Form as a dimension of meaning has little to do with morality, and yet as the prize of discipline it is invested with ethical character. This is the central paradox of Visconti's Death in Venice just as it is of Mann's novella. I will discuss elements of form and dissolution in the film, the discrepancies between meaning and manner, between profits of the plague and the price of perfection. I assume a knowledge of both novel and film. The novel remains the best guide to the film's structure….
In Il Gattopardo and L'Étranger Visconti worked close to respected literary texts. In Death in Venice he follows Mann's schema so faithfully at times that one inevitably attends to what he has chosen to omit or add or transform. The film takes up the action of the novel only as Aschenbach is approaching Venice; after that the significant omissions are few, but like the initial cut they provide insight into Visconti's choice of structure and the mood which is sustained throughout the film. Metaphoric structure takes precedence over action. Visconti has tightened that structure by selecting encounters which reproduce the leitmotifs Mann provides, but he de-emphasizes other elements which would disrupt the mood. Mann's original setting in Munich has been left out, including Aschenbach's encounter with the pug-nosed, red-haired foreigner on the steps of the Funeral Hall, his sudden desire to travel, the vision of the crouching tiger in the jungle, all mention of his "coldly passionate service" to his art, and any details of biography. The effect of this is to contain the landscape and the mythical dimension of the action: flashbacks relate to other times and places, but they all refer directly to Aschenbach's preoccupation during his term in Venice and introduce biographical information only within the chronology of his death in this city that echoes the name of the goddess of desire. (p. 31)
It is within [a] classical form of sea, city, music, and the masks of death, that the action of the film is contained.
Within that form are the elements of dissolution. Mann's exposure of the plague and its corruptions is more radical than Visconti's, and in his description of the bacchantes with their "blinding, deafening lewdness" he unleashes forces which would shatter the mood of the film as surely as they "crush and annihilate the substance of the man who dreams them." Mann restates with emphasis; Visconti reinforces with restraint….
With regard to other signs of disorder, Mann lets us sense the plague with our noses in odors from the lagoon, the disinfected streets, the carbolic stink of the singer at the hotel; Visconti, predictably, emphasizes the visual aspects—showing the ubiquitous cautionary notices published by the unseen "authorities," and it is not the smell of the disinfectant that affects us (although it does Aschenbach) so much as the splashing of it in milky spurts on walls and sidewalks and by the fountains. (p. 32)
The film does not provide with regard to aesthetics, the subtlety, the depth of analysis that the novella Death in Venice can accommodate. Nor could we expect it. The film has nothing in terms of complexity to match the dialogues between Socrates and Phaedrus on the nature of desire and virtue, but we are given main points in the dispute. Aschenbach, in conversation with Alfred, has declared his belief in beauty as the product of labour. As he sits at dinner on the first evening at the hotel he recalls their discussion, and as he recollects his expression of this belief he nods his head in reinforcement. He still believes it....
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For Alfred beauty is spontaneous creation—it belongs to the senses. And the artist must find his inspiration in the ambiguous, even the degenerate: he must find joy in the affliction of genius. (p. 36)
The aesthetic question—the nature of beauty—is entangled with the moral vision. Alfred speaks for the gods of a drunken spirit, offering a "reflected" splendor which seduces the artist: it makes him "flare up in pain and hope" and sexual ecstasy then deserts him when lust has turned, inevitably, to ashes.
Statute and mirror! … the beautiful itself, form as the thought of God, the one pure perfection which lives in the mind, and which in this symbol and likeness had been placed here quietly and simply as an object of devotion….
This is the shape and likeness of the boy Tadzio, a Narcissus, a mirror and object of fate, a vessel, charming, enigmatic, spontaneous. "l'amour et la mort": the flute of Eros, the guide of the dead….
It is in the matter of betrayal that Visconti makes his most important revisions on the text of Death in Venice. Mann's ironic pessimism centres on the consequences of Aschenbach's own falsehood to his art and ideals. Visconti dramatizes not only the composer's conspiracy against himself, but clearly makes others agents in that conspiracy. The main theme of Ossessione and Senso—a theme that touches all of Visconti's films—is the destructive power of sexual passion in relation to betrayal. It is a "permanent item."… To reinforce that theme, in addition to creating the character of Alfred, who begins by demonstrating his devotion to Aschenbach and ends by cruelly abusing him, Visconti very quickly makes Tadzio a "traitor," too. (p. 38)
Describing the incident in the novel, Mann is chiefly concerned to show Tadzio at close quarters for the first time and mentions that the boy looks anaemic, rather sickly—a thought that gratifies and reassures Aschenbach although he refuses to reckon with it. Mann even talks of Tadzio's modesty. There is almost no suggestion of a deliberate seduction. In the film, Aschenbach returns to his room in considerable distress: all his actions show his temper and humiliation…. Visconti makes it plain that Gustave's main reason for leaving Venice is his reaction to Tadzio. Mann does not give him that awareness until later, and initially lets him blame the "offensive sultriness" of the weather: he juxtaposes Tadzio's signs of frailty with the repulsive conditions in the city—"both stimulating and enervating." Visconti leaves Tadzio physically unflawed, but creates a conspirator. (pp. 38-9)
Again, Visconti has based the incident [of Tadzio's second betrayal] on circumstances described in the novella, but his presentation gives a very different picture of the relationship. In the novella Aschenbach is on the verge of speaking to Tadzio on the boardwalk, but Mann makes the writer "fail" in his effort to put the relationship on a "sound, free and easy" basis, and he "surrenders" to the impulse of license by passing the boy with bowed head…. A comparison of these parallel but dissimilar sequences reinforces the impression that, in the film, Tadzio rather than Aschenbach is at this point the agent of license—certainly he is not the "frail, unthinking object" described in the novella. His invitation is blatant. Aschenbach, confronted with it, is incapacitated. This makes his later declaration of love more poignant and desperate.
The embrace of Dionysus has another aspect, however, as both Mann and Visconti emphasize. Dionysian intoxication can also be creative: the affliction may become a stimulus toward productivity. Mann's Aschenbach produces a tract on a "certain large burning issue of culture and taste" which he models on the form of Tadzio's beauty. In the film, Aschenbach, inspired by the same model, turns to his score and works on a piece which I assume is the equivalent of the Mittersnachtlied. (pp. 39-40)
Coming when Aschenbach's spirits are highest during his stay in Venice, the Mittersnachtlied marks the aesthetic and moral centre, and in a film where the architecture of mood complements the architecture of form it is the high-point of formal and emotive organization. What follows is dissolution—the slow descent to death. (p. 40)
Linking incidents, images, and details of characterization, Visconti borrows Mann's leitmotifs and develops them. Consider the "messengers of death."… Visconti eliminates the figure of wandering Death who appeared at the opening of the novella; he also transforms "the goatee from the inside cabin" into the old fop. But the other agents of malice and sickness he stations throughout the city as Mann did before him. He accentuates the sexual scuttle and cackling of the singer to add to his derision. He enlarges the role of the manager so that he presides over a more sinister field of operations. And from the ferryman who lost his fee, through the rigid hierarchy of the servants at the hotel, to the beggars who approach Aschenbach while he blindly follows Tadzio, he shows how all of these agents share in the plague and the profits of the plague.
When characters perform a literal and symbolic "office" in this way, one becomes aware of the creation of other formal patterns—for example, by attending to the pattern of sound and silence in relation to character as well as by noting speech content. The demonic abuse of language is traditional in scripture, myth and allegory, and it is pertinent to consider it here. Many of those who speak to Aschenbach confuse or attempt to deceive him. There are few who do not speak out of self-interest or malice. It is not that it is all gibberish—it is more sinister the more plausible it appears—but Aschenbach, harassed, often fails to make sense of it, and, when he believes it, he is betrayed. (pp. 41-2)
So temporal and psychological actuality are subordinated to moral sequence and duration. Visconti condenses time sequences, providing a reality which does not necessarily reflect verisimilitude. He consistently cuts directly from scene to scene without providing any sure indication of elapsed time….
The film's flashbacks present important moral and aesthetic polarities: Alfred's devotion and betrayal; the love shown by Aschenbach's wife compared to the "grip" of Esmeralda; Aschenbach's assertions of will and balance, and his mocking defeat at the hands of the bourgeoisie; his own capacity for joy and love, and the presence of seductive evil. These sequences are condensed, self-contained, yet they provide an "imagined" or "retrospective" chronology which covers a much larger period of time than Aschenbach's stay in Venice but is contained within this lesser chronology. (p. 42)
At the close of Visconti's Death in Venice the presence of the camera on the beach appears to point to its own capacity for illusion. But the paradox goes beyond questions about artistic deception…. Form that is constantly threatened with formlessness: this is the irony that confronts Kierkegaard's "moralist incognito." And in every detail of this film—which records the dissolution not only of the central character, but of a city, of art, in fact, of civilized existence—there is evidence of the artist's determination to form. All artists attempt it; a few, like Mann and Visconti and those they emulate, convince us that they can shape it in their work. They show the last change of mind: how to win from the irremediable a measure of hope and time. (p. 43)
Alexander Hutchison, "Luchino Visconti's 'Death in Venice'," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1974 Salisbury State College), Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 31-43.