death in Venice

A coherent life
From 1943 until the end of the war, Visconti’s life became
increasingly baroque—as tense, complex, dangerous, and
harrowing as any movie he would ever make. In July 1943,
Italy’s extensive military campaigns were foundering; the Al-
lies had invaded Sicily. The Grand Council of Fascism, dis-
satisfied with Mussolini’s management of the war, voted to
restore the constitutional monarchy with Victor Emmanuel
III returned to the throne. The king immediately asked for
Mussolini’s resignation, and Il Duce was arrested moments
later. The new prime minister, Pietro Badoglio, announced
that the country would maintain its Fascist course, united
with Germany against the encroaching Allied troops. Se-
cretly, he and the king were plotting to sign an armistice
with the Allies. This was achieved on September 23, 1943;
Italian soldiers were ordered to “resist possible attacks from
other forces”—that is, from the Germans.
The war had already come home to Visconti. His older
brother Guido had perished during the African campaign in
late 1942 (he had reportedly charged the Allied lines carry-
ing the Italian flag and shouting, “A Visconti does not bow
to the Windsors!”). Allied bombing of Milan left the Vis-
conti palazzo in flames and La Scala partly destroyed.
Between the departure of Mussolini and the arrival of the
German occupiers in Rome, Visconti and a group of anti-
Fascists went to a notorious prison in order to secure the
­release of a number of their comrades. Because his name

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carried the greatest weight, he became the group’s spokes-

man and signed the release papers as indication that he
would take responsibility for the prisoners, thus alerting the
authorities that he was himself anti-Fascist.
For the remainder of the war, with remarkable bravery
and sang-froid, Visconti played an extended game of cat-
and-mouse with the German occupiers and their Italian
counterparts. His mansion in via Salaria became an anti-Fas-
cist redoubt, guarded by his ten German mastiffs. He first
hid seven Sardinians who had fought in Spain against Fran-
co’s forces. One of them, Paolo Mocci, “acted” as Visconti’s
gardener. Mimeograph machines were set up in the mansion
for printing anti-German as well as pro-Communist mate-
rial. One of the Communist Party’s greatest leaders, Mauro
Scoccimaro, hid out there before assuming command of the
Garibaldi partisan groups.
Visconti’s support wasn’t only moral and practical—he
liberally distributed his money wherever it was needed. As
a friend remarked, “He attempted in every way to demol-
ish his fortune, but to no avail ... First it was horses, then
cinema,” but even the anti-Fascist cause couldn’t keep him
from “piling up money.”
Not long after the Germans marched into Rome, Vis-
conti gave the keys to the Salaria mansion to a friend and
headed north to the Abruzzan village of Verrecchie to ren-
dezvous with seven escaped prisoners of war—three British
and four Americans—being sheltered by anti-Fascists. He

Death in Venice

and a group of comrades intended to walk them south past

Rome and through the German lines until they reached the
Allies. “I am pleased with myself,” he noted at the time in
his journal, “a feeling of serenity on separating myself from
everything representing the past.” Because the Germans
controlled all roads as well as all rail traffic, they traveled
through the mountains. The weather quickly became atro-
cious. Their money ran out, many of them fell ill as a result
of the incessant cold, rain, and snow, and they were forced to
depend upon the kindness of strangers in towns and villages
they passed through, leaving them vulnerable to denuncia-
For the next three months they were all on the run, soon
joined by other refugees, including a homosexual couple—
a marquess and his physician partner—whom Visconti
mocked in his journals. And all the while he saw himself as
suffering a humiliating failure because he was running and
hiding instead of fighting as a resistance soldier. At the same
time, he recognized that this ordeal was giving him strength
and discipline. He noted in his journal that traveling with a
clandestine group forced him to control his “… romantic,
impulsive and sentimental urges.” At one point, they were
captured by German soldiers, but Allied bombs began fall-
ing and they all escaped. Ultimately they failed to reach the
Allied lines and instead returned to Rome, where the POWs
were secreted in a sympathetic hospital.
Back in Rome he rejoined his journalist friends at ­Cinema

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magazine, and thus began what he called in his journals

“the most interesting, most coherent part of my life.” He
dropped the Visconti name and became known as Alfredo
Guidi (though he continued to wear shirts embroidered with
the LV monogram). He became involved with GAP (Armed
Partisan Group), about thirty young Communist working-
class men waging a campaign of assassination, sabotage, and
terrorism. He continued to hide people on the run and asked
to join GAP. He and his colleague, the future film director
Giuseppe de Santis, always insisted that he was allowed to
join the group and was given a weapon, though after the war
a Communist Party official said this never happened—the
Party was no friendlier to homosexuals than the Catholic
Fascists. The Salaria mansion continued to function as an
anti-Fascist weapons cache for everything from guns and
grenades to dynamite, buried in the gardens, hidden in the
cellar, or under beds.
On March 22, 1944, a Communist group set off bombs
in an SS barracks just as a German division was entering,
and thirty-two soldiers were killed. Reprisals were swift: 335
prisoners, primarily Jews and anti-Fascists, were taken to a
quarry near the Catacombs and machine-gunned to death.
Paolo Mocci, Visconti’s temporary Sardinian “gardener,”
was among them.
From then on, Visconti and his comrades were on the
run. He hid out for a few days with Anna Magnani, the
tempestuous actress most associated with neorealism, and

Death in Venice

her young son. Punishment for harboring a fugitive was

death. His arrest came on April 15: Visconti was wearing
a monogrammed shirt and carrying a revolver. He ended
up at the pensione Jaccarino, which one historian has called
the “diabolical” headquarters of the Italian Fascist police
who worked alongside the Gestapo. For twelve days he was
locked up “in a small compartment without food, to weaken
me, to make me talk … I was not tortured, merely beaten,”
as many as three times a day. “TO BE SHOT” was stamped
in red ink on his dossier. “I saw the most atrocious things in
my life there,” he said later, and yet throughout his incarcer-
ation he disdainfully regarded the process of interrogation
and intimidation as “a poor piece of directing.”
He was transferred to another prison, and finally released
on June 3, 1944, the day before the Allies entered Rome, af-
ter nine months of German occupation. All about him he
watched in wonder as Republican guards ripped off their Fas-
cist insignia and replaced them with stars. The next day his
friend Cesare Zavattini (writer of the neorealist masterpieces
Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, and Umberto D. and soon to be-
come a film director himself) saw Visconti “amid a throng
overflowing the Piazza San Pietro, forming a chain with peo-
ple he’d never seen before and radiant with solidarity.”

The Red Count

The elation that comes with dramatic change is often suc-
ceeded by the harsh light of daily life revealing that not much

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has changed after all. The Mussolini dictatorship was gone,

the Germans had fled, and yet in the new post-war world,
why did the new faces in power look so familiar? How had
the old economic realities migrated so successfully to the
new Italy?
Visconti felt he had the power to introduce change in It-
aly in the arts. The war was barely over when he announced
that the Italian film industry needed restructuring and puri-
fication. To this end, he set up a purge committee to blacklist
Fascist collaborators (as in France, a community almost too
huge to contemplate) or to turn suspected political crimi-
nals over to the authorities. At the same time, he understood
the limits of retribution: “We cannot rid ourselves of the
past,” he said, “by executing a few key figures. There must
be expiation.” This was not a commonly used word in Italy
after the war—Fascism had been so widespread as to have
been the norm. This was particularly true in the film indus-
try, partly because filmmaking, as in Germany and occupied
France, had been so closely tied to the Fascist state, but also
because many directors and actors, apart from those who
actively collaborated with Mussolini and then with the Ger-
mans, chose the path of least resistance: they saw themselves
as apolitical, a stance which allowed them to participate in
Fascist film production without necessarily defining them-
selves as Fascists.
In the years immediately after the war, Visconti wasn’t shy
about proclaiming his allegiance to communism and to the

Death in Venice

Italian Communist Party, for if “any party can defend free-

dom against a rebirth of Fascism it is the Communist Party.”
Such outspokenness wasn’t unusual at that time, as many
formerly “apolitical” artists experienced sudden conversions
to the Party. But Visconti, heavily influenced by the writ-
ings of philosopher, theorist, and committed anti-Fascist
Antonio Gramsci (who died in 1937, after several extended
stays in prison), believed theory must give birth to practice,
thought to action. To that end, Visconti sought to challenge
the prevailing cultural hegemony on all fronts; in an essay
he published at the time, he noted, “In Communism I see
a great opportunity for humanity and freedom in art ... the
yeast of Communism is very much alive, and ... it drives the
artist toward reality, drives him to grasp life at its truest and
to know and exalt men’s suffering.”
His first post-war film, La Terra trema: Episodio del mare
(The Earth Trembles: The Sea Episode, 1948) seems an almost
direct illustration of Gramsci’s precepts, seasoned with Vis-
contian pessimism. Based on Giuseppi Verga’s influential
1881 realist novel, I Malavoglia, about Sicilian fishermen, La
Terra trema uses elements of documentary filmmaking to tell
a fictional story (for which Verga would receive no credit, as
had been the case with James M. Cain and Ossessione). There
were no professional actors—Visconti recruited local fish-
ermen and their families—and no conventional dialogue-
laden script. Instead, he directed his non-professional cast
by explaining each scene in advance and telling them what

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Figure 3. The fishermen brothers (played by real Sicilian fishermen) in

La Terra trema. Film still. Universalia Film / Photofest.

needed to be said; the actors then used their own words and
frequently their own ideas for action when the camera rolled.
The film took seven months to shoot. The result is a
stark, windswept movie, filmed in black-and-white, with
people playing themselves and speaking their own distinc-
tive Sicilian dialect as they resist exploitation by wholesalers
and attempt (without success) to trade their catches inde-
pendently. A didactic voiceover—recorded by Visconti him-
self—occasionally distracts from the striking visuals; daily
life is blown up to mythic proportions with near-operatic

Death in Venice

scenes of passion, betrayal, and despair (one critic called it

“the best boring film ever made”); but the picture is powerful
by any measure. It also reflects Visconti’s attempt to grapple
with Gramsci’s “philosophy of praxis,” in which the intel-
lectual—or in Visconti’s case, the artist (he avoided intel-
lectuals whenever he could)—leads others to criticize their
current perceptions of reality, and in this way they come to
think in terms of a “coherent unity,” that is, a new Marxist
social order. At the same time, La Terre trema is profoundly,
resonantly ambivalent, recognizing the need for collective
action while understanding how hard it is to arrive at, let
alone maintain.
To see Visconti’s career only in terms of the movies he
made is to underestimate his talents and his influence, for
though until his death he was always immersed in one film
project or another, whether in researching, writing, design-
ing, casting, or directing, he was also usually preoccupied
with a host of other productions as well, principally for
the opera or the theater. With most of them he sought not
only to épater la bourgeoisie but to “horrify” them. Perhaps
inspired by his recent experiences with the film industry’s
purge committee, he saw the theater as a “tribunal where
one can also say things that might shock.” In short order he
directed Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles (1951), a vaudeville
tragedy about incest among the bourgeoisie; a dramatic ad-
aptation of Erskine Caldwell’s American novel, Tobacco Road,
which concerns an exuberantly deviant family of southern

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sharecroppers; Sartre’s Huis Clos, almost a tribunal in itself,

in which three characters discover that their role in Hell is
to torture one another; and French dramatist and screen-
writer (most notably for Max Ophüls’ classic film The Ear-
rings of Madame de … (The Earrings of Madame de … , 1953),
Marcel Achard’s early play Adam, about an unhappy homo-
sexual. Defending the last, Visconti said, “... homosexuality
does exist; we cannot close our eyes to it and pretend it isn’t
His stage productions were frequently interrupted by au-
dience members storming the stage, catcalls, smoke bombs,
stink bombs, and vigorous gesticulating and booing: this was
Italy, after all. Visconti must have been delighted, for he was
intent on rousing the public in order to prepare them for
a new Italy. The press started referring to him as the “Red
Duke,” or with the double-edged epithet, “the director of
the soiled sheets,” partly for the often assaultive realism of
his productions, partly as a not-so-sly hint at his sexual pro-
It may come as a surprise that a man as independent and
lordly as Visconti would consult the Communist Party be-
fore embarking on most of his projects. He became close
friends with fellow anti-Fascist Antonello Trombadori, who
after the war was put in charge of the party’s cultural affairs.
The two would meet as friends and discuss whatever Vis-
conti was working on; if Trombadori disapproved, Visconti
dropped the project. Trombadori, for instance, convinced

Death in Venice

him that staging Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The Victors,

1946)—about three French resistance fighters captured and
tortured by Vichy soldiers—shortly after the war ended was
a bad idea, because it might be read “as an anti-Communist
play.” According to Trombadori, “Not doing anything the
party didn’t like was very important to Visconti. This was a
moral, almost a religious choice, very understandable for an
artist ... It was a sort of self-punishment, a limitation he im-
posed on himself. He reached the point at which discipline is
blind, but it always proceeds from a rational choice.”
This rational choice is perhaps related to Visconti’s belief
in the importance of being an artist in the world: “To choose
a profession does not mean to seal oneself off in it, as many
artists do.” It’s possible that, moving in the rarefied spheres
of European culture as he did, he saw the party as his link to
ordinary people.
Through Trombadori the director met the head of the
Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, and they too became
friends; Togliatti often sat in the second row on Visconti’s
opening nights. The director continued informally vet-
ting his work with the party until Togliatti’s death in 1964.
Defending his allegiance to party discipline, Visconti com-
mented, “Sometimes I can dispute party positions. But in
general I think it’s a good thing to be a Communist. In some
cases you must be one, even if you are not completely con-
vinced. You must be one on principle, even if you are critical
in your own mind.” In 1956, when he learned that Horst’s

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Figure 4. Anna Magnani (center) as stage mother assoluta in Bellissima.


mother was living in East Germany, Visconti responded,

“She must be happy then, it’s wonderful to live in a Com-
munist country.”
For those who think of Visconti as a director of serious,
sometimes ponderous films, his 1951 feature, Bellissima
(Most Beautiful), comes as a heartening surprise. A satiric
comedy about movie-making, the film stars Anna Magnani
as a working-class mother determined to launch her five-
year-old daughter into stardom. Bellissima is largely an Anna
Magnani showcase—it’s hard to think of a film she made that
didn’t turn out that way—her only counterweight being the

Death in Venice

Cinecittà director involved in a contest to find “the prettiest

child in Rome.” Played by the Fascist-era filmmaker Ales-
sandro Blasetti, the director is reserved and even sympathet-
ic, his performance reportedly based on Visconti himself.
Magnani’s performance—recognizing her as a force of na-
ture, Visconti let the camera run so she could improvise—is
as hilarious as it is painful to watch. Her face, as she and her
daughter secretly view the daughter’s screen test as studio
types mock it is a master class in how well, when she wanted,
Magnani could control the quicksilver run of her emotions.
The movie has an upbeat ending that feels as if Visconti had
one eye on the Communist Party when he wrote it, but it
can’t spoil the buoyant comic energy he sustains, or the skill
with which he mixes a diva assoluta with non-professional
actors. (The non-actor who plays Magnani’s husband has a
quiet way of stealing scenes out from under her nose.)
No one who worked with him, in film, theater, or opera,
would deny that as a director he was a tyrant. According to
Ossessione’s Massimo Girotti (the actor whom Visconti loved
and almost fought a duel to the death with), “Working with
him in theatre was an ordeal. He established a church atmo-
sphere, the gloomy atmosphere of a temple, a depressive,
obsessive atmosphere. Irony was his weapon; he made fun
of the actors, he ridiculed them. He managed to terrorize
them.” Another theater actor saw another side to Visconti’s
autocratic ways: “His relationship with actors was a mixture
of tyranny and worship. He brought Sade into the Italian

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theatre.” A third said he ruled with “a mixture of privileged

impatience and liberal concern.” Yet a fourth made an even
finer distinction: “Working with him was always enormously
unpleasant ... [great actors] were fetishes through whom he
expressed himself and with whom he identified.”
The performer he may have worshipped most was Ma-
ria Callas, whom he first saw and heard playing Leonora
in Il trovatore at La Scala. She was only twenty-four and
Brunnhildean in girth, but he was captivated with this so-
prano who, as another singer put it, “had a demon in her
voice.” Her husband, impresario Battista Meneghini, said
at the time that she “disliked the filthy, obscene [language]
Visconti used especially with women,” adding that she was
“devastated” when she learned he was homosexual. All other
accounts insist that her love for Visconti was passionate to
the point of obsessive jealousy and that he worshipped her,
caressing her long black hair for hours because it reminded
him of his mother’s.
At Visconti’s urging she lost more than sixty-five pounds
and, in the process, some said, changed and even damaged
her voice. Recognizing that everything she did on stage was
instinctive—colleagues said she couldn’t explain what hap-
pened to her in front of the footlights any more than a fish
can explain water—Visconti helped her develop as an actor.
Female singers at that time were more valued for their voic-
es than for their dramatic ability, but he and Callas changed
all that. During rehearsals, she would ask Visconti, sitting in

Death in Venice

the theater’s darkness, why he made her move in a certain

way or stylize a specific gesture. “Shut up, conne!” was his
reply. “Sing—which is the only thing you are able to do.”
Callas told friends and journalists alike that she needed that
kind of highhandedness to accomplish her best work.
In 1954, Visconti directed his fourth feature film, Senso,
which presents greedy, self-absorbed lovers set against the
backdrop of the Third Italian War of Independence (1866),
a war that ended with the occupying Austrians defeating the
Italian army. The picture’s opulence and its setting among
the ruling class also signaled Visconti’s movement away from
the strictest tenets of neorealism. With Senso, as with all his
work at that time, he set out to shock, criticize, and anger
the new Italy.
He left himself open to criticism as well. Salvador Dali,
whom he knew from his visits to Paris in the 1930s and col-
laborated with in the late 1940s on a theatrical production of
As You Like It, commented that the Red Duke “ate off gold
plates, he was a Communist who only liked luxury.” Visconti
was then taken to task by the Communist party itself for
working with Dali, who had been too close to Franco for
Visconti seemed impervious to attacks from the left or the
right. He continued to ask his chef to prepare dinner for
fourteen each evening, even if he hadn’t invited anyone, to
keep the man in practice. When friends did come, they were
served by white-gloved servants dressed in the ­distinctive

Queer Film Classics

Figure 5. Opera and drama collide in a white flash in Senso, starring

Alida Valli and Farley Granger. Fleetwood Films Incorporated /

Death in Venice

black and yellow Visconti livery. He delighted in beguiling

his guests with precious jokes, ordering his chef to create
perfect imitations of Lalique or Gallé vases in sugar. He
would then smash one with his fork and invite his initial-
ly horrified guests to follow suit. Beautiful treasures—Art
Nouveau furniture, Vienna Secessionist paintings, neoclas-
sical statuary—rotated through his houses in Milan, Rome,
and on the island of Ischia.

Feasting with panthers

In the early 1950s, Visconti met Thomas Mann for the first
time (they were to meet two more times after that). Visconti
was adapting Mann’s The Magic Mountain into an opera-bal-
let to be performed at La Scala (though the opera house ul-
timately refused the piece). Visconti explained his concept to
Mann: he thought that this story about a demonic hypnotist
who uses his powers in a fascist way was about expressionism
but was not expressionist in style. This endeared Visconti to
Mann, who had never associated himself with the German
Expressionist movement. Mann also reportedly told Viscon-
ti that on a trip to Venice he had encountered an aged queen
whose hair dye had run down his face because of the heat.
The novelist also explained that in 1911, he and his fam-
ily had traveled to Venice, where they stayed at the Grand
Hôtel des Bains and there encountered the boy who would
become Tadzio in Death in Venice, along with his beautiful-
ly dressed siblings and their elegant, enigmatic mother. If

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Mann had returned to the Lido the following year, he might

have observed the equally well-dressed Visconti children
traveling with their mother, donna Carla.
Throughout his life, Visconti’s position vis-à-vis the clos-
et was liminal—from the end of the war until his death in
1976, he was not particularly discreet about his homosexual-
ity. At the same time, he never discussed it publicly. In fact,
he often went to absurd lengths to conceal it or its presence
(often fleeting) in his films. When he was promoting Death
in Venice, he emphasized to the press that Mann’s original
story had been inspired by Goethe’s love for a young girl.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the composition of the
court that constantly swirled about Visconti began to
change. Intellectuals, artists, theater people, and promi-
nent leftists began to drop away, replaced by what various
observers described as “male odalisques,” “petty characters
and undistinguished minds,” and “not despicable people, of
course, but less demanding.” Some writers have insinuated
that beautiful young men, among them petty thieves and
hustlers, somehow held Visconti captive to their charms and
exploited him unmercifully. In light of his penultimate film,
Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece, 1974), in
which an old and reclusive professor is exploited with verve
and style by his rapacious tenants, Visconti may well have
been energized and challenged by the presence of such gor-
geously feral types, as Oscar Wilde once delighted in “feast-
ing with panthers.”

Death in Venice

Certainly financial exploitation can’t have been that press-

ing a concern for a man as rich and as in control as Visconti.
As one of his young men reported later in life, “Luchino
wasn’t interested in intellectual discussions with me ... He
saw me because I amused him ... and because I was young
and cute. What’s more, I was two-faced, an opportunist. And
naïve at the same time, and a little ridiculous.” He recalled
how pleased he had been when Visconti gave him a gold
cigarette box and let him parade about at a party, taking it
out of his inside jacket pocket to show it off as he offered
cigarettes to friends, until someone explained to him that it
wasn’t a cigarette case but a cigarette box, meant to be dis-
played on a side table.
Toward the end of his life Visconti admitted, “I prefer a
sensitive idiot to a cynical, cold, intellectual giant. Guys like
that have always made me uneasy and they always will ...
My friends aren’t like that, the people I love are different.”
He much preferred playing “Murder in the Dark” with his
panthers to discussing art and ideas with the cognoscenti.
Visconti has been linked romantically or sexually with
a wide variety of famous or infamous men, ranging from
Horst to Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue to Leonard Ber-
nstein to his protégé Franco Zeffirelli. Biographers hint
that there were numberless encounters with young men
who were merely handsome but not famous or even par-
ticularly talented. One writer goes so far as to affirm that all
of Visconti’s relationships were essentially sado-masochistic

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in that he needed constantly to be humiliated. A rival biog-

rapher, Laurence Schifano, gives a slightly different read-
ing: “... each affair was one of constant confrontation, an
interplay of cruelty, jealousy, reciprocal humiliation, a war
of nerves with occasional brief truces. Visconti was in fact
attracted to those who could stand up to him, punish him, as
he humiliated and punished him.”
Schifano notes that this dynamic occurred with intimate
friends as well as with lovers, adding that Visconti “... could
not contemplate pleasure or true beauty ... without pain and
punishment ... For him, as for Wilde and Proust, love was
always guilty.” With his northern, nearly Germanic tem-
perament, Catholic guilt trumped hedonism every time.
According to Horst, Visconti “melted before beauty,” but
at the same time, resenting its power over him, sought to
destroy or at least tame or geld it, once making a servant
shave his head in order to blunt his beauty. “Homosexuality
for me,” Horst said, “was nothing but fun, but for Visconti
it was otherwise.”
Visconti’s own ambivalence about his homosexuality may
also have been heavily influenced by fellow director Pier
Paolo Pasolini’s experiences with the Communist Party.
Pasolini had joined the party as a young man, but was ex-
pelled—and fired from his teaching job—in 1949, after hav-
ing been caught in a sexual situation with three young men.
From that moment on he wrote openly about homosexuality
and included it in many of his films. As a result, as Bernardo

Death in Venice

Bertolucci pointed out, his life and public image had been
“savaged” by the press and neo-fascist groups. He thought
of himself as a Communist for the rest of his life, albeit a
heretical and heterodoxical one. The courts determined
that he was murdered by a young hustler in 1975, though
evidence suggested that more than one killer was involved.
Although Visconti admired Pasolini’s milestone novel of the
underclass, Ragazzi di vita, he was offended and threatened
by his colleague’s open homosexuality and reportedly found
the great renegade director’s films “crude.”
In an interview with US journalist Boze Hadleigh not
long after Pasolini’s death, Visconti talked at length about
the eighteenth-century German art historian and early ar-
cheologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann who was mur-
dered in Trieste in 1768, possibly by a male prostitute. Vis-
conti often avoided discussions of his own homosexuality by
deflecting them onto another person.

Le Notti bianche (White Nights, 1957), adapted from a story

by Dostoevsky, is one of Visconti’s most artificial, studio-
bound, and deliberately theatrical films. A young clerk falls
in love with a mysterious young woman who can think only
of the lover who has left her. In one of those paradoxes des-
perate filmmakers are adept at spinning out, Visconti said he
wanted “everything to look artificial, false, but when you get
the impression it’s false, it should begin to look as if it were
real.” Instead of using a fog machine, he ordered the set

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draped in miles and miles of tulle, at a time when the picture

was already over budget. One collaborator, commenting on
his heedless and spendthrift ways, metaphorically threw up
her hands in dismay: “What can you do with someone who
functions on another scale?”
Visconti scholar Geoffrey Nowell-Smith argues that
White Nights “possesses a unity of discourse and an absence
of unwanted contradictions which is unique in Visconti’s
work,” but if you take away the director’s disordered dis-
course and teeming contradictions, can it still be called a
Visconti film? A little disarray would help this wan little
movie, in which the principal performers—Marcello Mas-
troianni as the clerk and Maria Schell as the young wom-
an—look uncomfortable and miscast, and the only energy
radiates from Ossessione’s Clara Calamai as a streetwalker and
Jean Marais as the elusive man the young woman pines for.
There are some incongruous, exquisite moments—a stylized
dance sequence featuring a seductive young man dressed all
in black bebopping to Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Thir-
teen Women,” as well as the final scenes in which it snows
and the nocturnal city of longing and desperation gives way
to the unsparing light of day. But the layered and warring
ambivalences and ambiguities of a great—or even a merely
good—Visconti film are missing, and the swooning artifici-
ality can’t take their place.
The jumping off point for his next film, Rocco e i suoi
fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960), was Italy’s recurrent

Death in Venice

Figure 6. Alain Delon as a prize fighter receiving encouragement and

sustenance in Rocco and His Brothers. DVD still.

north-south problem. The country’s “economic miracle” of

the 1950s and early 1960s was largely made possible by poor
agrarian workers from the nearly feudal south traveling to
the industrial north to find work that would lift their lives
above subsistence level. But in the north, they were viewed
as crude and uncouth peasants, convenient for exploitation
but not the sort of people a respectable northerner would
want next door.
Viscontian disorder and contradiction are restored to
their rightful, propulsive position in Rocco and His Broth-
ers, an episodic tale of four brothers and their mother who
move north to Milan to join a fifth brother already estab-
lished there. Visconti said that with this film he “… wanted

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to listen to the secret voice of reality in the south,” and to

tell the tale of “a civilization and a people kept by the north
in a condition of inferiority, of moral and spiritual isolation
based on privilege.” The neorealist roots are there: shooting
in black-and-white in an urban setting; characters struggling
to survive a capitalist system already rigged against them;
the indifference of the state; and the gritty locations, but the
movie was a large-budget international production, and Vis-
conti chose rising young French actor Alain Delon to play
Rocco, the good brother who sacrifices all for his family (the
producers had wanted Paul Newman for the role).
The action was melodrama lifted to operatic proportions,
with prize-fighting and a brutal rape scene thrown into the
mix. More fastidious critics at the time claimed it was all too
much and that the strain of so many undercurrents—politi-
cal, domestic, sexual—undermined the film’s seriousness as
a social statement. Rocco turned out to be immensely popular
at home and abroad (it was Visconti’s first big box-office suc-
cess), despite the best efforts of the Italian government and
its lapdog press.
The Ministry of Culture, worried that the film presented
a sordid picture of modern Italian life, worked tirelessly to
undermine the film. The press denounced it for the same
reasons, with many people branding it obscene, not only
because of the graphic scene in which one of the brothers
rapes a prostitute, but also because of the presence of a ho-
mosexual character, the fight trainer who, when he enters

Death in Venice

a ­mirror-lined gym, runs an evaluative eye over the sweaty

bodies of the young boxers. The film was banned in some
parts of Italy and hacked up even before it was released out-
side the country (the original version was 177 minutes long,
but one released print came in at a scant ninety-five min-
utes). Beyond its popular and commercial success, Rocco and
His Brothers was hugely influential to emerging young direc-
tors in France and the US—certainly Francis Ford Coppola’s
The Godfather films (1972, 1974, 1990) and Martin Scorsese’s
Raging Bull (1980) owe an enormous debt to Visconti.
Many consider his next movie, Il gattopardo (The Leopard,
1963), to be his masterpiece. I don’t disagree, but it seems
to me that Visconti—ever the renegade—made several. This
tale of an aging prince coping with a new political and finan-
cial order in the wake of Garibaldi’s Resorgimento is a quiet,
ruminative epic about survival, loss, and decay. Some critics,
especially on the left, have accused it of being an empty ex-
ercise in style with a not very hidden reactionary heart, since
the film appears to be on the side of the prince (played with
subtlety and a certain Viscontian flair by Burt Lancaster),
neglecting to notice that beneath the sumptuous surface, a
piercing analysis of the survival skills of the ruling class is
taking place. Rather than being worshipful of this ancient
aristocratic family, Visconti suggests, in the film’s extended
and majestic ballroom scene—with one brief shot of a room
filled with the celebrants’ over-filled chamber pots—that
the aristocracy isn’t merely decorative and decadent but shit

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Figure 7. The prince (Burt Lancaster) contemplates his own death in

the death of another in The Leopard. Film still. Twentiety Century-Fox /

itself. Excrement has always been the supreme reductive

tactic of great satirists, and The Leopard is satire of a very
high, almost cosmic order, with its director, a member of
the Italian nobility, casting a cold eye on his own while also
commenting, as he did in Senso, on the economic and politi-
cal opportunism that happened after World War II. In an
earlier scene he had shown the prince and his family as dust-
covered figures on a tomb. (I should mention that Visconti
never gave up his title, but then most satirists are ambivalent
about their targets and contradictory in their own lives, Al-
exander Pope lived at the heart of the court he mocks in The

Death in Venice

Rape of the Lock; Evelyn Waugh was one of the Bright Young
Things even as he skewered them in Vile Bodies; and George
Orwell, who lambasted state surveillance in 1984, acted as
a government informant, denouncing “crypto-communists”
to the British secret service.)

Move the corpse!

Over the remaining thirteen years of his life, Visconti
worked at a frantic pace, right up to the end, producing
seven more features, at least two of them—Death in Venice
and Ludwig—on a grand scale. There were eleven opera
productions, including La traviata, The Marriage of Figaro,
Il trovatore, Der Rosenkavalier, and Manon Lescaut, for Covent
Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper, and Teatro Nuovo at Spo-
leto. In addition, he directed Arthur Miller’s After the Fall,
Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Goethe’s Egmont, and
a production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times so scandalous—
lesbian love-making onstage!—that even the playwright was
appalled. Visconti also developed other major film projects,
including an adaptation of Mann’s The Magic Mountain and
Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu, with Salvador Dali in
charge of décor.
Within this whirlwind of activity, Visconti also became
aware that, in the public perception, he was no longer con-
sidered a Communist firebrand, but an aging director out of
tune with public tastes. As the Baby Boom youthquake rat-
tled European capitals and those of North America, his films

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came to be seen as stodgy and old-fashioned, airless period

pieces or obscure modern melodramas. The European intel-
ligentsia dismissed his work as reactionary and oppressive.
A child of the Edwardian era, he looked at new movements
in art and politics and was bemused. He had known Anto-
nioni since World War II, but didn’t know what to make of
L’Avventura (1960).
Radical politics of the late 1960s and ’70s frightened
him: “The young? I don’t understand them. Neither Marx
nor Gramsci had foreseen this anarchic new type of pro-
test decked out in the tawdry finery of the Revolution.” At
another point, he angered young radicals with a prescient
announcement of what to him seemed verified fact, “The
youngest revolutionary of them all is Buñuel. And he’s sixty-
eight.” The violence of the Red Brigades in Italy and the
Red Army Faction in Germany terrified him—he feared
they were signs of the return of fascism.
A lifetime smoker of up to 120 cigarettes a day—his long
fingers yellow with nicotine—he aged prematurely and his
health went into sharp decline. Once avant-garde, he tasted
the bitterness of being seen as vieux jeu. In his films, his sure-
ness of touch, his fluid style, his political intensity, seemed
to come and go.
Sandra (1965), a reframing of Elektra set in post-war Italy,
is an almost gothic melodrama that attempts to tie together
memory, the Holocaust, brother-sister incest, and much
more, with Claudia Cardinale working hard to summon up

Death in Venice

the high seriousness of the title character while the camera

focuses on presenting her as a distracted sex kitten. (After
The Leopard had catapulted her to international success, the
producers of Sandra insisted she be cast as the lead, despite
Visconti’s misgivings.)
Analyzing why his adaptation of Camus’ L’Étranger turned
out to be such an abject failure, Visconti spoke frankly: “...
It is nonsense to ask a director ... to be faithful to a liter-
ary text. Really, I prefer the authors to be dead in order to
avoid conflicts. And I hope in any case that their families are
as small as possible.” Camus was long dead when Visconti
decided to make Lo straniero (The Stranger, 1967), but his
redoubtable widow, Francine Camus, demanded “objective,
absurd fidelity.”
Visconti had intended to use Camus’ novel as he had
used James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—as a
springboard toward a free adaptation that would be as much
Visconti as Camus. His The Stranger would have “echoes”
of the novel but would also encompass the recent French-
Algerian war that brought about the colonized nation’s in-
dependence. Interviews at the time suggested that the Duke
of Madrone felt a deep connection with the novel’s alienated
hero, Meursault, an Algerian pied-noir who one day murders
an Arab Algerian on the beach. “I couldn’t help,” Visconti
told an interviewer, “but be violently moved by the story of
a man who became a victim to the imbecilic judgment of the
world.” Meursault is judged and condemned not so much

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for the murder as for his failure to act “appropriately” after

the death of his mother. Because of his own indifference to
public opinion and to respecting the emotional and moral
norms of his community, Visconti had found an unlikely
soul mate.
He had wanted Alain Delon to play Meursault, but ended
up with Marcello Mastroianni, an actor Visconti regarded
as insufficiently serious because he could so easily pass from
anguish in front of the camera to joking with the crew once
“Cut!” was called. Although eerily filmed in the sun-bleached
colors of the seaside by the great cinematographer Giuseppe
Rotunno, the movie is, as Visconti freely admitted, no more
“than an illustration of a beautiful and important novel.” He
also made a weak case for it not being “a minor film,” but
when he was ill and dying, he asked to see all his films on
video except for Ludwig (1972), which had been mutilated,
and he never even mentioned The Stranger.
In the late 1960s, as homosexuality became more politi-
cized and, thanks to the Gay Liberation Movement, “homo-
sexual” gave way to “gay,” Visconti, that most politicized of
men, refused to enter the fray. While dining in New York a
friend asked him if he’d like to go to a gay bar. “A gay bar?”
Visconti replied. “When I was young, homosexuality was a
forbidden fruit, something special, a fruit to be gathered with
care, not what it is today—hundreds of homosexuals show-
ing off, dancing together in a gay bar. What do you want to
go there for?” These words provide such a rich confusion of

Death in Venice

images, nostalgia, refusals, and resentments that it’s hard to

know how to begin to untangle them. First, this is the cry of
a man who feels his very element—his sexuality—has passed
him by and become something foreign to the point of be-
ing unrecognizable. His sense of homosexuality had always
been biblical and “forbidden” because it was related to sin,
but also because it was socially forbidden, at least in terms
of any frank manifestation. But with this very Catholic view
comes its obverse, that forbiddance has given homosexual-
ity a special, fragile, cosseted status; it is a delicate blossom
that shrinks to the touch if approached too briskly, almost
as if homosexuality, for him, had been a kind of secret aris-
tocracy that had now, in a decade of so many different types
of liberation, been invaded by the unspeakably vulgar who
trampled its flower to death on the disco floor.
But these are the almost inevitable thoughts of old men—
as politically minded gay men of my generation are horrified
that all their efforts toward constructing a sexual revolution
have boiled down to the right to enter into the bourgeois
institution of marriage or to fight and kill in the military of
an imperialist power. There’s nothing inaccurate about the
analysis of these old gay men—let’s call it mine as well—ex-
cept that to the young it appears irrelevant to the situation
at hand.
The tense and impeccably formal director was also capa-
ble of finding relaxation and diversion in much the same way
that his grandfather Guido had done decades earlier when

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he disguised his beard with lace and danced with the corps
de ballet at La Scala. Servadio recounts that, surrounded by
his young nephews and nieces, Visconti delighted in playing
zia Amalia (Aunt Amalia) with them. For more than a week,
everyone worked on his elaborate costume, “a delicate veil
over his face and nylon stockings and lipstick and high heels
and a skirt,” as well as a large lace-trimmed hat—the cus-
tomary attire of tiresome old ladies who came to tea. Turn-
ing out the lights, he would then transform himself into a
witch, and the children, terrified, would run away.
Servadio noted that, with Visconti, “any fulfilled love
failed at the start,” a startlingly fatuous comment of the kind
homosexuals of his generation were frequently subjected to
by uncomprehending heterosexual commentators. Surely
a “fulfilled love” cannot be recognized until it has endured
long enough to be fulfilled. By definition, no relationship
can be fulfilled at the start. And it was in his last years, if
we can judge by his comments, journals, and movies, that
Visconti did find a fulfilled love with the unlikeliest of in-
It’s somehow appropriate that it was Salvador Dali’s wife
Gala who introduced Visconti to a twenty-year-old Austrian
named Helmut Berger (né Steinberger), a shy and yet brazen
young man. Gala had been the ultimate Surrealist muse and
model, romantically and sexually linked to many Surrealists,
including Paul Éluard and Max Ernst in a ménage à trois. At
some level she must have recognized that Berger’s other-

Death in Venice

worldly, petulant beauty—he resembled Visconti’s first great

love, Horst—would appeal to the older man (Visconti was
They became lovers almost immediately. In his autobi-
ography, Ich, Berger admitted that at first he wasn’t serious
about the relationship, but soon fell in love with Visconti.
Various biographers hint that friends and colleagues looked
on aghast. Their affair ended only with Visconti’s death,
twelve years after their first meeting. From the outside, it
was a hellish relationship—full of daily Sturm und Drang and
a complete Götterdämmerung every second weekend. But
surely this was the very sort of ménage Visconti required:
heightened, operatic, melodramatic love—and all conducted
in dramatic settings, whether in the director’s numerous pa-
latial residences or, as their love deepened, on the sets of big-
budget international films.
Visconti maintained his public reticence about being ho-
mosexual. Even though he and Berger lived together much
of the time, he insisted they have separate bedrooms so as
not to alarm the servants. If Visconti spoke about Berger at
all, it was as a performer, but it’s hard to miss the swell of
emotion in the words he used: “Helmut Berger ... [is] seem-
ingly so touchy and difficult, and down deep so sweet, gen-
erous and sincere.”
With Berger, Visconti got to play Pygmalion on an ex-
travagant scale, determined to propel a young man with no
acting ability or experience to major international stardom.

Queer Film Classics

Figure 8. Helmut Berger reprises Marlene Dietrich’s “Einen richtigen

Mann” (“A Real Man”) in The Damned. Warner Bros. / Photofest.

With their first important collaboration, La caduta degli dei

(The Damned, 1969), a heavy-breathing metaphorical explo-
ration of power and perversion during the Nazi era, Visconti,
taking an enormous risk, made Berger the center of the film
as the child-molesting, mother-fucking, drag-wearing scion
of a rich German industrial family. (The film was partly in-

Death in Venice

spired by Visconti’s own family, especially on his mother’s

side, the pharmaceutical-manufacturing Erbas.) According
to Dirk Bogarde, who co-starred, Visconti decimated the
British actor’s role so that Berger would dominate the film.
Another co-star, Charlotte Rampling, described how the di-
rector transformed his young lover into an actor: “Helmut
was there to learn everything. He didn’t know anything ...
He had no culture, he had no style. As Visconti said, he was
just a skiing waiter with a big bum.” She added that it was
almost as if Visconti was molding Berger to be Visconti’s
younger self, “to visualize his own demons ...” The incestu-
ous mother-son relationship in the film arises from those
Berger, interviewed in the 2002 documentary The Life and
Times of Luchino Visconti for the BBC program “Arena,” not-
ed that on the set, Visconti was kind to the other performers
but “... with me it was always shouting in front of all the
actors. Visconti was very bossy—in work, in love, in sex, in
domination. Everything had to go his way and he didn’t lis-
ten to anybody because he knew what he [did] was the right
thing and it was. He didn’t make a mistake with me, did he?”
Berger emerges from The Damned as its most conspicu-
ous if not its greatest actor—his impersonation of Marlene
Dietrich belting out her need for “einen richtigen Mann” (“a
real man”) stands as the film’s defining image.
Death in Venice is the second part of what would become
known as Visconti’s “German Trilogy,” and will be discussed

Queer Film Classics

more completely in the final chapter of this book. It’s worth

noting in passing that the Hollywood producers were so
nervous about releasing a film that featured a middle-aged
man pursuing an adolescent boy that they almost scrapped
the project. At the time, the director told the New York Times
that the love Aschenbach feels for Tadzio is “not homosex-
ual. It is a love without eroticism, without sexuality,” and
Tadzio was “a symbol for beauty.” According to Dirk Bog-
arde’s memoir, An Orderly Man, only a brilliant public rela-
tions coup saved the picture: the world premiere was slated
for London, as a charity event for the eternally sinking city
of Venice, with Queen Elizabeth and her daughter Princess
Anne in attendance. The royals reportedly read Mann’s nov-
el beforehand in order to prepare themselves.
In the last four years of his life, Visconti made three radi-
cally different films. The first, Ludwig, an epic dream-biog-
raphy of Germany’s mad king Ludwig II (1845–1886), with
Helmut Berger in the title role, was a critical and popular
disaster. The producers cut an hour off its running time be-
fore releasing it, and the rigors of the filming itself broke
Visconti’s health. Ludwig has only recently been restored
and released in its original four-hour format, and still leaves
critics and Visconti scholars divided; it is either heralded as a
masterpiece or deplored as an unendurable folly.
Visconti suffered a debilitating stroke before he had fin-
ished editing Ludwig, leaving the left side of his body para-
lyzed, but he remained as lucid as ever and was soon suffi-

Death in Venice

Figure 9. Berger in full Tyrolean fig as Ludwig II of Bavaria in the epic

Ludwig. DVD still.

ciently recovered to resume editing. Concerns for his health

caused him to abandon plans for mounting Wagner’s mam-
moth cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and for
directing a film adaptation of Mann’s The Magic Mountain,
though he did go on to direct Manon Lescaut for Spoleto.
His last two films are scaled-down, essentially domestic
dramas, but with the requisite raging passions. They were in
a way a homecoming for him, in that they deal with families
that were, respectively, both reconstituted and real, and one
of them, Conversation Piece, showed a lightness of touch not
usually associated with Visconti. The movie had an unlike-
ly source: Italian critic Mario Praz’s brilliant critical study,
Conversation Pieces: A Survey of the Informal Group Portrait
in Europe and America. In a way, it’s Death in Venice all over
again. An aging professor (Burt Lancaster) falls in love with a
young man (Helmut Berger), a kind of revolutionary gigolo;

Queer Film Classics

it’s far easier to accept Berger as a gigolo than a revolution-

ary who’s being kept by an Italian contessa. The contessa’s
fractious entourage, who move into the flat upstairs, bring
the professor back to life. Visconti was confined to a wheel-
chair throughout filming, though “confined” and “Visconti”
present a contradiction in terms: whenever visitors came on
set he insisted on standing while he directed. When sitting
in the wheelchair waiting to be steered to another part of the
set he would call out over the microphone he used for his
now weakened voice, “Move the corpse!”
Innocente (1976) is an adaptation of a Gabriele D’Annunzio
novel, L’innocente, that his parents likely read. The novel in
many ways reflects the internecine strife that rocked and
then destroyed don Giuseppe and donna Carla’s marriage:
a philandering husband with little interest in his wife falls
passionately in love with her again when he discovers she
has taken a lover. A chamber piece or group portrait, like
Conversation Piece, Innocente is the stronger film as it imper-
ceptibly moves from drawing-room comedy to melodrama
as passions whirl out of control, with Visconti never out of
control in this time-bomb of a film. Male sexual jealousy and
the way it often includes an obsessive interest in one’s rival
is brilliantly portrayed as husband and rival shower togeth-
er after the hot thrusts of a fencing match. From the hus-
band’s viewpoint, the camera sweeps down the rival’s nude
body, white and shapely as a Greek athlete carved in marble.

Death in Venice

Again, Visconti directed from a wheelchair; this time he was

completely immobilized—he couldn’t even turn his head.
Visconti spent the last day of his life at home, listening
to Brahm’s Second Symphony. Finally, he said to his sister,
“That’s enough. I’m tired.”
Posters were pasted up all over Rome: Visconti’s name
in black against a white background, along with the follow-
ing: “A militant anti-Fascist of the Resistance who always
displayed deep and sincere solidarity with those who work
and struggle.” The funeral was a spectacle and a scandal, and
it’s likely Visconti would have appreciated both. The Com-
munists with their red flags were out in front of the church
commemorating him; all the top party bosses were there,
though, according to at least one scholar, he had never actu-
ally joined the party. As Franco Zeffirelli noted, he was “the
icon of communism” for the party and “the icon of faith” for
the church.
For Helmut Berger, who considered himself Visconti’s
“wife and widow,” the funeral was “a horror, it was a cock-
tail party. All the stars came in, in their [sun]glasses.” Burt
Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon were there.
“I ordered a big bouquet of gardenias because he loved
them. I put them at his feet and one of the family took it
away. I brought it back. They put it away. I put it back ... We
couldn’t get out of the church because of the press. I went
out by the side door. All the others loved the press.” For
Visconti, both work and struggle were over.

Queer Film Classics

In an interview given four years before his death he swore

“… that neither age nor illness have blunted my determina-
tion to live and do things ... film, theatre, music. I want to
tackle everything, absolutely everything. With passion. Be-
cause you must always burn with passion ... that, in fact, is
why we’re here: to burn until death, the last act of life, comes
to finish the job by turning us to ashes.”

Two: Imaginary Prisons

Mann, men, and boys

Thomas Mann stares out of the past, Janus-faced. He looks
to the right, a respectable bourgeois novelist casting an iron-
ic eye on his own caste; to the left, an aging satyr’s gaze—no
detachment here, just cloven hooves, orgiastic longing. For
the longest time, academics turned sophistic cartwheels to
prove there was nothing queer about the old man. That he
wrote so convincingly about homosexual desire was simply
a further demonstration of his protean, all-encompassing
imagination. Yet if you read him, you knew that he knew
what you knew and in the same way you knew it: he desired
men. As an undergrad, still in the closet, how many hopeful
late-night conversations did I have with a boy named Car-
los about “the architectural quality of Mann’s prose” or “the
almost Whitmanian quality of his metaphors”? Carlos and
I felt Mann out as we felt each other out. To know what he
knew, surely he must be ... For you to read and love Tonio
Kröger, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, surely you too
must be … However powerful his works proved as tools of
seduction, they were no match for our entrenchment in the
closet. This was 1967.
But if straight academic critics were acute enough to prove
Shakespeare’s sonnets to a young man were only platonic
or to change the pronouns in Whitman or willfully misread

Queer Film Classics

Forster, then Mann was a piece of cake. His half-century of

marriage to Katia Pringsheim Mann, his six—count ’em—
six children, his high moral rectitude, his, his ... And then, in
1975 his diaries were unsealed, and the truth as we’d always
known it came out, as well as, posthumously, the author.
There could no longer be any doubt about his homosexu-
al desires; there was even substantial evidence of his ephebo-
philia, including disquieting descriptions of his teenage son
Klaus (“... terribly handsome in his swimming trunks. Find
it quite natural that I should fall in love with my son ... It
seems I am once and for all done with women?”). He wrote
countless glowing descriptions of young men and boys—“a
gallery which no literary history will report,” Mann noted,
though every serious diarist must write with at least one eye
on posterity. He may even have hoped the future might view
his portraits with a less jaundiced eye. Extended accounts
of intense love affairs also figured, though it’s possible he
never had sexual relations with another man. One of the
chief objects of his desire reported, long after Mann’s death,
that their “affair” had consisted of “polite conversation.” Is
it possible his straight critics had it at least partly right? For
someone with as capacious an imagination as Mann’s, per-
haps charged conversation was enough. Certainly my late-
night literary discussions with Carlos stand (how desire can
steal into a text unbidden) among my most intense erotic
During his lifetime Mann wasn’t exactly discreet about

Death in Venice

his longings. He wrote a number of essays and gave at least

one speech that indicated more than a passing interest in
homosexuality. He also publicly supported early sexologist
Magnus Hirschfeld in his tireless (and fruitless) campaign
to decriminalize homosexuality in German. His 1926 essay
“On Platen” defended the German neoclassical poet August
von Platen, who wrote fairly openly about homosexuality (“I
am the body of soul, the soul of body; / I am as the wife of
the husband, you the husband of the wife”) but was initially
less comfortable with the physical side of male love. He had
been essentially outed by fellow poet Heinrich Heine after
Platen had made anti-Semitic jibes at Germany’s most fa-
mous Romantic poet.
Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Mann ar-
gued that Platen channeled his erotic desires into his writ-
ing. Mann admitted, however, in subsequent pages, that
Platen likely surrendered his sexual scruples to “unworthy
boys.” Is there some lip smacking in his linking of “unwor-
thy” and “boys”? Heavily influenced by Freud’s sublimation
theory, Mann appears to have projected his own displace-
ment of desire into his work onto Platen who, once he left
stolid Germany for an often ecstatic exile in Italy, got over
his reluctance concerning sexual relations with other men.
Or boys. Platen died of cholera in Syracuse in 1835, as
would Aschenbach in Venice almost a century later.
Mann himself didn’t fall for artists, intellectuals, or other
“worthy” types, but rather for waiters, shirtless gardeners,

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soldiers encountered dur-

ing train journeys, and ho-
tel elevator boys. (“Flirt mit
dem Lift boy,” he wrote in
his diary.) Four years be-
fore publishing “On Plat-
en,” Mann gave a rousing
speech called “On the Ger-
man Republic,” in which he
suggested that Germany,
as it struggled to establish
Figure 10. Wladyslaw Moes, the
its first republic, could do young Polish aristocrat who was
worse than subscribe to Mann’s model for Tadzio.
Whitman’s view of democ-
racy. Worried that the forces of the right would usurp the
“spiritual love of comrades,” Mann offered a democratic vi-
sion of his own: “... the zone of Eros in which the generally
accepted law of sexual polarity proves to be invalid, and in
which like with like, whether mature masculinity and ador-
ing youth, joined in a dream of themselves as gods, or young
males drawn to their own mirror image, are bound in a pas-
sionate community.”
This was the kind of democracy for which E.M. Forster
would have given more than two cheers. Mann also praised
Whitman’s “all-embracing kingdom of phallic holiness,
abounding phallic ardor.” As a call to democratic freedom,
Mann’s speech is certainly unusual. It says a lot about his

Death in Venice

Figure 11. Björn Andrésen as Tadzio: “beauty so dazzling as to seem

unfair.” Warner Bros./ Photofest.

standing as Germany’s greatest living author—he would be

awarded the Nobel Prize seven years later, in 1929—that
he could advance such ideas openly and fearlessly. He also
proved prescient about how Whitman’s camaraderie of
clean-limbed, sweet-bosomed lads would be appropriated
by the National Socialists only a few years later.
In his 1925 essay “About Marriage,” homosexuality is the
ghost at the wedding banquet, with Mann repeating ideas
about homosexuality first broached in Death in Venice. On
the one hand, he recognized the creative force of marriage,
which produces children, families, communities, nations.

Queer Film Classics

On the other, in carefully couched phrases he appears to ad-

mit that homosexuality was the wellspring of all his art. But
ultimately he could see homosexual desire only as a destruc-
tive force: “There is no blessing in it save that of beauty, and
that is the blessing of death.”
Like so many others before and after him, Mann assumed
that homosexuals, because they weren’t usually procreative,
were inherently destructive. From his vantage point, they
destroyed themselves (like Aschenbach in Death in Venice)
and, given half a chance, destroyed social institutions too,
marriage in particular. Despite such public pronouncements,
Mann’s own marriage thrived, thanks to a tireless, complicit,
and steadfastly complaisant wife. In an interview on German
television (transcribed in Katia Mann: My Unwritten Mem-
oirs), when Katia Mann was ninety-one, she recalled how her
husband came to write Death in Venice. All the details of the
book, she claimed, came from her husband’s experiences. On
the day they arrived in Venice, they noticed a Polish fam-
ily—the daughters dressed rather formally and austerely,
the boy quite striking in a sailor suit open at the neck. “He
caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was
tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watch-
ing him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue
him through all of Venice, that he didn’t do—but the boy did
fascinate him, and he thought of him often ... I still remem-
ber that my uncle, Privy Counsellor Friedberg, a famous
professor of canon law in Leipzig, was outraged. ‘What a

Death in Venice

story! And a married

man with a family!’”
According to Brit-
ish critic and novelist
Gilbert Adair’s The Real
Tadzio, the child whom
Mann had watched
with such avidity was a
young aristocrat named
Wladyslav Moes. In an
interview he gave the
Figure 12. Katia Mann: “the … very German magazine Twen
beautiful boy … caught my husband’s
attention immediately.”
in the mid-1960s, Moes
revealed that, as a child,
his name was usually
shortened to Wladzio or just Adzio. Moes was ten years old
when Mann first encountered him in the spring of 1911. In
Death in Venice he aged the boy by several years, and in Vis-
conti’s film, the boy was either fourteen or fifteen (depend-
ing on which interview you read). The whole question of
Mann’s attraction to Moes is complicated by the fact that
in the one photograph we have of Moes as a child of about
ten, he bears a striking resemblance to Katia when she was
a young woman.
Mann threw up a thick smokescreen concerning the mod-
el for Aschenbach himself, at various times claiming it was
Goethe’s love, at seventy-four, for a girl in her late teens that

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had inspired him, or that Gustav Mahler was the true model
for Aschenbach. (Mann’s sense of loss over Mahler’s death
in May 1911 may have prompted him to travel to Venice a
week later.) Widows always get the final word, and Katia—
along with Mahler’s daughter—got several, denying that the
prototype for Aschenbach could be Mahler. Mahler did in-
form Death in Venice in that it was he who told Mann about
meeting, on a boat ride to the Lido, a foppish old man whose
dyed hair, false teeth, and makeup gave him, at least from a
distance, a semblance of youth. But Katia also noted that
other events in the book, such as the mysterious disappear-
ing gondolier, the lascivious red-haired street singer, and so
on, had happened to Mann, who turned them into Aschen-
bach’s experiences.

A respectable book about pederasty

Death in Venice is a sinking, like the enduring subsidence
of Venice itself, to a subaqueous labyrinthine place. If you
flooded one of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, you’d find your-
self in a vast cavern like this, “hermetically sealed,” as Mar-
guerite Yourcenar writes in her book The Dark Brain of Pi-
ranesi, “a limited yet infinite world” where we cannot help
“thinking of our theories, our systems, our magnificent and
futile mental constructions in whose corners some victim
can always be found crouching.” Aschenbach crouches in his
own corner, Mann in his—as does anyone who’s suffered a
shameful desire trapped in the mind’s own prison. It’s an in-

Death in Venice

clusive place, and no accident that one of Aschenbach’s most

famous novels is called The Abject.
As Gustav von Aschenbach watches, sighs over, beams at,
and eventually stalks Tadzio, he also writes an essay inspired
by the boy, though when the piece is finished there will re-
main in it no trace of Tadzio. As Aschenbach reminds him-
self, “It is just as well that the world knows only a fine piece
of work and not only its origins, the conditions under which
it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an art-
ist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them,
and the excellence of the writing would be of no avail.”
To see the book as Mann’s attempt to write about his own
closeted, hungering soul is almost a given, now the world
knows the diaries, the unveiling biographies, but it’s impor-
tant to resist the seductive charm of reading Death in Venice
as Mann’s personal story as well as his literary one. To prove
that Aschenbach is actually Mann is too easy: the evidence is
too abundant and yet too complex and ambiguous to be con-
clusive. Often, in describing Aschenbach, the author appears
to be describing himself, giving his character attributes from
his own life. It would be a rare writer who didn’t do this.
But in proving Mann and Aschenbach one, what’s achieved
and what’s lost? Viewing the book as only disguised autobi-
ography distracts us from its tonal intricacies and layered
perspectives, the ironies that range from personal and dra-
matic to historical and cosmic, the high purple prose filtered
through the chilliest of intellects, and the profound sense of

Queer Film Classics

mystery that envelops the novella along with the reader who
enters it as into that foreign place we find only in dreams or
drugs—eerily familiar, a hypnotized floating state more than
a mere book.
On July 18, 1911, Mann wrote to his friend Phillip Wit-
kop: “I am in the midst of work: a really strange thing that I
brought with me from Venice, a novella, serious and pure in
tone, concerning a case of pederasty in an aging artist. You
say, ‘Hum, hum!’ but it is quite respectable.”
Barely six weeks after encountering Tadzio, Mann had al-
ready clinically distanced himself to view his own experience
as “a case of pederasty in an aging artist,” though he was
only thirty-six at the time. Maybe only a writer of his stat-
ure and steely self-control could contemplate composing a
“respectable” novel about pederasty. That he already calls it
“a really strange thing” suggests it has taken him as much by
surprise as it will his future readers, “strange” itself imply-
ing the matter of the book is either unknown or unfamiliar
to the author, or simply foreign. If the latter, does he mean
pederasty as subject matter is a foreign territory for him,
previously unconsidered, a surprise—as it is for Aschen-
bach—or that the book itself is foreign in the sense of feel-
ing alien to him, in some unexplained way not entirely of his
own making and perhaps, as the different and foreign may
be, untameable and not entirely within his control? And not
just “strange” but “really strange,” not entirely comprehen-
sible. Any experienced writer of fiction will know the sensa-

Death in Venice

Figure 13. Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde): “the saddest

loneliest man in creation.” DVD still.

tion—the book that comes from nowhere and demands that

it be written.
Mann’s choice of the word “pederasty” in describing his
book is noteworthy in itself, as is his raising of Tadzio’s age
from ten to fourteen years. Both decisions may well have
been made in the interests of respectability. A ten-year-old
is still a child, while a fourteen-year-old, though commonly
referred to as a boy, is no longer a child. In addition, mak-
ing Aschenbach a man approaching sixty, as Adair points
out, suggests the man is “less threateningly carnal than ...
one in his thirties.” Also, the word “pedophilia” was not yet
available to Mann or the world. If he had wished to describe
to his friend the content of his novel, what words might he
have used to describe the love between an aging artist and a
ten-year-old—child love? child molestation? These altera-
tions from reality to fiction possibly made in the pursuit of

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respectability prompt the question of how precisely defined

the term “homosexuality” was for Mann, or for his age. Did
homosexuality describe only sexual relations between two
men, or was it more of an umbrella term that included pe-
dophilia and hebophilia (an adult preference for children in
the early years of puberty) as well as pederasty and ephebo-
If, for Mann, homosexuality was an all-inclusive label, we
begin to understand more clearly the anxieties and fears that
surrounded the topic for him. His diaries show that his at-
traction to adolescents was constant throughout his life, but
the Venetian episode with Wladyslav Moes appears to have
come as a shock to him, perhaps a life-changing one. Did he
see his love for a ten-year-old as something separate from ho-
mosexuality, or as simply another manifestation of it (the lat-
ter a distinction that still confounds the LGBT community)?
What’s remarkable about Mann is that, given his attrac-
tion to men, adolescents, and children of his own sex, he still
had the courage to support homosexual causes and to write
with extraordinary openness, for his time, about homosexu-
ality (and to be even more forthcoming in his diaries), and
that he was able to broach such topics with his wife as well.
That she was able to accept such confessions, and such de-
tails of his infatuations and loves, to the point of looking in-
dulgently on his obsession with a ten-year-old child, renders
Katia Mann doubly remarkable for her time.
Death in Venice is indeed “quite respectable” if you share

Death in Venice

with me the opinion that the first connotative meaning of

“respectable” is “claustrophobic.” To be in Aschenbach’s
company is to be shrouded in the fastidiousness of this
“clenched fist” of a man, with his uneasy mix of self-regard
and self-contempt, his potted Socratic dialogues and acute
Apollonian and Dionysian ambivalences, his futile attempts
to escape his ponderous self. Navigating the sinuous streets
of Venice, the air “heavy and foul,” popping overripe straw-
berries into his tight little mouth, he’s a flea-bitten eagle on
the traces of an ever-receding Ganymede. He conscientious-
ly buries his boy lust under layers of idealization, classical al-
lusion, and pompous diction: “The sight of this living figure,
virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as
a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and
sky, outrunning the element—it conjured up mythologies,
it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the begin-
ning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods.”
As self-justification, his thoughts are as treacly, sentimen-
tal, and obfuscating as so many present-day musings on the
joys of boy-love, inevitably written by the pursuer rather
than the pursued. A tacit parallel runs between the boy’s in-
nocence—words like “virginal” and “pure” in a fallen world
always succeed in suggesting their opposites, “deflowered”
and “sullied”—and the man’s helplessness to resist; he is as
ensnared by the boy’s dripping locks as he is trapped within
the coils of mythology, legend, and time itself.
Here Mann may be mocking the depths of Aschenbach’s

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self-delusion and the speciousness of his arguments in favor

of his love as he reverts, as do so many contemporary enthu-
siasts of intergenerational love, to the “respectable” Athe-
nian model of older men hanging out with the naked boy
athletes down at the gymnasia, hoping for a spot of inter-
crural sport. This is Aschenbach’s system, his “magnificent
and futile mental constructions in whose corner some victim
can always be found crouching.” The volleys of rationaliza-
tion come in so fast and thick, it’s hard to know whether it’s
Aschenbach, Tadzio, or both crouching in the dark corner.
At the same time, we can’t help but think of Katia Mann’s
descriptions of how fascinated her husband was by Tadzio,
how he thought of him all the time. Or of the detailed de-
scriptions in his diaries of this boy or that, or of his adoles-
cent son lying naked on a bed. Is this Mann’s system too,
with Klaus in the corner?
Even in the year of Death in Venice’s publication, Mann
expressed his dissatisfaction with the book to his brother
Heinrich, noting its “half-baked ideas and falsehoods.” He
considered rewriting it, de-emphasizing the “mystification”
that permeates the original.
Mann departs from his central character in that he never
completely succumbed to his obsession, just as he may never
have succumbed to another man. Instead, he steps back to
study his obsession, writes it down, writes it out, bestows his
monomania on a character, uses Aschenbach to explore his
own fantasies and enthrallment from a safe distance and to

Death in Venice

transform them too, allowing Aschenbach to go to the very

end of desire and to be transformed as well, even transfig-
ured by his willingness to pursue the immortal ecstasies of

Man in the mirror

Critics have found much of Platen in Aschenbach, some
going so far as to insist his name derives from Ansbach,
Platen’s birthplace, though, for me, Aschenbach sounds
more like Aschenbecher, the German word for that place of
extinguished fire and cinders: the ashtray. In writing about
Platen’s poem, “The Man Who Once Fixed His Eye on
Beauty,” Mann noted: “Love … saturates the poem, fills his
whole work: melancholy, adoring love, ever and again rising
to higher flights of ardor; endless, unquenchable love, which
issues in death, which is death, because it finds no satisfaction on
earth.” [final italics mine]
Mann’s causal leap from love to death is axiomatic in a
writer so steeped in German Romanticism, and yet such a
linkage, though abundant in Platen’s poems, is harder to find
in the poet’s life. As historian Robert Aldrich points out in
The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art and Homo-
sexual Fantasy, it wasn’t only Platen’s work that love satu-
rated, especially once he had arrived in Italy. Love appears
to have engulfed Platen’s life, unquenchable and seriatim, if
the diary entries Aldrich includes are anything to go by: “I
made the acquaintance of a big beautiful blond Roman who

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is ­captain of the local regiment … a handsome young man

who is a painter … his indescribably well-built physique and
deep piercing fire-like eyes … yesterday I met the handsom-
est acquaintance of my life … I saw my ideal of beauty per-
sonified … one of the sailors, a young 19-year-old, was as
handsome as a god” (Aldrich 1993, 64–65).
Platen’s pocket-size panegyrics to such a range of men
may look like the road to ruin for Mann, but I think they
sound less than melancholy and more like a man having an
enviable run of passion and cataloguing it, like Don Giovan-
ni, man by handsome man. The diaries also suggest that,
once in Italy, Platen eagerly moved from the platonic to the
fleshly real: “The Italians are so much handsomer than the
Germans and although here in Naples love between men
is so common one cannot choose to refuse the most daring
demands.” Mann may have despaired at so many gross acts
committed with unworthy youths, but his own preoccupa-
tion with beautiful boys and young men suggests the whiff
of sour grapes.
He also claimed to be “haunted by the fearful and pa-
thetic comicality of the situations into which [Platen’s] love-
quixotry plunged him,” but the headlong ardor of the poet’s
amorous pursuits reflects the messiness of love and sex in
life and the courage it takes to again and again sauter dans
le vide rather settle for the brain-sex Mann appears to have
favored. Or perhaps this passage is simply an expression of
the author’s own self-loathing: he can’t have been unaware

Death in Venice

of the pathetic comicality of a thirty-six-year-old married

man of letters obsessed with a ten-year-old boy. Mann trans-
muted Platen’s idea of beauty into Aschenbach’s: “... classi-
sistic, plastic, erotic and Platonic in its origins ... a naked idol
of perfection with a Greek-Oriental eye-formation before
whom he knelt in abasement and agonizing longing ... His
own poor ... physical being dissolved in shame before this
heavenly image ...”
This barely veiled image of fellatio suggests one way of
paying tribute to the kind of beauty that abashes us all. We
look, we stare, we don’t know where to look, we look with-
out seeming to look. We feel shame at our unworthiness, at
our lack of beauty or youth or some other valued quality,
shame too at the impossibility of our desire moving beyond
these cherished glimpses of beauty that shades into the sub-
lime. The magnificence of the low-angle view reminds us of
our own insignificance.
Given the divergence between the lusty observations in
Platen’s diaries (often mixed with quantities of hypochon-
dria and fretting over handsome men who’ve fled) and the
melancholy of his poetry, could we say that he was of his
time, writing in the mode of the day when neoclassic verities
about beauty hooked up with German Romanticism’s vision
of beauty infused with death? (Think of Novalis’s startling
Hymns of Night about his wife, Sophie von Kühn, who died
of consumption at fifteen).
The idea of an overpowering love consummated not by

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sex but by death (or better yet, by sex and death simultane-
ously) was not new in Platen’s time; consider all the orgas-
mic puns on the word “die” in Shakespeare, or the French
concept of la petite mort, orgasm as a small death. But its
expression and representation in nineteenth-century Euro-
pean art and literature seems both more literal and extreme.
Mann was particularly influenced by Wagner’s Liebestod,
from the final act of Tristan und Isolde when the lovers final-
ly attain the love-death they’ve long prayed for, their lives
rendered so beautiful by love that they must be subsumed
by nature.
Mann was also an avid reader of Nietzsche, particularly
The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872). The tug-
of-war between Dionysus and Apollo over Aschenbach’s
soul arises from there. Aschenbach had cultivated his cool
and rational Apollonian side for so long, it was inevitable
that his Dionysian spirit would gush forth: “Yes, it was he
who was flinging himself upon the animals, who bit and
swallowed smoking gobbets of flesh—while on the trampled
moss there now began the rites in honor of the god, an orgy
of promiscuous embraces—and in his very soul he tasted the
bestial degradation of his fall.”
Even the fist unclenches at a Dionysian revel.
One can trace the philosophical link between beauty and
death back to Schopenhauer and on to Hegel, but beyond
this linkage, Mann simultaneously explores the Hellenist
belief, enunciated in Plato’s The Symposium, that love is con-

Death in Venice

nected not so much with death as with the infinite. Near the
end of this fifth-century, all-male drinking party, where each
guest must deliver an encomium in love, Socrates invokes
the name of a woman, Diotima of Mantinea, an Athenian
philosopher, priestess, and oracle who Socrates calls “my
instructress of love.” (Whether Diotima was a real person
remains a subject of scholarly debate, but as all the other
figures attending the party were historical figures, it seems
likely Diotima was as well.)
Socrates and Diotima engage in a long dialogue about dif-
ferent kinds of love and beauty and their relation to the infi-
nite. For her, love—the child of wealth (Poros) and poverty
(Penia)—was not a god but a daimon, one of the in-between
spirits who interpret between men and gods. As we grow,
our conception of both love and beauty grows with us. At
first, the sight of a beautiful body stirs us. Loving this beauty
allows us to see the beauty of all mortal bodies. We learn as
well to move beyond the fleshly beauty of perishable bodies
to an apprehension of the beauty of the soul, of all souls.
Loving the beauty of all souls, we grasp the beauty in the
laws and structures of all things. And finally, we discover the
beauty of the forms, the divine ideas.
Because of their divine nature, we can never fully un-
derstand these forms. Just as we know we can understand
the form of justice only through its practice, we approach
the idea of love without ever fully comprehending it. We
may think we have an idea of what it is, a glimpse of it, but

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then it slips away. Some mortal knowledge we gain from our

perceptions, some from our minds. And some knowledge
is found in between feeling and thinking, like love. As for
beauty, Diotima adds:
This, my dear Socrates, is that life above all others
which man should live, in the contemplation of
beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld,
you would see not to be after the measure of gold,
and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose
presence now entrances you: and you and many a
one would be content to live seeing them only and
conversing with them without meat or drink, if that
were possible—you only want to look at them and to
be with them (Plato).

But for Diotima the only true beauty is divine beauty,

transparent and invaluable—unpolluted by mortality or the
transience and vainglory of ordinary life. Man should search
out this divine beauty and attempt to grasp its true nature.
For in communion with such beauty—not simply looking
at beauty but beholding it with the mind—man “will be en-
abled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for
he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bring-
ing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of
God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an
ignoble life?”
What Diotima suggests in Symposium is the pattern

Death in Venice

Aschenbach follows in Death in Venice: contemplating a mor-

tal image of beauty—Tadzio. Seeing him only, without meat
or drink, seeing him in fact as immanence, leads Aschenbach
to the reality of absolute and divine beauty, which can be
found only in the infinite, where he “become[s] a friend of
God.” If mortal man may.
Diotima goes on to note that such a man, no longer “a
servant in love with the beauty of youth,” can draw near
to and contemplate “the vast sea of beauty” where he may
entertain “noble thoughts and notions of boundless love of
wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and
at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which
is the science of beauty everywhere.”
We can accept Mann’s heady admixture of the German
Romanticization of death and of Hellenistic arguments link-
ing beauty and the infinite, and yet still question Mann’s
deep-seated belief that love, beauty, and homosexual desire
killed Platen. Any way you look at it, the logic of this is tor-
tuous: if Platen had not pursued men, had he stayed in Ger-
many and not consorted with handsome Italian men, would
he then have become immortal?
Death in Venice isn’t the first example of great literature
arising from tendentious reasoning. We can trace Aschen-
bach’s pursuit of beauty to his death on the beach with-
out concluding that love of a beautiful form and, perhaps
more importantly, love of another male, of a boy, leads
­ineluctably to annihilation. Aschenbach dies because he eats

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a ­contaminated strawberry, because he vacations in a plague-

infested city. The argument arises: Had he not stayed in
Venice, pursuing this last impossible love, he would not have
died. Just as one could say, had he not sailed to Venice, he
would not have gone to the beach. Had he not stayed at the
Grand Hôtel des Bains, he would not have seen the beauti-
ful boy. Had he not seen the beautiful boy, he would not
have remained in Venice. Had he not remained in Venice,
he would not have eaten the fatal strawberry, und so weiter.
For all its philosophical underpinnings, I suspect Aschen-
bach’s death by boy-beauty has as much to do with Judeo-
Christian tradition and Mann’s own need for self-justifica-
tion. One critic has called Death in Venice “an homage to
Platen,” but to me it feels more like a repudiation of him:
ridicule, a bad dye job, and death are what you get when
you give your life over to homosexuality and the attendant
worship of beautiful form. It’s almost as if Aschenbach and
Mann together form the Janus face. To the left, Aschenbach
casts a worshipful/lustful eye (a gay man kneeling before the
Crucifix knows worship and lust have always made strange
bedfellows); to the right, Mann casts an ironic and judgmen-
tal one. He can mock Platen’s neoclassical pretensions and
his Romantic self-pity, shake his head over his amorous ob-
sessions and promiscuity, laugh at the “comicality” of the
poet’s hot pursuits, but as a writer creating a character, how-
ever unsympathetic or absurd, there always must be sympa-
thy of understanding as well. Mann must ultimately enter

Death in Venice

into the character of Aschenbach, no matter the degree of

his detachment.
In this author-character complicity, does Aschenbach en-
ter into his author as well, in ways Mann hadn’t anticipated?
Is it an awareness of their interpenetration that prompts
Mann to redouble his disdainful tone? Beneath this dis-
dain, we sense that Aschenbach’s exploits excite and “infect”
Mann too. The image of an abject man kneeling at the feet
of a god-in-life’s promisingly monstrous phallus, the fevered
reports from the pulsing heart of a Dionysian orgy—Mann’s
style takes on an unaccustomed fervor in both cases. It’s im-
possible to know whether it’s Aschenbach’s or his own imag-
ination running away with him, or both. Could Mann have
distinguished between the two?
The depiction, at times almost caricatured, of Aschen-
bach as a Teutonic fussbudget liberated by his journey south
deepens over the course of the novel to a radical ambiva-
lence, not only on Aschenbach’s part but on Mann’s as well.
He satirizes Aschenbach, and through him Platen, torn be-
tween fascination with and abhorrence of his dissolution. Yet
Mann’s own character, his own actions and experiences, his
obsession with a child, have also been poured into Aschen-
bach, and so for Mann’s own self-protection there must be a
further ironic distancing. But even this can’t shield his self-
disgust, which prompts him to turn what must have been a
poignant moment in his life into “a case of pederasty in an
aging artist.”

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The shame and humiliation Aschenbach is made to feel—

he can’t speak of the love that’s ripping him apart, for it’s not
only unseemly, it’s immoral, illegal, and deplorable in the
eyes of society—at times seem like Mann’s merciless punish-
ment of Aschenbach and, by extension, of himself, a double
scourging. Aschenbach’s love must end in death, not simply
because philosophy and the arts ordain it, but because Mann
has quite naturally absorbed the religious and social preju-
dices of his time. He’s an artist, yes, but a bourgeois one who
needs to be respected. He grew up in a society, in a world,
where homosexuality was a sin, a sickness, a contamination,
a contagion, an abomination, a perversion, a calamity—all
very good reasons for the burgher novelist to marry and
avidly procreate, persuasive reasons too for keeping homo-
sexual lust and love inside his head or in the pages of his
diaries and novels.
But imagine the anger of a closeted homosexual male con-
fronted with a historical figure, Platen, and a fictional one,
Aschenbach, who have the courage and the license to sail off
to Italy and follow their loves to the end. Maybe Aschenbach
isn’t so much a character as a battleground where Mann, a
married man of thirty-six brought face to face with his own
true nature in the form of a beautiful pre-pubescent boy,
struggles manfully to distance and lampoon that nature and
then retires safely to the bosom of his wife and family and
to gemütlich overstuffed, dispassionate Germany. At times,
the book seems almost to seethe with rage, but its targets

Death in Venice

are so diverse—Platen? Aschenbach? himself?—that emo-

tion dissipates almost at the moment of its release and Mann
retreats to his safe throne of judgment.
The book ultimately feels like a triumph of authorial con-
trol, carefully constructed, precisely balanced, and perfectly
pitched, a small masterpiece with monumental reach. In its
final pages it nearly attains transparency—the pale sea blend-
ing with the pale light, the boy’s gray eyes—and through
this transparency we glimpse, we think we glimpse, Mann
himself and his last ironic smile, his monstrous self-aware-
ness. In these last few pages, maybe because he knows that
Aschenbach, within the determinist structure of the novel,
must agree to meet his promised end, the author relaxes a
little, slackens the reins, and lets the poor man have, or think
he has, his immanent beauty, whether or not with meat and
drink. Beauty seems to be beckoning, to be summoning him
on “into an immensity of richest expectation,” to the place of
Diotima’s real beauty, not an image of beauty, but the divine
reality. Mann remains, firmly on the strand, next to “a cam-
era on a tripod … at the edge of the water … its black cloth
snapping in the freshening wind,” like Tristan’s fatal sail.
Mann stays behind, and records a story no longer his own.
The valedictory plangent sadness of the final pages, emerg-
ing after so much irony and judgment, may be the author’s.
The Manns didn’t stay long in Venice. Having heard ru-
mors of cholera, they promptly decamped.

Three: Last Impossible Loves


Silence is all we dread.

—Emily Dickinson

At first we think the opening credits are run over black, but
they’re not: they’re over the dark immensity of the sea. Vis-
conti insisted on these thirty-five seconds of darkness that
give strange hints of underlying gold. Then charcoal, with
faint horizontal striations. Emerging above them, a vague
line, a possible horizon. The sense that the image rises and
falls. Midnight blue, iron blue, Prussian blue, indigo, deep
violet. We float in a Whistler nocturne.
The opening credits end, the bottom of the image about
to over-flow with light. A slow pan left to follow a trail of
black smoke—the horizontal striations turn out to be the
wake of a small steam vessel parting the placid sea, which is
mauve now, the sky rose. The figure in the deck chair un-
der the flapping awning is bundled against sea and cold: hat,
muffler, overcoat, gloves, lap robe. Not looking at the sea—a
small volume open in his lap—not reading, either. He turns
to glance at the dawn, turns away, teary eyes behind gold-
framed spectacles. The saddest, loneliest man in creation,
and quite possibly the most self-absorbed. In addition to

Death in Venice

grief and weariness, he exudes a terrible self-consciousness,

exhausted as much by the weight of his melancholy persona
as by his suffering.
I’d like to have been in on the pitch to Warner Bros. when
Visconti went money-hunting for Death in Venice: “It’s about
this aging and not very attractive German who goes to Ven-
ice where he falls in love with a pretty pubescent boy. We’ll
make it virtually a silent film, to emphasize his isolation, and
its pace will be very, very slow, with the same unbearably sad
music played over and over and over. Did I mention that the
old guy dies at the end?”
It’s as close to a silent film as Visconti could make it. The
musical track mimics the way live orchestras or pianists once
continuously accompanied silent films. To call the dialogue
laconic is to understate the case. Gustav Aschenbach speaks
only to complain or querulously ask questions. Guests at
the Lido’s Grande Hôtel des Bains rustle and murmur and
one—an Englishman, of course—gives a brief discourse on
the importance of proper hygiene, while another, near the
end, sings a Russian lullaby on the beach. Most of the sounds
we hear are snatches of foreign languages, the soothing
platitudes of the serving class delivered in Italian-accented
English, seagull cries and waves lapping, children playing
decorously in the sand. The boy himself, in the long tradi-
tion of desired objects in movies (usually female), barely says
a word (and then he’s dubbed in Polish or French), though
he’s given a moment at the piano to pick out “Für Elise.”

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True, there are a few tedious, dialogue-laden scenes back

in Germany between Aschenbach and his protégé Alfred
who, modeled on Mahler’s protégé, Arnold Schönberg, ap-
pears to have blundered in from another, lesser film, his
lines blunt, over-written, and over-acted. (Visconti did not
work with his preferred co-writer, the brilliant Suso Ce-
cchi d’Amico, on Death in Venice.) But for nine-tenths of
the movie, we have movement, music, and occasional drifts
of ambient sound, the world of an aging man who lives
inside his mind, and of a man so certain of his own superi-
ority that he engages with the quotidian world only when
absolutely necessary. He does communicate with the dead
though, in the privacy of his hotel room, which is hermeti-
cally sealed against the sea and its breezes with lacy Ro-
man blinds bearing the Grande Hôtel des Bains monogram
concealing closed French doors, which are then covered by
white wooden shutters and a great white monogrammed
Nightly he kisses the framed photograph of his dead
daughter, an alarming looking child dressed all in white: sur-
ly mouth, reproachful eyes, hands imperiously gripping the
arms of her Empire bergère. Her father’s daughter, demand-
ing he not forget; with a face like that, how could he? Almost
as a dutiful afterthought, he lifts the photograph of his dead
wife to his lips, pauses a few seconds as though debating with
himself, and kisses her too. She’s lovely—soignée, elaborate
coiffure, chin resting on her delicately clasped hands—and

Death in Venice

extremely sad, whether over her departed child or her hus-

band is not clear.
On the beach he instructs the cabana boy on how to prop-
erly dispose of his folding chair and collapsible writing table,
but otherwise interacts with no one. We hardly ever see him
near the water. Most of the time he’s content to stay close to
the enfilade of the hotel’s wooden cabanas with their blue-
striped awnings. Never once do we see him enter the wa-
ter, for he’s dressed for the beach only in the strictest fin de
siècle sense of the word: he wears a black-banded panama hat,
black waistcoat with gold watch chain and dark tie, white
linen suit, and white bucks. Not a man who will ever wear
his trousers rolled. Or go barefoot.
Instead, he thinks, he looks, he imagines. And all the while
he’s exquisitely, tremulously self-aware. When the world
makes incursions into the sacred circle of his being—the
garish old man on the boat with dyed hair, rouged cheeks,
and strawberry lips who offers “best wishes for a most en-
joyable sojourn” and, putting two fingers in his mouth, licks
them and sends “my compliments to your sweetheart, your
pretty little sweetheart”—Aschenbach responds with horror
or disdain, hastening a street urchin out of his way with his
There’s hardly a shot he’s not in. If not the most unlikable
central character in modern cinema, he’s certainly in the
running. Part of the film’s claustrophobia, despite its seaside
setting, comes from inhabiting the world at his side, viewing

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Figure 14. The garish old man on the boat: “My compliments to your
pretty little sweetheart.” DVD still.

it from his vantage point and, often as not, seeing it through

his eyes. Add to this fact that he’s played by Dirk Bogarde,
who in films like Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), The Servant
(Joseph Losey, 1963), and Accident (Joseph Losey, 1967) cul-
tivated a line in fastidious, borderline prissy figures of Eng-
lish rectitude; I’ve always had the sense that no director ever
had to ask Bogarde to play stiff and fussy.
Bogarde always claimed—though he was, like most of us,
the least reliable narrator of his own life in his extensive au-
tobiographical writings—that he didn’t “prepare anything”
for Aschenbach, and Visconti claimed he never asked “the
actors to play, because this will be a terrible fault.” With
Death in Venice, he “tried to make the actors very natural,
very, very human beings.”
Visconti’s chief directorial technique with Bogarde was
to keep him off balance, insecure. “[He] is an improviser,”

Death in Venice

Bogarde noted. “One of the big problems with Visconti is

that the script is not important beyond the fact that it’s an
outline on which he can superimpose his images.” This must
have been dismaying to an actor who prided himself on his
stature as a “literary” writer. “Even though [Visconti] reads
everything from Goethe to Mann to the newspapers, he still
doesn’t care about words, and there’s nothing—I promise
you—nothing you can do about it. One thing you cannot
do, ever, is argue with Visconti.” (When the shoot was over,
Bogarde says he approached the director to ask his reac-
tion to his performance. Visconti grabbed hold of Bogarde’s
head, “kissed [him] on both cheeks” and said, “Your work
transcends anything I ever remotely dreamed of,” surprising
syntax and vocabulary from a man whose English was usu-
ally more fractured than fluent.)
Visconti, after all a great director of operas as well as of
movies, did instruct Bogarde to “give looks” for him. “Give
me the Mahler who wrote the Ninth,” he’d say, and Bog-
arde would “try to give him some sort of look … I told my
manager the other day, ‘I think I did a great look today.’” At
mid-point in the ten-week shoot, the actor said to Visconti,
“This is an opera.” The director replied, “You mean to say
you didn’t know?” (Bertinelli 1997, 11–19).
As with silent film, which Visconti had grown up with,
opera acting can be highly gestural. Attitudes, thoughts,
emotions, impulses can all be suggested by body language
and the stylized use of hands. Accustomed to dealing with

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non-actors, such as opera singers not yet steeped in the dra-

matic tradition Visconti helped to create, or non-profession-
als he interspersed with actors during his neorealist period
and beyond, he could help a singer or novice actor create a
performance detail by minuscule detail.
“He’s more than a perfectionist,” Bogarde observed, “he’s
a miniaturist.” Charlotte Rampling describing how he cre-
ated an actor out of the extremely raw material of Helmut
Berger during the making of The Damned: “Visconti had to
tell him everything to do, from where to put his feet, to his
knees, to his hands, to his mouth, to his expressions, to ev-
erything.” In some of his films, we’re all too aware of Vis-
conti as Svengali in the wings. In Senso, in particular, Farley
Granger’s performance is so choreographed we can almost
see him counting the beats.
With Aschenbach, gesture has been boiled down to es-
sence. His body seems almost an afterthought, an exhaust-
ed, stooped, and slumping thing. As the film progresses, a
near-cadaver he hauls from shot to shot. The hands are held
tight, gripping the handle of his umbrella as if for safety,
supporting his weary head, clasped behind his back while
walking, re-adjusting his tie, wielding a fountain pen. Man
as clenched fist.
In silent film (less so in opera because of the distance
between performer and spectator), the face is the ultimate
canvas for both director and actor, on which the lineaments
of thought and emotion are laid. The Shakespeare tag from

Death in Venice

Macbeth—“to see the mind’s construction in the face”—

was what silent actors were all about: Lillian Gish’s limpid,
terrified eyes in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920); George
O’Brien’s monolithic visage dissolving into tears in Sunrise
(F.W. Murnau, 1927); Louise Brooks’s guilelessly lascivious
grin in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929).
Hitchcock once said that he could direct a passionate love
scene without the actors ever meeting. It’s all done with eye-
lines, the trajectory of the looking eye, and eye-line match-
ing, an editing term for cutting to ensure the logic of a char-
acter’s look or gaze. The first actor looks off-screen right;
in the following shot, we see what he sees: the second ac-
tor, who looks off-screen left. For viewers, the actors’ gazes
lock in the interstice between the two shots. (Director Jean
Vigo did Hitchcock one better in L’atalante [1934], when the
barge captain and his new wife, in different beds, different
locales, make love as the desire in their eyes, their bodies,
overcomes time and space.)
In a movie all about watching, so much eye-play could
become monotonous and mechanical, the way it does in TV
shows or Hollywood movies where you can see the actor
“giving” the director three different looks in quick succes-
sion at the end of a scene. When it comes time to edit, this
leaves the director three different ways to juxtapose the scene
with another. Sometimes the actor does the looks so well the
director keeps all three because they reveal complexity of
character as well as the technical abilities of the performer.

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What’s brilliant about how Bogarde uses his eyes is that

three things occur in almost any shot. The first gives us a
prosperous middle-aged man vacationing alone at a lavish
hotel. He has breakfast in the dining room, he goes to the
beach, he takes the vaporetto to Venice to see the sites, he
reads his newspaper in the murmurous lounge as violinists
play “The Merry Widow,” he sits on the veranda late in
the evening, drink at hand. His eyes are almost impersonal,
objective, as though he is, like the narrator of Christopher
Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, “... a camera, with its shutter
open, quite passive, recording.”
All the while, in each of these scenes, as avidly as Humbert
Humbert ever watched his darling Lo, Aschenbach watches
Tadzio, conducting an imaginary love affair with a fourteen-
year-old boy. As he runs through the daily motions of a lan-
guid day, in hot pursuit of a teenager, he must disguise his
love, must conceal all signs of his rampant passion. It’s here
that we glimpse the furtive eyes, their shiftiness, the dodges
and feints of a man continually asking himself, Is anyone
watching me watching him? Part of this is simply pragmatic:
how would it look if hotel guests noticed him slavering after
Tadzio? But this pragmatism is also rooted, not simply in the
fear of discovery, but in a deep sense of shame. He knows
what he is doing is wrong in society’s eyes; he knows it is
wrong in terms of his own concept of self, but he can’t help
doing it, and he doesn’t want to refrain from doing it, for that
would prove an unbearable loss. Aschenbach is a self-con-

Death in Venice

Figures 15–16. Aschenbach ambushed … by “true beauty simple and

divine.” DVD stills.

trolled man on the verge of flying out of control—not quite

Professor Rath in The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930),
an adaptation of the novel Professor Unrat, by Mann’s older
brother Heinrich, but close enough for profound discomfort.
Near the end of the film, in a flashback that turns into a
nightmare, Alfred shouts at him, “They will judge you! And
they will condemn you!” Alfred refers to his mentor’s “still-
born music,” but the nightmare comes after a protracted

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stalking of Tadzio through the contaminated city.

Actors say it’s impossible to play more than one emotion
at a time, and yet Bogarde appears to manage it in scene
after scene: isolation, desire, sheer terror. And the impos-
sibility of expressing any of the three. Silence.


Sehr langsam [very slowly]

—Mahler’s instructions for playing the Adagietto from
Symphony no. 5

It’s hard to watch Death in Venice without thinking of Proust

and Á la Recherche du temps perdu, which American critic
Roger Shattuck calls “the most oceanic” of twentieth-centu-
ry masterpieces: Death in Venice is also surely in the running
for that distinction, being the “most marine.” Both works
mine the same slowly disintegrating era and roughly the
same social class. Proust, like Mann, was a respectable bour-
geois; Visconti the social equal of Baron de Charlus and the
Guermantes. Both are preoccupied by decay and contami-
nation—caused by time in Proust, by disease, old age, and
homosexual desire in Visconti. Both works are immersed in
music. Proust’s fictional composer Vinteuil wrote “that little
phrase … which was … the national anthem” of Swann and
Odette’s love as surely as the Adagietto is for Aschenbach and
Tadzio. And both, of course, were created by men with, as

Death in Venice

they used to say, “strong homosexual tendencies,” devoted

to untangling the intricacies of forbidden love. Working
with Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Visconti had hoped that his last
film would be an adaptation of Á la Recherche du temps perdu,
with Alain Delon as narrator, Marlon Brando as de Charlus,
and Sylvana Mangano (the mother in Death in Venice) as the
Duchesse de Guermantes.
During certain passages of Death in Venice, what reminds
me most of Proust is how boring the movie can be. It’s the
same feeling I get when I’m halfway through the second vol-
ume of À la Récherche—À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs—and
I reach a point where I think, If this drags on for one more page,
I’m going to throw it against the wall. Watching Aschenbach
toddle along the beach after Tadzio or creeping through the
Venetian labyrinth after Tadzio or sitting gazing wonder-
ingly at Tadzio in the Hôtel des Bains and repeatedly hear-
ing that damned music with its shameless swooning violins
and masochistic yearning, I think, I’m going to throw Mahler
against the wall. What Henry James said of reading Proust—
“inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme
ecstasy which it is possible to imagine”—applies equally to
Death in Venice.
Franco Mannino, who conducted the Adagietto for Death in
Venice, said Visconti “… did not consider Mahler’s music a mere
accompaniment. I directed it without even seeing [the film].
Visconti wanted me to work … free from inhibitions or inter-
ference, and then he adapted the ‘visual regime’ to the music.”

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So sehr langsam became Mahler’s direction to Visconti;

the images must lap like waves on a windless day, though, in
an interesting stylistic choice, Visconti studiously avoids the
lap dissolve, so appropriate for lulling transitions, where two
shots are briefly superimposed as the first fades out and the
next fades in. He doesn’t even dissolve into or out of flash-
backs, but prefers simple cuts, letting light, color, music, and
movement—of the characters, of the camera—create the
flow of images, one to the next.
In his extraordinary essay “Proust,” Samuel Beckett dem-
onstrates how time, habit, memory, and salvation flow out of
one another in À la Recherche. The passing of time reminds
Proust’s characters of death and so they use habit as a bul-
wark against time—ordinary repetitious behavior distracts
them from their inevitable mortality. But in the boredom
that arises from habit, their indolent minds may wander into
the territory of involuntary memory. The divagating mind
or a sensual cue brings up a moment from the past.
And in that moment, as Beckett noted, “… the boredom
of living is replaced by the suffering of being”; memory “un-
does time and habit” and reasserts the individual in all his
painful complexity. Salvation.
Aschenbach is the quintessential man of habit. Having
suffered two great losses—his daughter, then his wife—he
lets the monotony of existence carry him. Like so many trav-
elers, he wants his destination to be as similar to his point of
departure as possible. The interior of the great Belle Époque

Death in Venice

structure of the Hôtel des Bains, with its potted palms, mar-
ble columns, and wainscoting—how different is it from the
bourgeois comforts the great author is accustomed to at
His fellow guests are at the seaside, but their indoor
dress—the ladies with their vast hats and heavy jewels, the
white kid gloves Aschenbach carries with him but does not
wear to dinner—is more suitable to a northern capital; their
beach wear—Tadzio’s mother in her veils, lace, and pearls—
is suffocating. But all of them must find comfort in main-
taining the routines of home in the midst of the insalubrious
decay of Venice. Even the hotel’s location on the island of
the Lido protects them from the worst excesses of the ve-
nereal city.
And so Aschenbach breakfasts, works in the morning—
what Beckett calls “the Penelope work of creation”—ex-
plores the city in the afternoon, reads his newspaper in the
hotel lounge in the evening, has a stately dinner, a Cam-
pari and soda on the veranda after and, closing shutters
and French doors and drawing down the blinds, sleeps in
his ponderous Art Nouveau bed and, clothed for the night
in a white bed-shirt and cocooned in white linens, he falls
asleep, that most potent symbol of death, the immense and
monotonous sea, kept out of his sight and out of his dreams.
The man is numb with boredom bred of habit and so, quite
often, are we as we watch him.
Tadzio jolts him right out of it—he’s the sensual stimulus

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that recalls Aschenbach to “the suffering of being.” Visconti,

sly as Nabokov, prepares for the boy’s arrival with two false
Tadzios. After his arrival at the hotel, the fatuous manager
announces he will show Aschenbach to his room. As the lift
door opens, a flock of rowdy boys storm out, followed by
a regal figure that may be their mother. Aschenbach’s gaze
lingers on the last, a strawberry blond boy in a white terry
beach robe. That evening, settled in the lounge with his
newspaper, the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten (Munich Latest
News), he looks about him. To his right there is another large
family with a teenage son, a sturdy-looking blond in a dark
military-style tunic.
Bored with his newspaper, Aschenbach notices across the
room a young blonde girl with a large bow in her hair; her
dowdy governess, light sparking off her pince-nez; the girl’s
two older sisters, one fair, one dark; and finally, Tadzio him-
self, pensive with chin on fist, blond hair and white sailor
suit set off by a colorful glass screen behind him, his gray
eyes apparently focused on Aschenbach. He makes his first
appearance twenty-six minutes into the picture, like a great
Hollywood beauty of old who knows the importance of
keeping her admirers waiting.
Aschenbach’s eyes widen, slide away. He raises his news-
paper to cover his face. The quartet strikes up “The Merry
Widow Waltz.” The newspaper comes slowly down again.
He looks purposefully distracted, rubs his chin, looks, looks
away, looks again. Tadzio no longer meets his gaze. Dinner

Death in Venice

is announced, the lounge slowly empties, but Aschenbach

stays rooted in place. The others guests provided a kind
of camouflage for him, but now, chin resting on hands, he
stares at Tadzio straight on. As if aware he mustn’t reveal
himself too fully lest he draw the attention of other guests,
he grasps the arms of his club chair and seems about to rise,
but then is confronted with his second vision of the evening:
Tadzio’s mother enters, swathed in tea-rose pink and drip-
ping pearls. Aschenbach’s eyebrows raise, his eyes glisten.
Tadzio kisses her hand, she touches his cheek, briefly cups
his chin. The three girls shake hands with their mother,
the governess bobs. The mother acknowledges her with a
minuscule movement of her head and eyes. Aschenbach is
transported by this brief exchange: it’s all he can do to keep
joy from suffusing his face.
She sits with them all for a moment, commenting in Pol-
ish to the governess that her son looks pale and fatigued. She
arranges that they will all meet at nine the next morning and
go to the beach together, presumably so she can more close-
ly monitor her son’s behavior to make sure he doesn’t over-
tire himself. They rise together and file out. Aschenbach,
enthralled, smiling mouth almost concealed by his hands,
watches the parade. Tadzio brings up the rear, hands clasped
behind his back. At the last moment, he stops, turns and
looks back, directly at Aschenbach, who then looks away, be-
mused. The habit of boredom is broken, and Aschenbach’s
new life begins. He’s been saved.

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This scene lasts only eight minutes, but Visconti stretch-

es out time so that it seems to flow in slow motion. Apart
from the family’s overheard exchanges in Polish, it occurs
entirely in dumb show. Shot follows overloaded shot in this
long, over-furnished room. You couldn’t move fast within
its confines even if you wanted to—you’d trip over a lady’s
voluminous skirt or a potted hydrangea. Visconti was always,
in extravagant movies like Senso and The Leopard, but also in
shoestring neorealist ones like La Terre trema, a master of
the slow pan, that expansive and yet economical movement
where the camera stays in one place but can reveal a wide
swath of its environment. Here it scans 180 degrees, from
Tadzio past the greenery, the furniture, and the furbelows,
and at last back to Aschenbach in his chair, linking the pair
in space and time. They are now aligned spheres, Aschen-
bach the moon, Tadzio his sun, for there’s no brightness in
the man unless the boy shines upon him.
Visconti combines the slow pan with the slow zoom to
subtly undermine our sense of where we are and what we
think we’re looking at. In the 1960s and ’70s, filmmakers
conventionally used the zoom to rev up youth-oriented films,
zooming in on Jimmy Hendrix’s finger work in Woodstock or
zooming in and out in time to a lover’s thrusts in a 1970
film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (with Helmut
Berger as the penetrating Dorian). Visconti’s stately zooms
constantly reorient us in terms of both space and character.
When Aschenbach first enters the lounge, we glimpse

Death in Venice

Figure 17. The hunter intent on his prey. “Even from behind we can’t
miss ... the intensity of Aschenbach’s focus.” DVD still.

him between feathered hats, bald pates, fringed lampshades;

we lose him behind decorative screens, palm fronds, clus-
tered blossoms, as though he’s a hunter hacking his way
through an haute bourgeoisie jungle. Later, Aschenbach gives
in to his desire to look straight at Tadzio, without any self-
consciousness. Through Aschenbach’s eyes, we see Tadzio in
a widescreen close-up against the glittering Murano glass—
it’s like a jewel-encrusted Panavision Renaissance miniature
of an angel. But the camera zooms slowly out until it stops
behind Aschenbach’s head, with Tadzio, his sisters, and the
governess neatly framed by palms splayed out before him.
Even from behind, we can’t miss the intensity of his focus.
In that zoom, the whole tenor of the shot changes from be-
nign adoration to something far creepier—the hunter intent
on his prey. It’s akin to the shot in Hitchcock’s Strangers on
a Train where tennis fans’ heads swivel back and forth as

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they follow the play, while Bruno stares resolutely ahead;

he’s only interested in one of the players, Guy, whom he
loves and stalks.
Suso Cecchi D’Amico noted that in collaborating with
Visconti on screenplays, “ordinary measures of time and
space had to be converted to his scale.” If the past is a for-
eign country where they do things differently—more slow-
ly—Visconti demands that we accommodate ourselves to
this alien bygone place and pace and become one with a lei-
sure class so steeped in the tedium of their pleasures, so im-
mersed in voluptuous immobility, they’re almost moribund.
He also slows us down so that we may enter into the even
more alien and highly deliberate consciousness of Gustav
von Aschenbach (the name alone stops your tongue dead)—
rigid, habit-bound, isolated, smug. There’s no slow time like
solitude time, single man alone in the city of love. In our
own boredom, in our leisured tedium, we become as open to
stimuli and wonder as he.


Decadence to most people, it means depraved, morbid, [but] it is

only a way of looking at art, of evaluating and creating it.
—Luchino Visconti
When I was at university, “decadence” was a code word, a
covert synonym for “homosexual” and an academic or chat-
tering-classes way of being discreetly homophobic. I wrote

Death in Venice

my Master’s thesis on Christopher Isherwood. One of the

examiners, who recommended I not receive a degree, faulted
me for failing to discuss, in my chapter on Goodbye to Berlin,
how “decadent” Sally Bowles, Christopher, and their friends
were. It was obvious to this examiner where the decadence
lay in the novel—with its “very queer indeed” central char-
acter, with tarts and rent-boys, con-artists and gigolos. Silly
me, I thought the decadent parts of the novel dealt with the
moral and cultural decay of a nation that embraced Nazism,
anti-Semitism, and the Final Solution.
On one level, Death in Venice focuses on the rapid decay,
the dissolution, of a man: Gustav von Aschenbach’s subsid-
ence from a figure of artistic and moral probity to a dirty
old man hungering after a boy. This seems to me the most
superficial reading possible of the book, and Visconti’s ap-
proach to the film is both too subtle and too multifarious to
warrant such a reductive appraisal (though it’s certainly how
the movie was reviewed when it came out).
At least since Senso, there’s been a critical tendency to dis-
miss Visconti’s more sumptuous films as exercises in pure
style. I remember coming out of a British Film Institute
screening of The Leopard a few years back and hearing a
particularly fatuous London film critic exclaim, “Visconti’s
style is his content,” which strikes me as inaccurate, and a
­convenient way to avoid thinking about the film. It opens
the door to dismissing Visconti as a director who merely
fetishizes the past with his minute attention to details of

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fashion and the furnishings of an era, or of a social class, as

though he exhibits an almost grotesque nostalgia for a dying
aristocracy. He does fetishize and he is nostalgic, but to see
him in this light only is myopic.
Bogarde has reported how, before each take, Visconti
scrutinized the costume and hair of every actor, right down
to the extras. His preoccupation with such matters extended
back to his collaboration with Jean Renoir on Partie de cam-
pagne, when he was in charge of wigs and costumes. Like
Renoir he knew that, in terms of class distinctions, and class
war, for that matter, minutiae matter—a tone of voice, a tilt
of the head, a monogrammed shirt, the way one holds one’s
knife, too many jewels, or not enough. People who wear
silk underthings walk differently. As do people who haven’t
enough to eat.
Backgrounds are acutely important in Visconti’s films and
rarely act simply as backgrounds. Instead, for this most mu-
sical of directors, they provide counterpoint. At the Grande
Hôtel des Bains, the guests in their finery, and Venice in
hers, at times threaten to overwhelm the story, but their
excess is essential, for they echo and amplify Aschenbach’s
decline. For at least four centuries, Venice has stood as a
symbol of glamorous decay, of grandeur tarnished, sinking
into the Adriatic mud. Even in the eighteenth century, trav-
elers lamented that the city “wasn’t what it was.” In Death
in Venice the coming from the East of a devastating plague
heightens the sense of ruin and putrefaction: vegetable

Death in Venice

Figures 18–19. In these two stills, Aschenbach moves a vase of flowers

to have a more unobstructed view of Tadzio. DVD still.

matter rots in the campos; pale vagrants sprawl listlessly on

humpback bridges; untended bonfires fill the air with black
and acrid smoke; sickly white disinfectant distempers the
walls and cobblestones. A phantasmagorical thanatopolis.
(In times of cholera, bonfires were first built to consume
the dead person’s tainted belongings—bedding, clothing
and the like. Later, municipalities added sulfur to bonfires,

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thinking it would disinfect the air, ignorant that cholera was

water- rather than air-borne.)
The hotel guests will soon be phantoms too. Those ex-
otic Russian women in their jeweled turbans; will the com-
ing revolution make short work of them? The golden teens
cavorting on the beach; how many of them will perish in the
trenches? Industrialization, nationalism, revolution, chang-
ing mores, changing styles; World War I survivors will find
their world utterly transformed, fading, if not erased.
Visconti doesn’t cast quite so cold an eye on them as he
did on the prince’s useless family and friends reveling in the
ballroom in The Leopard. At times he’s almost tenderly nos-
talgic toward his class in Death in Venice. He knew this dying
world intimately—he was formed by it and revolted against
it. He and his family stayed at the Hôtel des Bains a year
after Mann and his family. It becomes increasingly apparent
that Death in Venice, along with telling Aschenbach’s story, is
telling Visconti’s. This is the closest he ever got to autobi-

As a Communist, Visconti grasped the parasitic meaning

of his class, the depredations it had forced for centuries on
those below it in the feudal hierarchy. The lower orders
appear fleetingly in the background in Death in Venice and
sometimes even in the foreground, like the harried and anx-
ious hotel manager, sycophantically greeting guests who
don’t see him, let alone give him a nod; the dozen or more

Death in Venice

servants in silver-buttoned tunics who stand erect around

the periphery of the lounge as Aschenbach first eyes Tadzio,
their sole purpose to represent the lavish redundancies of
leisure; the peasant who collapses at the train station as a
well-bred child looks on before being shooed away by her
Decadence wasn’t only a question of moral or social decline
for Visconti. In his work he was drawn to societies in crisis or
radical transition, as aristocrats jockeyed with the nouveau
riche for survival and position in whatever new order would
transpire. On a much broader level, he was steeped in the
nineteenth-century artist’s decadent convention, which trod
darkly on Romanticism’s sprightly heels—the Romantics
surely being the last poets to celebrate the glories of nature
with a straight face. Looking out over green mountains and
pleasant pastures, William Blake could barely manage that,
in the shadow of those “dark Satanic Mills.” (An optimistic
bishop proposed that these were churches, neatly demon-
strating how one can be wrongheaded and right at the same
The Industrial Revolution led Western Europe on a
heady gallop through the nineteenth century. Respectable
society embraced capitalism, rationalism, social Darwinism,
progress, and positivism, with the artist-as-handmaiden cel-
ebrating the sacred rites of imperial triumphalism. Victorian
critic Frederic Harrison instructed artists on their better
path: “Rational civilization implies that all sorts of social life

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should equally conform to human experience, should work

toward some recognized principles, should visibly conduce
to moral and social progress” (Haley 1985, 215).
This conception of art as a kind of moral uplift panacea,
staunchly supported by sweetness and light, was often re-
ferred to as the classic, or neoclassic, style, suggesting that
nineteenth-century artists were continuing the questionable
wholesomeness of the Greeks and Romans. This egregious
misreading of the past proved too much for many writers
and artists to stomach. Many had no desire to conform
or conduce and instead concocted their own unwhole-
some alternative. As Théophile Gautier wrote of Baude-
laire, “[Decadence] admits of shading, and these shadows
teem and swarm with the larvae of superstitions, the hag-
gard phantoms of insomnia, nocturnal terrors ... monstrous
dreams stayed only by impotence, obscure fantasies at which
daylight would stand amazed, and all that the soul conceals
of the dark, the unformed, and the vaguely horrible, in its
deepest and furthest recesses.”
Let the vaguely horrible revels begin.
In Italy, D’Annunzio (Visconti’s parents’ favorite writer)
headed up this counter-movement and became known as
“the poet of beauty and decadence.” In England, Arthur Sy-
mons called decadence a “beautiful and interesting disease,”
which Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde quickly came down
with. Art needed no further justification than itself for Pater,
and served no higher purpose. Wilde disposed of the idea of

Death in Venice

values-driven art with the flick of an aphorism: “There is no

such thing as a moral book or an immoral book. Books are
well written or badly written. That is all.”
Throughout Europe, artists were turning their own lives
into works of art, going all pale and inward as they explored
the deepest recesses of their psyches and forsook tiresome
mimesis. When Pater declared, “I rather look upon life as a
chamber which we decorate as we would decorate the cham-
ber of a woman or a youth that we love,” polite society gave
a fascinated shudder. It wasn’t only that life was imitating
art, but also that an Oxford don was openly declaring his
right to love a youth instead of a woman. Sexual anarchy was
loosed upon the world.
Why hold up a mirror to nature when you can see your-
self reflected endlessly in the distorting mirror of nightmares
and hallucinations? For an impassioned artist, which is the
more stimulating alternative: a) a field of daffs, or b) an opi-
um trance? Nietzsche, of all people, described Wagner’s later
music as “sick,” infected by the disease of nihilism he saw
spreading across Europe. By the turn of the twentieth centu-
ry, even schoolgirls came down with fin de siècle longings, and
it was all the rage in certain circles for fleur bleu young men
“to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain
the ecstasy,” until it wasn’t clear whether they wanted to be-
come artists, hard and burning debauchers, or some pleasing
combination of the two. Even doughty Ernest Hemingway
rose to the defense of decadence, calling it “a difficult word

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to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse

applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or
which seems to differ from their moral concepts.”
Thomas Mann fought on both sides in the cultural war
over decadence. Decay, especially in Buddenbrooks, Death in
Venice, and The Magic Mountain was his central preoccupa-
tion, portraying a variety of comfortable bourgeois figures
sliding toward the abyss. Mann said that he wrote Death in
Venice “to revoke his sympathy for the abyss,” and a num-
ber of times indicated that he wanted the book to establish
“an equilibrium of sensuality and morality.” In its numerous
dualities—reason and the irrational, heterosexuality and ho-
mosexuality, Christianity and paganism, Apollo and Diony-
sus—perhaps the greatest of all is that of the moral restraint
of its narrator and the abandonment of reason by its central
character (the Germans have a term for the latter: Wunder
wiedergeborenen (Unbefangenheit), an absence of constraint or
self-consciousness derived through art or beauty).
In Hannalore Mundt’s Understanding Thomas Mann, she
maintains that “Death in Venice is both an affirmation of for-
bidden desires and a renunciation of them; it is a rebellion
against a homophobic culture and at the same time a sub-
mission to this culture and its bourgeois Christian morality.”
Mann’s attitudes toward the book differ profoundly whether
he is speaking publicly or privately. When he confessed in
his diaries that Death in Venice contains “his moral self-chas-
tisement,” it reflects his need to, according to Mundt, “re-

Death in Venice

nounce a life that can destroy bourgeois respectability and

the national reputation he so deeply wanted to preserve.”
Mann may have thought he won this battle, concluding,
as Mundt suggests, that “he successfully tilted his book back
toward reason and righteousness, and perhaps many readers
come away from Death in Venice feeling bourgeois morality
has been restored, and sensual abandon punished.” But this
stance takes us back to the beginning of the book and the
stuffiness of Aschenbach as the defender of social verities.
How much sympathy can we have for this clenched fist with
a sphincter to match? The decadent in me will always prefer
the Aschenbach who surrenders all self-control and social
approbation for a beautiful boy on the beach.
Coming to the book almost sixty years after its publica-
tion, the aristocratic Visconti was more worried about re-
vealing his homosexuality devant les domestiques than he was
about preserving his bourgeois reputation. For him, the
bourgeoisie were there for his artistic convenience: they
were so easily shockable. It’s clear who wins the struggle be-
tween propriety and moral abandon in Visconti’s Death in
Venice and that the movie stands as a celebration of that vic-
tory. He was, as much as D’Annunzio, “a poet of beauty and
decadence.” He leaves behind Mann’s colossal self-divisions,
is unburdened by Mann’s score-settling with Platen, or with
the author’s layers and layers of self-protective irony.
Visconti comes to the book and sees it both in its origi-
nal context and afresh—even more, he sees it as merely the

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inspiration for the movie he will make. As he noted when

he was adapting Camus’ L’Étranger to the screen, “it is non-
sense to ask a director … to be faithful to a literary text.
Really, I prefer the authors to be dead in order to avoid
conflicts.” Unlike Mann’s novel, there is no bitter aftertaste
with Death in Venice, and ultimately a surprising generosity
of spirit rarely found in his other films.

The family

Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive

pattern, like bad wallpaper.

The sweetest, saddest scene in Death in Venice—the most

layered one as well—comes about an hour in and begins
with Tadzio running out of the surf to turn a cartwheel on
the beach, then two more, until his older and darker friend
Jaschiu knocks him to the ground where they scuffle. Oth-
ers join in, and soon Tadzio is begrimed. He runs back to
the sea—we think he’ll wash off the sand—but instead he
gathers up a handful of shells and runs past both a beaming
Aschenbach and the boy’s scandalized governess. Kneeling
before her on a red silk pillow he presents his treasures to
his mother. “How dirty you are,” she exclaims as the gov-
erness towels him down with more than professional vigor.
His mother attempts to look disapproving but immediately

Death in Venice

Figure 20. An intimate moment at the beach between Tadzio and his
friend Jaschiu. DVD still.

relents; she’s delighted by her son’s offering, his high spirits.

As she brushes sand from his cheeks, a look of such adora-
tion suffuses her face that we realize she’s as smitten with
him as Aschenbach is. One of her daughters reminds her that
she had presented her mother with shells the previous day.
While she assures her daughter that her shells were lovely
too, her gaze can’t keep from wandering back to Tadzio who,
once the governess has driven another sister away so he can
have her beach chair, lies back half-wrapped in a large white
towel, delighting in the smell of an orange the governess has
presented him.
On the most sensual level, this short scene, like so many
in the film, is vividly tactile. So many textures: the tumbling
sea and gritty sand, brine-washed shells, a crusty seahorse,
the softness of the thick white towel, the governess’s spot-
less white linen dress, dark smears of sand on Tadzio’s pale

Queer Film Classics

Figure 21. The fatal fruit. DVD still.

skin, the weight of the orange in his hands. His mother is a

figure of tenderness, but also a strange mixture of mystery
and tangibility. Her enormous straw hat, covered in trem-
bling fuchsia blossoms, is wrapped in a veil that covers her
face and neck. Her arms too are veiled by the translucent
sleeves of her pale lace-decorated linen dress. As a result,
though she is at the scene’s center, interacting with her fam-
ily, she seems a distant figure, remote, even unreachable and
more than slightly fantastical, with her ropes of pearls, bob-
bing flowers, and the long veil billowing out behind her like
summer’s smoke. Only her son truly reaches her, touches
her, just as his beauty touches the prim governess and the
isolated Aschenbach. We also think how hot she must be in
this attire; the veil covering her face suggests suffocation.
Piero Tosi, Visconti’s customary and highly gifted costume
designer, has said that the director showed him photos of
his mother, donna Carla as a young woman, while he was

Death in Venice

Figure 22. A well-bred child is warned not to stare at a cholera victim.

DVD still.

preparing the costumes Silvana Mangano would wear when

portraying the mother. (Mangano reportedly took the role
for free, so eager was she to work with Visconti.)
As Aschenbach avidly regards the family scene before him,
his delighted reactions suggest that in his mind he’s more
than a witness, more like the concealed woman in Whit-
man’s Song of Myself who watches “Twenty-eight young men
bathe by the shore.” They don’t know she spies on them,
don’t realize she’s secretly among them: “They do not think
whom they souse with spray.” In his fantasy, Aschenbach
wields the fluffy towel to wipe away the grime, but he seems
equally entranced by the boy’s mother; does he want her as
much as he wants the boy? What differentiates these two
loves is the erotic pull he feels toward the son and the calm
sense of recognition he feels for the mother. Is she attractive
to him because her besottedness reflects his own? Or simply

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Figure 23. Aschenbach waves to an unsuspecting Tadzio down on the

beach. DVD still.

because he’d like to be a part of this large and golden fam-

ily? We’re already more than aware of the pull beauty has
on him, and the mother is as gorgeous as the son. We also
grasp, from her exquisite sense of fashion, that she’s some-
thing of an aesthete herself and that her son’s otherworldly
beauty isn’t wasted on her. Aschenbach has lost his wife and
child, and Tadzio’s family lack a father. This may be the most
painful longing Aschenbach feels—to know that he wants
to be part of this family even though he understands that
his passion for Tadzio makes such inclusion impossible. The
forbidden desires that race back and forth here are so lightly
presented we hardly register them, but their crosscurrents
bathe both participants and their witness in the incandes-
cence of impossible love.
Beyond all this, in this scene we intuit Visconti himself,
concealed behind the camera, perhaps loving the boy too,

Death in Venice

worshipping his beauty with the camera. But if the mother

is also his own mother, isn’t Visconti watching himself as a
beautiful child there on the Lido with his sisters and broth-
ers just before the war? When he was a boy, a Milan toyshop
owner offered to “put him in my window—he’ll be the pret-
tiest of my dolls.” Visconti’s veiled indulgent mother reaches
out to stroke his aged cheeks too, to carry him back to the
past with her, where he will be cherished and safe, the ob-
ject at last of her love (donna Carla had always loved his
elder brother best). The director and his characters stand
at the crossroads of the family and the erotic, of the inter-
generational longing that exists at the heart of every family,
and the impossibility of it. In a 1969 interview with the Ital-
ian newspaper L’Europeo, Visconti spoke of the centrality of
the family in his work: “Maybe for old reasons of my own,
maybe because it is within the family that there still exists
those unique taboos, the moral and social prohibitions, the
last impossible loves. In any case the family nucleus seems
to me very important.” Who we are, how we live, arise from
this nucleus; this is the legacy we bear with us, however mis-
erable or joyous our childhood. We all arise from this small-
est social unit, well before society has a chance to shape us.
And the shape the family gives us is often unchangeable, or
changeable only with the greatest effort. For Visconti, “…
the family represents a kind of fate, of destiny, impossible
to elude. The relationships, the contrasts, the intrigues, the

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Figure 24. “Last impossible loves”: Tadzio’s mother reaches out to caress
her son’s cheek. DVD still.

upheavals within the family always interest me passionately”

(Bacon 1998, 173).

The Boy

He does nothing, the boy does nothing.

—Alesha Dixon, “The Boy Does Nothing”

If you go to YouTube and search for “Alla Ricerca di Tadzio di

Luchino Visconti,” you will find an unusual thirty-minute Ital-
ian documentary about Visconti’s search for a young actor
to play Tadzio. Visconti and his considerable retinue—as-
sistants, cameraman, still photographers, secretaries, even a
caricaturist—visit the snow-covered capitals of Europe look-
ing for their boy. They seek him out in Warsaw and Buda-
pest, Stockholm and Helsinki, a likely blond to play Mann’s

Death in Venice

emblem of beauty and desire. What’s shocking is how young

the boys look. Small and thin and pale and blond, a succes-
sion of them parade before the camera, shy and maladroit,
many of them looking no more than ten or eleven. (Recall
that Wladyslav Moes, Mann’s “model” for Tadzio, was ten
when the writer first gazed upon him.)
But in Stockholm, the thirty-seventh boy Visconti sees is
different; taller than the others, but also infinitely more self-
possessed. He looks fourteen or fifteen, and seems amused
by the prospect of turning this way and that, smiling for the
movie camera, for the still photographer, and still later in
a bathing suit for the film cameraman again. He isn’t cho-
sen immediately (Visconti and entourage move on to Hel-
sinki), but none of the candidates has the same maturity or
beauty. In the first tests, even without makeup, he looks very
much as he will in Death in Venice, the same artfully dishev-
eled shoulder-length hair, the same casual attitude before
the camera, the same sense of giving off light as opposed to
merely reflecting it.
He seems the obvious choice, and perhaps his appeal for
Visconti extended beyond his beauty and his calm watchful-
ness. In a film that asks audiences to fall in love with him as
much as Aschenbach does, he makes an easier object choice
because he looks well past pubescence, still an illegal choice
in most Western countries but nevertheless less disturbing
for viewers than a ten- or eleven-year-old might have been.
It’s not merely a question of age: his lack of self-conscious-

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ness, his physical appearance, the way he moves all suggest a

free agent rather than a passive victim.
In the movie as in the book, Tadzio’s very much The Boy
in the way that in so many movies and TV shows The Girl is
The Girl, the object everyone wants. (You could write the dia-
logue yourself: “Where’s The Girl?” “Did you get The Girl?”
“Have you seen The Girl?” “What happened to The Girl?”
“Will The Girl be all right?” “The Girl’s so lovely.” “The Girl
doesn’t know I exist.” “The Girl’s with someone else.” “The
Girl’s cruel.” “The Girl’s mean.” “I hate The Girl.” “Not hav-
ing The Girl fills me with despair.” “If I could have The Girl,
everything would be all right.”)
Beyond physical appearance, nobody ever knows anything
about The Girl or The Boy. Tadzio is Aschenbach’s tabula
rasa as he writes about him, or writes around him (for the
score he’s working on while at the shore, when finished, will
bear no trace of The Boy). Beyond that, what does Aschen-
bach know? That The Boy speaks Polish, can pick out “Für
Elise” on the piano in the hotel lounge, adores his mother,
and dresses with as much taste as she does in black or white
tunics of a severe military or naval cut, enlivened by long
rows of buttons that, as serial buttons do, beg to be undone.
The two never speak, never touch, though they do exchange
looks, or appear to.
Given that we never see Tadzio from another point of
view than Aschenbach’s, it’s hard to be sure what we’re see-
ing. We never see Tadzio alone, unobserved; Aschenbach’s

Death in Venice

Figure 25. In a quiet moment, Tadzio and Aschenbach study each other.
DVD still.

always nearby, hovering. Yes, there are all those looks The
Boy gives the older man, but for the most part these looks
are so neutral that, like Garbo’s face at the end of Queen
Christina (1933), when she stares off camera for forty sec-
onds (director Rouben Mamoulian reportedly instructed her
to “think of nothing”), Aschenbach’s free, we’re free, to read
a world into Tadzio’s face.
Objectively, we can say that he’s aware of Aschenbach,
even curious about him, but this awareness is open to ques-
tion. In the hothouse world of Aschenbach’s mind, sick with
longing and physically ill as well, what is real and what hal-
lucination? At one point, he waves to Tadzio from his win-
dow—this is the closest he ever comes to making contact
with the boy—but the scene ends before we can see Tadzio’s
reaction. In fact, no eye-line is ever established between the

Queer Film Classics

Figure 26. Tadzio with his back to the camera as Aschenbach approaches
along the colonnade leading to the beach cabanas. DVD still.

two during this scene: The Boy remains oblivious to the

man in the window.
Visconti’s constant use of zooms and pans breaks down our
sense of space. How far apart, or how near, are Aschenbach
and Tadzio in any given scene? A wily Visconti uses the tele-
photo lens to further disrupt our sense of what we think we
see. This comes most to the fore one morning when Aschen-
bach, musical manuscript in hand, heads for the cabanas. As
he passes through the fanciful teahouse that marks the en-
trance to the hotel’s swath of beach, he sees Tadzio ahead of
him, chatting with two other boys under the awning of the
colonnade leading from teahouse to cabanas. The awning is
supported by a series of thin gray columns. His friends run
off, but Tadzio remains, leaning against a pillar, hip provoca-
tively thrust out—except that “provocatively” is misleading,
for he’s not yet aware of Aschenbach’s presence.

Death in Venice

Figure 27. Tadzio, wearing a bathing costume that leaves little to the
imagination, regards Aschenbach. DVD still.

As the older man moves toward Tadzio, a telephoto lens

comes into play. Such a long lens basically diminishes per-
spective, suppresses depth, and brings distant objects closer,
as when we wish to view a young lion in the wild without be-
ing mauled. The telephoto lens flattens the long and narrow
colonnade stretching toward the sea into a horizontal series of
vertical pillars more like the widely spaced bars of a prison cell.
The colonnade no longer leads anywhere: though open-ended
and open-sided, it feels like a closed room. As Aschenbach
walks toward the sea, Tadzio grabs onto to one of the pillars
and spins round it, moving on to a second and a third, each
time spinning as he seems to look at Aschenbach. Because of
the telephoto lens, man and boy seem very close, almost face
to face, but it’s equally possible that they’re much farther apart.
Tadzio also appears to give Aschenbach the faintest smile and,
after swinging around the third column, darts away.

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This is the scene most often cited by critics when they

refer to Tadzio’s tartiness, his apparent complicity with the
schemes of an aging pederast. “Not in the book!” they cry
in unison, not like the chaste beauty and symbol of eternity
in Mann’s original, but rather slutty and base and sexual.
Naughty Visconti.
It’s equally possible that these critics, and many viewers as
well, are seeing more than is there. And what they see, what
they project onto Tadzio, tells us more about them than it
does about him. Visconti teases us with optical illusions that
echo Aschenbach’s labile state of mind, luring us into think-
ing the worst of this scene in which proximity suggests an
erotic exchange, while Tadzio’s movements seem as much
lackadaisical as anything else, those of a bored teenager try-
ing to amuse himself at the beach. Of course, he’s hyper-
aware of the older man. How could he not be? The smile
could be sardonic: “There’s that old geezer following me
Aschenbach’s stunned by this encounter, so much so that
he leaves the colonnade and staggers behind the cabanas
where he stands as though his heart has been pierced. This
could be the first manifestation of his physical illness—he’s
already eaten the forbidden strawberries—or is he stricken
by the intensity of his passion for Tadzio and his sense that
it has in some way been reciprocated by a smile? How much
of this is fantasy, how much projection? How much does
he see what he longs to see rather than what is, and how

Death in Venice

much do we? Visconti has dressed Tadzio in a red-and-white

thigh-length bathing costume that leaves little to the imagi-
nation—the cleft of the boy’s buttocks, the shape of his geni-
tals are plainly visible—but is no more revealing than what
his friends wear; it’s not as though he’s dressed to kill.
To emphasize the depth of Aschenbach’s subjugation
and even abjection in the face of The Boy’s beauty, on the
soundtrack a soprano sings a Dionysian dithyramb, “Mit-
ternachtslied” from Mahler’s Symphony no. 3:
O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—
from a deep dream have I awoken:
the world is deep
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—
Joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—
seeks deep, deep eternity.

These lines are adapted from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach

Zarathustra. Mahler’s friend and interpreter Bruno Walter,
one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century,
noted that this musical setting combines “disruption, the
ecstatic and the admonitory … [in] the apotheosis of Dio-

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Figure 28. In a white-on-white fantasy sequence, Aschenbach reaches

out to stroke Tadzio’s hair. DVD still.

nysian penetration.” It’s clear the person penetrated here is

Aschenbach himself. He’s awakened from his northern bore-
dom and his death-concealing habits, and through gazing on
Tadzio’s beauty, pain has erupted: in Beckett’s words, “the
boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being,” re-
asserting the individual “in all his painful complexity.” It is
beauty, not memory, that awakens Aschenbach, and with the
pain comes fatal joy, the joy we want to prolong into eter-
nity. Saddest of all about the scene is the fact that if it’s joy
he feels, he must immediately conceal it, must cower behind
the cabana, wracked by shame and passion all at once.
All this because of The Boy. A heavy burden for Tadzio
to bear. In an interview published in the Guardian in 2003,
more than three decades after the release of Death in Venice,
Björn Andrésen said, “My career is one of the few that start-
ed at the absolute top and then worked its way down.” He

Death in Venice

wasn’t prepared for the idolatry the film would bring him:
the press immortalized him as “the most beautiful boy in the
world.” What seemed like an enviable position—being the
center of attention, the center of an acclaimed internation-
al film—quickly became a nightmare for him. “The worst
thing of all,” he says, “is that no one pays attention to your
ambitions, your dreams or who you really are.” They’re too
busy fantasizing about him, projecting their longings onto
Andrésen says he spent a lifetime trying to lose that beau-
tiful identity: “I’ve been working hard to reach anonymity.”
For a long period he wanted nothing to do with filmmak-
ing. Now he acts on stage and occasionally in Swedish mini-
series. “Kind, elderly women still seem to recognize me,”
he says, but for the most part he’s regained his anonymity.
“Adult love for adolescents is something that I am against in
principle,” he adds. “Emotionally perhaps, and intellectu-
ally, I am disturbed by it—because I have some insight into
what this kind of love is about.”


The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is
—Oscar Wilde

When I was twenty-three, the barber scene in Death in Ven-

ice was an occasion for pitying and even mocking laughter.

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A haggard Aschenbach stares at himself in the mirror as the

Venetian barber seduces him with the usual bromides of-
fered the aging: “You’re much too intelligent a person to be
a slave to conventions about nature and artifice … You know,
sir, we are as old as we feel, and no older … You, signore,
have the right to your natural color.” Aschenbach succumbs.
The middle-aged barber, judging from his marcelled auburn
locks, is no stranger to artifice. With an ebony-handled
brush, he applies dark dye to Aschenbach’s gray hair and
moustaches. He trims the latter until they’re thin lines with
a jaunty upward turn at the ends. Chalky concealer creates
a firmer jawline, coral lipstick gives his mouth a simpering
look. Mascara darkens his eyelashes, powder blanches his
cheeks. Presenting him with a pink rose boutonniere, the
barber announces, “And now the signore may fall in love as
soon as he pleases.”
Scrutinizing his new image in the mirror, Aschenbach
tilts his head infinitesimally this way and that to get the best
angle, the most flattering light. Satisfied at last, he gives his
reflection an approving smile. He doesn’t recognize that he
could pass as the not much younger brother of the made-up
old man who welcomed him to Venice at the film’s start. He
doesn’t know how grotesque he looks.
This scene means something different to me at sixty-
two. A friend has returned from India looking, we all say,
ten years younger, not mentioning the faint vertical scars
where his jawbone meets his ears. My own hair cutter, in

Death in Venice

Figure 29. Coral lipstick and turned-up moustaches: Aschenbach gets a

make-over. DVD still.

early January, snips at my grizzled hair and wonders aloud if

I shouldn’t think about “treatments and highlights to bring
out my true color.” At home in front of my bathroom mir-
ror, illuminated by discreet pot lights, I turn my head this
way and that, thinking I catch a glimpse of a younger me.
The daylight mirror in the living room, beneath a skylight,
tells a different story. In his film Orphée (1950), Cocteau said
a mirror is where we see “the bees of death at work.” Some
mornings (let’s face it, more and more mornings), it looks
like the bees should put in for overtime. Age is as inevitable
as tragedy but way too common to have tragic resonance—
it’s just what happens. Almost forty years ago, I saw Aschen-
bach reflected in the barber’s mirror and thought, I’ll never
let that happen to me. A dual thought: I’ll never let myself grow
old (I intended to die at thirty, after enormous success); and,
I’ll never try to disguise my age. The lights in my house are all
on rheostats now, and the moisturizer I slap on my face has

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just the faintest tint to give me, as the transgendered makeup

consultant at the pharmacy assured me, “a bit of color in the
gray depths of winter.”
And yet I feel so young. Younger by the minute. Is this
how Aschenbach feels, now he’s found Tadzio? We remem-
ber how his face glowed when he discovered at the train
station that his bags had been sent to the wrong place and
realized he now had an excuse to stay on in Venice. On the
launch back to the Lido, he couldn’t stop grinning—the
gray-faced peasant who moments earlier fell gasping to the
station floor before Aschenbach’s horrified gaze already for-
The barber scene comes at an odd point in the movie. Just
prior to it, Aschenbach visited Cook’s, the travel agency in
Piazza San Marco, where he was told the truth about how
widely cholera had spread throughout the city—“It’s quite
impossible to count the number of the dead,” an officious
manager informs him—and warned to leave the city at once
“before the blockade begins.”
We next see Aschenbach, all in white linen, approach
Tadzio and his family, also all in white, as they’re having tea
on the hotel’s broad veranda. In his courtliest manner, he
implores Tadzio’s mother to take Tadzio and his sisters and
leave Venice immediately. The mother looks at first alarmed,
and then confused—is Aschenbach’s diction too flowery for
her to comprehend?—but then she thanks him in Polish and
calls Tadzio to her side as though marshalling her children

Death in Venice

for departure. Aschenbach reaches out and touches Tadzio’s

hair as his mother, tightly holding the boy’s hand, glances
This turns out to be a fantasy. He never approaches
Tadzio or his mother, never seeks to inform them about the
immediate danger facing them. His motivation can only
be selfishness: he’s chosen not to leave Venice so long as
Tadzio remains there, and if Tadzio does go, he’ll be lost
to Aschenbach forever. From overheard conversations, he
knows Tadzio’s not in robust health, making him even more
susceptible to the disease. Yet he won’t intervene to save this
boy he loves so much.
In terms of the film’s iconography, other possible inter-
pretations of this scene suggest themselves. Almost from the
beginning of the film, Tadzio has been associated with the
sea, with eternity. He stands at its edge, wades out into it,
contemplates it daily, as if eternity is his element as much as
water. The whole family, there on the veranda, all dressed
in pale shades of linen and bathed in white light, look more
ethereal than ever, the mother veiled in white mousseline de
soie against the white plaster of the hotel’s great columns, the
white tracery of their rattan chairs. With all this whiteness
and otherworldliness, all this purity, they could be angels at
A near twin of this scene, but also a radical reversal of
its gestalt, comes earlier in the film. On a sultry night, the
sirocco wafting the linen window shades, Aschenbach paces

Queer Film Classics

the ­hotel veranda, stares out into darkness. Emerging from

absolute blackness march the Polish family, all dressed in
somber colors. They’ve come from the vaporetto landing,
having just attended mass at the Basilica di San Marco.
Never have they looked more solemn, or more spectral, as
if they’ve emerged from the night to claim Aschenbach, also
dressed in black, as one of their own. Instead they walk past
him, Tadzio giving him a brief smile.
Aschenbach walks on alone, wrapping his arms around
him so that from behind we see only his fingers gripping
his sides, like a music hall turn where the comedian pre-
tends he’s making love to another. Seated on a garden bench,
he apostrophizes the absent Tadzio, “You must never smile
like that. You must never smile like that at anyone.” The
meaning is seriously ambiguous. Tadzio should never smile
like that because it’s too much for Aschenbach, or any other
mortal, to bear? Or he should never smile like that at anyone
else, now he’s smiled like that at Aschenbach? The first ut-
terance strikes us more as a plea; he implores the boy not to
break his heart by smiling. The second’s a jealous warning.
Eyes glistening he adds, “I love you,” which can be either a
signifier of passion or a threat. Is Aschenbach the danger, or
is he himself in danger? I suppose it could be both.
Aschenbach’s final stalking of Tadzio comes immediately
after the barber scene. As the governess leads The Boy and
his three sisters through narrow lanes, over bridges, and
across littered campos thick with sulfurous smoke, Aschen-

Death in Venice

bach skulks along after them, hardly inconspicuous in his

white suit and white hat with scarlet-and-navy silk band.
Tadzio keeps looking back at this almost clown-like figure
vainly seeking to hide himself in shadows or behind col-
umns. Even the governess becomes aware of his presence.
Does Tadzio wish to speak with Aschenbach, to ask why he’s
following them yet again or to warn him off? These alterna-
tives strike me as being at least as plausible as the idea that
he wishes to flirt with this garish figure.
Aschenbach is so lost in a labyrinth of his own fabrica-
tion that what does or does not happen around him is of
little matter. His powdered face filmed with sweat, his body
sagging, eyes tearing, one hand clutching his side, he slinks
deeper and deeper into the shadows as night falls. As the
governess and her charges leave Aschenbach behind, Tadzio
lingers a moment and smiles at him, half-crouching in dark-
ness, the brim of his pale straw hat losing its shape in the
stifling heat, his pink rose boutonnière wilting. Gasping for
breath, he sags to the filth-strewn pavement next to an an-
cient stone wellhead. He raises his cupped hands as if he
were Christ asking, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” then
laughs, grimaces, and weeps at once. This is his passion, his
In the flashback that follows, Alfred shouts at him back in
German, “They will condemn and judge you … In all the
world there is no impurity so impure as old age!” He speaks
of Aschenbach’s music and his disappointed audience, but

Queer Film Classics

the flashback turns out to be a nightmare Aschenbach suffers

after his collapse in the streets, a nightmare from which he,
realizing the staggering dimensions of his imaginary prison,
awakens screaming.

What says the deep midnight?

In Wordsworth’s “Ode. Intimations of Immortality,” the
poet suggests that though we all arise from the same “im-
mortal sea,” as we age, we move further inland until, as we
reach dim maturity, we can seldom make out the sea’s light
or hear its roar. The closest we can come is by looking at
children, because they’re still on that shore, still bathed in
immortal light:
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Visconti’s final scenes for Death in Venice are almost mi-

nutely true to the ending of Mann’s novella. Yet how differ-
ent they are.
After his night in hell, Aschenbach comes down to the ho-
tel lobby to see a mountain of monogrammed luggage. “The
Poles, Mrs Moore’s and her family,” the front desk informs

Death in Venice

Figure 30. Jaschiu prepares to pounce. DVD still.

him, are leaving after lunch. He hastens to the beach. Apart

from the Russian woman singing Mussorgsky’s “Lullaby”
to her compatriots, the beach is nearly deserted. We watch
from above and at a great remove as the cabana boy leads
a visibly ill Aschenbach to a canvas deck chair. From here
he watches as Tadzio and Jaschiu (there always has been an
erotic undertow to their friendship) toss sand at each other
and then tussle on the beach. The older boy throws Tadzio
to the ground, sits astride his back, and presses his face into
the wet sand. Terribly distressed by this skirmish, Aschen-
bach, a trickle of hair dye running down his powdered cheek,
weakly cries out, “Tadzio, Tadzio,” and, trying to rise from
his chair, finds he cannot.
Tadzio shakes off his attacker. Angry and hurt, he walks
toward the flashing sea. Aschenbach, gasping in his chair,
watches as the distant boy wades in the shallow water. The
boy pauses and, looking back over his shoulder in Aschen-

Queer Film Classics

Figure 31. Astride Tadzio, Jaschiu pushes his face into the sand. DVD

bach’s direction, raises his hand and points out to sea. Grip-
ping the arms of his chair, Aschenbach attempts to rise again
but can’t. Smiling, he reaches out his hand as if he would
touch the distant gesturing silhouette. Tadzio wades into
deeper water, Aschenbach slumps in his chair. All that’s left
to do is to collect the stricken corpse—the greasepaint-like
makeup on his face curdled with sweat—and remove it from
the beach as the few remaining guests look on alarmed.
With Mann, this scene wraps up the book’s manifold
ironies, score-settlings, and regrets into one: this august
personage of great artistic and moral control has sacrificed
all his principles for the love of a boy who barely knows he
exists. And has done it so covertly; no one knows of his pas-
sion or his dissipation. This appears to be the only ending
Mann could have imagined for himself, had he chosen to
stay in Venice and pursue Wladyslav Moes. It is the death

Death in Venice

Figure 32. Tadzio, pointing out to sea, shows Aschenbach the way to
divine beauty. DVD still.

that, for him, ultimately accompanies homosexual desire,

the source of all his inspiration and all his fears. Imagine a
whole life lived in the crux of that. It’s also Platen’s death
played out one last time—the northern German who diced
all for love gets his just desserts dying of cholera in a Sicil-
ian town. Aschenbach is a pathetic and ridiculous man sac-
rificing inhibitions for a decadent desire. The Boy is beauty
and perfection, but also the angel of death, “the pale and
lovely Summoner.” Aschenbach rises once more to follow
him, as he has followed him so many times before. Mann
can’t resist a final ironic thrust, as though it’s hard for
him to leave behind this figure who might have been he,
that this “elderly man,” so circumspect and shamed by his
longing, succeeded in perishing with his reputation intact:
“And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world re-
ceived the news of his decease.” It’s as if Mann foresees his

Queer Film Classics

Figure 33. Aschenbach reaches out his hand as if he would touch

Tadzio’s distant gesturing figure. DVD still.

own respectable demise, the world unaware of his love for

a child.
In Visconti’s version, all bitterness, regret, and fear are
gone, and with Tadzio’s gesture, the puzzle is complete. We
find ourselves reviewing his behavior in a new and infinite
light. What if he really has been leading Aschenbach on, but
toward a more metaphysical and mystic end? Perhaps he’s a
manifestation of what Socrates’ teacher Diotima calls “the
true beauty simple and divine.” Has Aschenbach’s pursuit
of perfect terrestrial beauty taken him to an unanticipated
end, where “he will be enabled to bring forth not images of
beauty but realities” that will lead him to “become a friend
of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.”
Love the caveat.
In this new world we’ve envisioned, with its strange mix-
ture of Christian symbolism, one-sided liebestod, and Hel-

Death in Venice

Figure 34. Aschenbach, his rejuvenating makeup curdled by heat and

sweat, slumped dead in his chair. DVD still.

lenism, Tadzio becomes Aschenbach’s salvation. He was a

mean, dispirited, and narrow man, full of himself and his ar-
rogant self-righteousness, an under-tipping sanctimonious
bore. Tadzio’s arrival sets spinning Aschenbach’s suffering
and transfiguration. He emerges at the end of the book a
far better man—open, vulnerable, and unutterably sweet
as he reaches out in his dying moments to help, to defend
Tadzio against his attacker, to comfort, to touch, to at last
greet The Boy. All this from a man who seemingly has never
reached out before. At last he’s freed from the prison of his
own devising. We also think, “But he dies,” as though that’s
the worst that can happen to a man. He dies an honorable
man, and he dies in joy. Shame has been shed; he knows the
ecstasy of immortal beauty—in Henry James’s words, “the
most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine”—the
beauty of the divine. From that shore he has contemplated

Queer Film Classics

Diotima’s “vast sea of beauty” and has grasped “the vision of

a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere.”
There are worse ways to go than to die of beauty.


Adair, Gilbert. 2003. The real Tadzio: Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” and
the boy who inspired it. New York: Carroll & Graf.
Aldrich, Robert. 1993. The seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, art and
homosexual fantasy. London: Routledge.
Angell, Joseph Warner, (ed.). 2009. The Thomas Mann reader. New York:
Beckett, Lucy. 1973. Aschenbach, Mann and Music. The Musical Times
114: 579–82.
Beckett, Samuel. 1989. Proust and three dialogues with Georges Duthuit.
London: Calder.
Bertinelli, Georgio, 1997. A battle “d’Arrière-Garde”: Notes on decadence in
Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. Film Quarterly 50 (4): 12.
Bondanella, Peter. 2009. A history of Italian cinema. New York: Continuum.
Bouvier, Michel, ed. 1989. Luchino Visconti. Stylo et les auteurs, vol. 7,
Paris: Caméra.
Bravermann, Albert and Larry David Nachman. 1970. The dialectic of
decadence: An analysis of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Germanic
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Brinkley, Edward S. 1999. Fear of Form: Thomas Mann’s Der tod in
Venedig. Monatshefte 91 (1): 2–27.
Carson, Anne. 1986. Eros the bittersweet: An essay. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.
Chamberlin, Rick. 2005. Coming out of his father’s closet: Klaus Mann’s
Der fromme Tanz as an Anti-tod in Venedig. Monatshefte 97(4): 615–27.

Queer Film Classics

Dalle Vacche, Angela. 1992. The body in the mirror: Shapes in history in
Italian cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Del Buono, Oreste. 1970. Alla ricerca di Tadzio. Television documentary.
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Doniol-Valcroze, Jacques and Jean Domarchi. 1959. Entretien avec
Luchino Visconti. Les Cahiers du Cinéma 93: 1–10.
García Düttmann, Alexandria. 2009. Visconti: Insight into flesh and blood.
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Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta. 1997. Fascist spectacles: The aesthetics of power
in Mussolini’s Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fogu, Claudio. 2003. The historic imaginary: Politics of history in fascist Italy.
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Guillaume, Yves. 1966. Visconti. Paris: Editions universitaires.
Hadleigh, Boze. 1988. Conversations with my elders. New York: St. Martin’s
Haley, Bruce. 1985. “Wilde’s ‘Decadence’ and the positivist position,”
Victorian Studies 28 (2): 215–229.
Heilbut, Anthony. 1997. Thomas Mann: Eros and literature. Amherst, NY:
Humanity Press/prometheus Bk.
Hutchison, Alexander. 1974. Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. Literature/
Film Quarterly 2 (1): 31–43.
Ishaghpour, Youssef. 1984. Visconti: Le Sens et l’image. Paris: Editions de la
Jones, James W. 1990. We of the third sex: Literary representations of
homosexuality in Wilhelmine Germany. New York: Peter Lang.

Death in Venice

Kanfer, Stefan. 1971. Soul destroyed. Time July 5: 41–42.

Kleine, Don. 1984. Mann alive. The Hudson Review 37 (2): 317–20.
Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve and Adam Frank, eds. 1995. Shame and its sisters:
A Silvan Tomkins reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books.
Lampert, Laurence. 1989. Nietzsche’s teaching: An interpretation of “Thus
Spoke Zarathustra.” New Haven: Yale University Press.
Landy, Marcia. 1986. Fascism in film: The Italian commercial cinema 1931-
1943. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Leppmann, Wolfgang. 1975. Time and place in Death in Venice. The
German Quarterly 48 (1): 66–75.
Longobardi, Ruth Sara. 2005. Reading between the lines: An approach
to the musical and sexual ambiguities of Death in Venice. The Journal of
Musicology 22 (3): 327–64.
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———. 2002. Arena: The Life and Times of Luchino Visconti. Television
documentary. London: BBC Arena.
Lucàcs, Georg. 1965. Essays on Thomas Mann. London: Merlin Press.
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Boston: G. K. Hall.
Mann, Erika. 1958. The last year of Thomas Mann. A revealing memoir by his
daughter. New York: Farrar Straus and Cudahy.
Mann, Katia. 1974. Katia Mann: My unwritten memoirs. Edited by
Elisabeth Plessen and Michael Mann, translated by Hunter and
Hildegarde Hannum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Mann, Thomas. 1947. Essays of three decades. New York: Random House.
———. 1954. “Death in Venice” and seven other stories. New York: Vintage.

Queer Film Classics

———. 2002. Diaries 1918–1939. London: A. Deutsch.

March, George. 1929. Thomas Mann and the novel of decadence. The
Sewanee Review 37 (4): 490–503.
Martin, Robert K. 1986. Walt Whitman and Thomas Mann. Walt
Whitman Quarterly Review 4: 1–6.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1961. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A book for all
and none. London: Penguin Classics.
———. 1974. The gay science: With a prelude in German rhymes and an
appendix of songs. New York: Random House.
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Plato. Symposium. n.d. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet
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Praz, Mario. 1971. Conversation pieces. London: Methuen & Co.
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Robertson, Ritchie, ed. 2002. The Cambridge companion to Thomas Mann.
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Servadio, Gaia. 1983. Luchino Visconti: A Biography. London: Franklin

Singer, Irving. 1976. Death in Venice: Visconti and Mann. Modern Language
Notes 91 (6): 1348–59.
Stirling, Monica. 1979. A screen of time: A study of Luchino Visconti. New
York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Tonetti, Claretta. 1983. Luchino Visconti. New York: Twayne.
Vaget, Hans Rudolf. 1980. The case of Death in Venice: Luchino Visconti
and Thomas Mann. The German Quarterly 53 (2): 159–75.
Visconti, Luchino and Suso Cecchi d’Amico. 1984. À la recherché du temps
perdu: Scenario après l’ouevre de Marcel Proust. Paris: Editions Persona.
Wood, Michael. 2003. Death becomes Visconti. Sight & Sound (May):
(n.p.). http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/27
Wagstaff, Chris. 2008. Italian Neorealist cinema: An aesthetic approach.
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Waugh, Thomas. 1993. The third body: Patterns in the construction of
the subject in gay male narrative film. In Queer Looks: Perspectives on
lesbian and gay film and video, edited by John Greyson, et al., 141–61.
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Yourcenar, Marguerite. 1985. The dark brain of Piranesi. New York: Farrar
Straus & Giroux.


Accident, Joseph Losey, United Kingdom, 1967, 105 min.

Appunti su un fatto di cronaca/Notes sur un fait divers, documentary short,
Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1953, 5 min..
Bellissima (Most Beautiful), Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1951, 115 min.
Boccaccio 70, segment “Il Lavoro,” Luchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1962,
205 min.
Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning), Jean Renoir, France,
1932, 85 min.
Dorian Gray, Massimo Dallamano, United Kingdom/Italy/West Germany,
1970, 88 min.
Giorni di Gloria (Days of Glory), documentary, Caruso Trial Scenes,
Luchino Visconti, Italy/Switzerland, 1945, 71 min.
Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Luchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1963, 187 min.
The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1972, 175 min.
Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo, USA, 1971, 111 min.
La caduta degli dei (Götterdämmmerung) / The Damned, Luchino Visconti,
Italy/West Germany, 1969, 156 min.
La Chienne (The Bitch), Jean Renoir, France, 1931, 91 min.
Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), Vittorio De Sica, Italy, 1948, 93 min.
La Grande illusion, Jean Renoir, France, 1937, 114 min.
L’Atalante, Jean Vigo, France, 1934, 1989.
La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare (The Earth Trembles: The Sea Episode),
Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1948). 160 min.
La Vie est à nous (Life Is Ours), Jean Renoir, France, 1936, 66 min.

Queer Film Classics

L’Avventura (The adventure), Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/France, 1960,

143 min.
La Marseillaise, Jean Renoir, France, 1938, 135 min.
Le crime de Monsieur Lange, Jean Renoir, France, 1936, 80 min.
Le Notti Bianche (White Nights), Luchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1957, 97
Le Souffle au coeur (Murmur of the Heart), Louis Malle, Italy/France/West
Germany, 1971, 118 min.
Le Streghe (The witches), segment “La strega bruciata viva,” Luchino
Visconti, Italy/France, 1967, 121 min.
L’innocente (The Innocent), Luchino Visconti, Italy/France,1976, 125 min.
Loot, Silvio Narizzano, UK, 1972, 101 min.
Lo straniero (The Stranger), Luchino Visconti, 1967, Italy/France/Algeria,
104 min.
Ludwig, Luchino Visconti, Italy/France/West Germany, 1972, 235 min.
Madame de …/The Earrings of Madame de … , Max Ophüls, Italy/France,
1953, 105 min.
Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice), Luchino Visconti, Italy/France,1971, 130
Ossessione (Obsession), Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1943, 140 min.
Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country), Jean Renoir, France, 1936, 40
Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese, USA, 1980, 129 min.
Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers), Luchino Visconti, Italy/France,
1960, 168 min.
Sciuscià (Shoeshine), Vittorio De Sica, Italy, 1946, 93 min.
Senso (Sense), Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1954, 118 min.

Death in Venice

The Servant, Joseph Losey, United Kingdom, 1963, 112 min.

Siamo donne (We, the women), segment “Anna Magnani,” Luchino
Visconti, Italy, 1953, 95 min.
Umberto D., Vittorio De Sica, Italy, 1952, 89 min.
Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa (Sandra), Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1965, 105 min.
Victim, Basil Dearden, United Kingdom, 1961, 90 min.
Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg, United Kingdom, 1971, 100 min.


À la recherche du temps perdu (In aging of, 156–58

Search of Lost Time), 122–24. and Tadzio’s family, 140–44,
See also Proust, Marcel 159–60
actor’s facial expressions, death of, 107–08, 110–11,
118–120 164–68
Adair, Gilbert, 93 in opening scenes, 112–13
Andrésen, Björn, 91, 154–55. modeled on August von
See also Tadzio Platen, 101–04
anti-Fascists, 41, 47–51, 53, 56. modeled on Thomas Mann,
See also Fascism; Communist 94–101, 108–11
Party parallels with Visconti, 134
Antonioni, Michelangelo, perspective of, 114–16,
41–42 124–27, 128–30, 148–49
artist, role of, 136–38
Aschenbach, Gustav von, barber scene in Death in Venice,
17–18, 21, 121, 133, 142, 155–58
144, 149–51, 166–67. See beauty and death, 104–05,
also Bogarde, Dirk 107–08, 111, 165, 168

Queer Film Classics

Beckett, Samuel, 124 Visconti, Luchino and

Bellissima (Most Beautiful, Communism
1951), 58–59 Communist Party (France),
Berger, Helmut, 78–81, 80, 83, 33–34
83–85 critical reaction to Death in
Bogarde, Dirk, 81–82, 82, 97, Venice (film), 18–19
116–18, 120, 122, 132. See
also Aschenbach, Gustav von D’Amico, Suso Cecchi, 123,
boredom, 123–27 130
D’Annunzio, Gabriele, 84, 136
Cain, James M., The Postman Dali, Gala, 78–79
Always Rings Twice, 43 Dali, Salvador, 61
Calamai, Clara, 44, 68 de Santis, Giuseppe, 50
Callas, Maria, 60–61 death and beauty, 104–05,
Cannes Film Festival 1971, 18 107–08, 111, 165, 168
Cardinale, Claudia, 74–75, 85 death and love, 103–04
Chabas, Paul, September Morn, decadence, 130–31, 135–37
17 Delon, Alain, 69, 70, 76, 85
Chanel, Coco, 32–33 Diotima of Mantinea, 105–07,
cholera, 89, 132–33, 143 166
class distinctions, 132, 134–35
Communism Facism, 28, 34, 39–41, 43, 45,
in Italy, 40, 48, 50, 56–57. 47, 50–52. See also anti-
See also anti-Fascists; Fascists, Mussolini.

Death in Venice

Front populaire, 33. See also Il gattopardo (The Leopard,

Communist Party (France) 1963), 71–72, 128
Innocente (1976), 84–85
Gautier, Theophile, 136 Italian film industry, 52
Girotti, Massimo, 42, 44, 59
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, L’Etranger (The Stranger, 1967),
30, 64, 73, 93–94 75–76
Gramsci, Antonio, 53, 55 La caduta degli dei (The Damned,
Grand Hôtel des Bains, 63–64, 1969), 80–81
113–14 La Scala. See Teatro alla Scala
Granger, Farley, 62 La terra trema: Episodio del mare
Grazzano, 26 (The Earth Trembles: The Sea
Gruppo di famiglia in un interno Episode, 1948), 53–55, 54
(Conversation Piece, 1974), 64, La vie est a nous (Life Is Ours,
83–84 1936), 33–34
Lancaster, Burt, 71, 72, 83, 85
Hadleigh, Boze Le notti bianche (White Nights,
interview with Visconti, 67 1957), 67–68
Harrison, Frederic, 135–36 love and beauty, 105–07
Horst, Horst P., 25, 57–58 love and death, 103–04, 164–65
relationship with Visconti, Ludwig (1972), 82–83
35–39, 65–66, 79
Magnani, Anna, 50–51, 58–59

Queer Film Classics

Mahler, Gustav Moes, Wladyslaw, 90, 92–93,

as model for Aschenbach, 98, 147
94, 114 music in Death in Venice, 21,
Symphony no. 3, 153–54 113. See also Mahler, Gustav
Symphony no. 5, 17, 123–24. Mussolini, Benito, 28, 39–40,
See also music in Death in 45–47, 52. See also Fascism.
Mangano, Silvana, 123, 143. neorealist film, 43, 46, 61,
See also Tadzio’s mother 70–71
Mann, Katia Pringsheim, 88, Nietzsche, Friedrich, 137
92–94 Also Sprach Zarathustra, 137
Mann, Thomas influence on Thomas Mann,
as model for Aschenbach, 104, 140, 153–54
Gustav von, 94–101 Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, 68
Death in Venice (novella),
17, 19, 95–104, 107–11, opera, 23-24, 28, 30, 40, 46
138–39, 164–65 directed by Visconti, 55, 59,
homosexuality of, 87–100, 60–61, 63, 73, 117–18
164–65 Ossessione (Obsession, 1942),
influence on Visconti, 30, 42–46
63–64, 139–140
Marais, Jean, 68 Partie de campagne (A Day in the
Mastroianni, Marcello, 68, 76 Country, 1936), 33–34
Meneghini, Battista, 60 Pasolini, Paolo, 66–67
Pater, Walter, 136–37

Death in Venice

pederasty, 19–21, 96–98 146, 158–59. See also

Plato, The Symposium, 104–07 Mangano, Silvana
Proust, Marcel, 38. See also À la Teatro alla Scala, 23–24, 26
recherche ... theater
directed by Visconti, 55–56,
Rampling, Charlotte, 81 61
Renoir, Jean, 32–34, 39–40 Togliatti, Palmiro, 57
Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and Toscanini, Arturo, 24
His Brothers, 1960), 68–71 Tosi, Piero, 142–43
Trombadori, Antonello, 56–57
Sandra (1965), 74–75
satire, 72–73 Valli, Alida, 62
Schell, Maria, 68 Venice, city of, 63–64, 82, 92,
Schifano, Laurence, 36, 66 94, 108, 111, 125, 132–33,
Scoccimaro, Mauro, 48 158–59, 164
Senso (1954), 61, 62, 128 Verga, Giuseppi, I Malavoglia,
Servadio, Gaia, 37, 45, 78 54
Socrates, 105–07 Visconti, don Giuseppe, 23–29,
41, 84
Tadzio, 17–18, 91, 97, 121, Visconti, donna Carla, 23–29,
125–27, 129, 146–55, 39, 64, 84, 142, 144–45
149–51, 154, 160–61, 163, Visconti, Duke Guido, 24
163–67. See also Andrésen, Visconti, Luchino
Björn, Wladyslav Moes and Communism, 52–53,
Tadzio’s mother, 127, 142–44, 56–58, 61, 66–67, 73–74,

Queer Film Classics

85, 134 Latin temperament, 36

and Fascism, 28, 34, 40, 43, old age, 73–74, 82–85
45, 47–51 parallels with Aschenbach,
and Nazism, 29 134
as director, 59–60, 116–18 racing (automobiles and
childhood, 24–25 horses), 31
cigarette smoking, 74 relationship with Horst P.
family, 23–29, 144–46 Horst, 35–39, 65–66, 79
and homosexuality, 27–28 Visconti, Uberta, 29
filmic techniques, 128–30, von Platen, August, 89
150–51 as model for Aschenbach,
funeral, 85 101–04, 107, 165
Germanic temperament, 30
homosexuality of, 28, 30–31, Warner Bros., 18, 113
36–37, 42–43, 56, 64–67, Windisch-Graetz, Princess
76–79, 82 Irma, 37
in Paris, 32–33 Wordsworth, William, “Ode.
influence of Thomas Mann, Intimations of Immortality,”
30, 38 162
interpretation of Thomas
Mann’s Death in Venice, Zavattini, Cesare, 51
17, 19 Zeffirelli, Franco, 65, 85
interview with Hadleigh,
Boze, 67

Will Aitken is a novelist, journalist, screenwriter,
multimedia director, and teacher based in Montreal. His
novels include Realia, A Visit Home, and Terre Haute. He has
written for The Paris Review and a variety of other publica-
tions and worked as a writer-broadcaster for the CBC, the
BBC, and NPR.

About the editors

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based critic, author,

programmer, and university instructor. He has been a film
critic and reporter for the weekly Montreal Mirror since
1993. His first book, The View from Here: Conversations with
Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press), won a
2008 Lambda Literary Award. His articles have appeared in
a broad range of publications, including The Guardian, The
Daily Beast, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, CBC
Arts Online, The Walrus, The Advocate, The Toronto Star,
The International Herald Tribune, Cineaste, Cineaction, The
Hollywood Reporter, Canadian Screenwriter, Xtra, and fab. He
teaches courses in journalism, communication studies, and
film studies at Concordia University, where he received his
MA in communication studies in 2000.

Thomas Waugh is the award-winning author of numerous

books, including five for Arsenal Pulp Press: Out/Lines, Lust
Unearthed, Gay Art: A Historic Collection (with Felix Lance
Falkon), Comin’ at Ya! (with David Chapman), and Montreal
Main: A Queer Film Classic (with Jason Garrison). His other
books include Hard to Imagine, The Fruit Machine, and The
Romance of Transgression in Canada. He teaches film studies
at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where he
lives. He has taught and published widely on political
discourses and sexual representation in film and video, on
queer film and video, and has developed interdisciplinary
research and teaching on AIDS. He is also the founder and
coordinator of the program in Interdisciplinary Studies in
Sexuality at Concordia.
Titles in the Queer Film Classics series:

Arabian Nights by Michael Moon (2014)

Before Stonewall / After Stonewall by Ross Higgins (2013)
C.R.A.Z.Y. by Robert Schwartzwald (2014)
Death in Venice by Will Aitken (2011)
Farewell My Concubine by Helen Hok-Sze Leung (2010)
Female Trouble by Chris Holmlund (2013)
Fire by Shohini Ghosh (2010)
Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives by
Gerda Cammaer and Jean Bruce (2015)
Gods and Monsters by Noah Tsika (2009)
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing by Julia Mendenhall (2014)
Law of Desire by José Quiroga (2009)
L.A. Plays Itself by Cindy Patton (2013)
Ma vie en rose by Chantal Nadeau (2012)
Manila by Night by Joel David (2015)
Montreal Main by Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison
Paris Is Burning by Lucas Hilderbrand (2012)
Scorpio Rising by Robert Cagle (2015)
Strangers on a Train by Jonathan Goldberg (2012)
Trash by Jon Davies (2009)
Word Is Out by Greg Youmans (2011)
Zero Patience by Susan Knabe and Wendy G. Pearson