The book Thomas Mann is chiefly known for has often been called, by those out of the loop, a “gay Lolita“. His 1912 “Death in Venice” — hailed as a masterpiece of modern German lit and among the most widely-read novellas in history — exists in an entirely separate realm from Nabokov’s twisted love story. While Mann’s tragic hero may be around the same age of Humbert Humbert and similarly a raving intellectual, Gustav von Aschenbach’s tale is certainly sans the humour. Instead, “Death in Venice” is a classic in its own right… and for this credit is due not only to the text but as well to its 1971 screen counterpart. There could be no better equation than the one which was Luchino Visconti in the director’s chair — openly gay and coming off of his first Academy Award nomination + Dirk Bogarde as the star for his 2nd time in a Visconti role + introducing 16 year old Björn Andrésen as the blinding light by which the film revolves…
“Death in Venice” is a film of obsessive watching. The camera lens is a pair of eyes scanning the panorama of the seaside hotel in which it takes place: its lobby, dining hall, and beach of luxurious lounging beneath sun hats galore. It’s at this Venice, Italy retreat where ill and acclaimed musician von Aschenbach has stolen away for a period of recovery. In between spurts of philosophizing with a colleague on the symbiosis of art and nature, the pensive man lays eyes on a real life example in the form of a Polish boy vacationing with his family. Gustav is immediately head-over-heels fixated with this elusive Goldilocks, and secretly spends the remainder of his holiday eyeing the boy from afar.
The child’s name is Tadzio. He’s the prepubescent son of God wrapped in his white towel, an otherworldly creature wandering the shores and hallways of von Aschenbach’s desires. Their only moment of physical contact occurs when von Aschenbach approaches Tadzio’s aristocratic family sitting down to a meal and touches him on the forehead; it is surely to prove to himself that the boy has dimension and is not merely a ghost.
Thomas Mann’s uncovered letters and diaries reveal frustrated homosexual desires, and in hindsight we know that Dirk Bogarde was most definitely gay and in a long-term relationship with another man. With Visconti also in the mix, this story of tortured male lust has a place firmamented in the upper crust of the queer canon. All the while Gustav von Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are hardly romantic — they’re more of an eroticism meets love of the divine. Tadzio awakens something in the musician akin to religious ecstasy. Gay as it is on the surface, “Death in Venice” must be about human being as art, and art as demise.
Someone — not us — has posted “Death in Venice” in its entirety on YouTube. For however long Warner Brothers allows that, watch it below. Otherwise, you can buy the DVD here.