#962: VISCONTI, Luchino: Death In Venice (1971)

VISCONTI, Luchino (Italy)
Death In Venice [1971]
Spine #962

Based on the classic novella by Thomas Mann, this late-career masterpiece from Luchino Visconti is a meditation on the nature of art, the allure of beauty, and the inescapability of death. A fastidious composer reeling from a disastrous concert, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde, in an exquisitely nuanced performance) travels to Venice to recover. There, he is struck by a vision of pure beauty in the form of a young boy named Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), his infatuation developing into an obsession even as rumors of a plague spread through the city. Setting Mann's story of queer desire and bodily decay against the sublime music of Gustav Mahler, Death in Venice is one of cinema's most exalted literary adaptations, as sensually rich as it is allegorically resonant.

131 minutes
2:35:1 aspect ratio
Criterion Release 2019

Based on the novella by Thomas Mann.
Visconti was 65 when he directed Death in Venice.

Visconti made 14 films between 1943 (Obsession) and 1976 (L’Innocente). Although often considered one of the fathers of Italian neorealism, his style changed when he began to make lush, complex dramas like The Leopard (1963).

This film is often thought of as the second in the “German trilogy,” consisting of The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973).

The Mahler, of course, is magnificent.

The Film

Yet another beautiful Criterion restoration for a particularly gorgeous film.

If you look carefully, you will see a faint blue color amidst the otherwise black background behind the opening credits, as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony fills your ears. That blue will turn into the sky after Visconti’s credit — but we see only a small oval of blue in the frame; the rest is blacked out. Gradually, the lens opens fully to reveal a ship, steaming smoke and sailing smoothly on the tranquil sea. It is a medieval painting and a prelude to a film filled with such magically gorgeous images.

Visconti keeps his camera moving, pushing in and pulling back — but just as often he keeps it stationary, observing.

Although the subject matter was considered controversial at the time, there is nothing as salacious as a seductive glance in this film.

In 2003, Björn Andrésen (Tadzio), discussed his distaste for the subject matter:

Adult love for adolescents is something that I am against in principle. Emotionally perhaps, and intellectually, I am disturbed by it — because I have some insight into what this kind of love is about.” [Wikipedia]

In any case, it is a gorgeous piece of cinema.

Film Rating (0-60):


The Extras

The Booklet

Twelve-page wraparound featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim.



Documentary 1

Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, a 2008 documentary about the director, featuring Visconti; actors Burt Lancaster, Silvana Mangano, and Marcello Mastroianni; filmmakers Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli; and others.


Alla ricerca di Tadzio, a short film by Visconti about his efforts to cast the role of Tadzio.

This is truly incredible! The lengths to which Visconti went to cast this crucial role is astonishing. He was smart to document the search.

Documentary 2

New program featuring literature and cinema scholar Stefan Albertini.

Video interview 1

from 2006 with costume designer Piero Tosi.

Television program

Excerpt from a l990 program about the music in Visconti’s films, featuring actors Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach) and actor Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach).

Video interview 2

With Visconti from 1971.

Documentary 3

Visconti’s Venice, a short 1970 behind-the-scenes documentary featuring Visconti and Bogarde.


Extras Rating (0-40):


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