Death in Venice is "visual" in the very worst sense—stuffed with extravagantly pretty pictures that only obscure the themes of Thomas Mann's novella. This film does a disservice to cinema as well as to literature…. (p. 643)
Mann's novella, published in 1911, is probably one of the central works of twentieth-century literature, dealing, as it does, with sexual ambiguities, the moral failures of art, and some of the disturbing tensions in the German temperament—extreme rigor and discipline contending with a strong, suppressed desire for sensual abandon. Very little of this is suggested in the film, which has become a monotonous, protracted study of a homosexual infatuation…. The film even loses the important reasons that Mann did have for giving the story a homosexual cast—that homosexuality has, associated with it, something of the thrill of breaking a tribal taboo, and that to a classical artist like Aschenbach an obsession with spiritual beauty is inevitably linked to the homoerotic ideals of Greek culture.
It is true that the film makes a feeble effort to raise some abstract questions about the artist's ambivalent relationship to physical beauty in a couple of flashback sequences in which Aschenbach conducts strenuous debates with an intellectual friend. These scenes are incredibly clumsy in themselves, with impossibly stilted dialogue …, and they are doubly embarrassing because they seem so arbitrarily imposed on the film. (pp. 643-44)
Visconti has heard the rumors that Mann based the character of Aschenbach on Mahler, and it is Mahler's music that floods the film's soundtrack. Aschenbach is supposed to be a classical artist, whose style is distinguished by "lofty purity, symmetry and simplicity"; over the years, we are told, it has grown increasingly rigid and formalized—it has become official state art. Even in the film, his friend attacks him as conservative, and accuses his music of being "stillborn." But the accusations cannot possibly apply to Mahler's music, which is unmistakably warm, passionate, imaginative. In one scene of the film Aschenbach is inspired by a vision of Tadzio to begin composing at a feverish pitch, but is that meant to suggest that he is creatively liberated by this confrontation with physical beauty? The music hardly sounds constipated. With this confusion the story loses its focus, for it is impossible to understand the impact of this sensual temptation on Aschenbach's art without having a much more precise idea of what his art was like before he came to Venice. Also, if we are meant to feel that for the first time in his life, freed of conventional morality, Aschenbach yields to his senses and experiments with what is socially forbidden, then what is the purpose of the flashback in which he visits a brothel—a scene suggesting that decadence and degradation are not in any way new to his experience? (pp. 644-45)
Perhaps if some of the undercurrents were captured, we wouldn't be so troubled by literal questions. Of course Death in Venice is a difficult work to adapt, and I am not sure that any film-maker could have found a fully satisfactory equivalent for the novella's intellectual complexity and psychological subtlety. But this is one literary classic with unusual cinematic potential. (p. 645)
On [the visual] level too, the film is a failure. Visconti has lavished a great deal of care on the hats and the table lamps, but in a larger sense, he has not found a meaningful visual style for the story…. If [Venice] had come alive visually, that might have helped to focus Mann's theme of the ambivalence of physical beauty and to dramatize Aschenbach's descent into Dionysian sensuality. In the novella...
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there is a powerful dream sequence near the end in which Aschenbach sees himself participating in a bacchanal of lust and bestiality. The filmic equivalent is a brief sequence of Aschenbach in his hotel room, talking to himself about his degradation: "Wisdom, truth, human dignity … all finished." It seems a final irony that this "visual" film (probably no more than 30 of its 130 minutes have dialogue) has to express the climax of its story—an inherently cinematic climax—with a few feeble, inadequatewords.
Many of the images in the film are admittedly quite lovely in themselves—but as still shots, not moving pictures. Even the loveliest are essentially hollow—high-class postcard art, images that serve as mere decoration. (pp. 645-46)
Death in Venice represents artistic bankruptcy, "visual cinema" without intelligence or imagination—movies as an animated form of interior decoration. (p. 646)
Stephen Farber, "Non-Talking Pictures," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1972 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 638-46.∗