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Film and Literature.

The Case of "Death in Venice": Luchino Visconti and Thomas Mann Author(s): Hans Rudolf Vaget Source: The German Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Mar., 1980), pp. 159-175 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/405628 Accessed: 03/08/2010 14:22
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FILM AND LITERATURE. THE CASE OF "DEATH IN VENICE": LUCHINO VISCONTI AND THOMAS MANN. HANSRUDOLF VAGET Like many other great novelists of the twentieth century Thomas Mann took a lively, at times even an active, interest in cinema. His essays, letters, and diaries show that he was fascinated by the new medium and that he reflected seriously, though by no means systematically, on the artistic possibilities and limitations of cinema as an art form.' It seems that he enjoyed films for their naturalisticand sensuous qualities but he also expressed contempt for the melodrama and senof much of the cinema of his time. "Das lebt timentalitycharacteristic aus erster, warmer, herzlicherHand," he wrote in 1928, "das wirkt wie Zwiebel und Nieswurz."2 As one might expect, his attitude toward the new art form was ambivalent. On the one hand he would declare that cinema had not yet developed sufficiently to achieve the status of an autonomous art, on the other hand, and in the very same essay of 1928, he would call for film versions of his own works--specificallyof the MagicMountain! He did so in the expectationand with the proviso, as it were, that film would outgrowits misguided early orientationtowardthe drama and recognize its true potential as a narrativein pictures. Once film had become an essentially narrative art-emulating the novel instead of the drama-it would no longer have to be sneezed at. Ideally, he thought, film should follow the road of the modern novel to interiorization and address itself to the psychologicaland intellectualcomplexities that literaturehad learned to explore. Without much theoreticalado Thomas Mann believed that film was actually a form of narration,i.e., "geschaute Erzihlung," and that "das Wesen des Films demjenigender Erzihlung [... ] verwandt [ist]."3 Thus he could write: "ich glaube nicht daran, dass ein guter Roman durch die Verfilmung notwendig in Grund und Boden verdorben werden muss."4 Not necessarily, to be sure; but the record of his own works on screen is, on the whole, a




rather dismal one-featuring, among others, such cinematic abominaThe one noteworthyexception to those failures is tions as TonioKr6ger.5 Death in Venice. The idea of turning Death in Veniceinto a film surfaced for the first time in 1934. Thomas Mann encouragedthe idea, but did not give any specific instructions as to how he would like the film to be done.6 Nothing came of that project, and Death in Venicehad to wait another thirty-fiveyears for its cinematicrealizationby the late Luchino Visconti who remains the only major filmmakerso far to attempt to put a work by Thomas Mann on screen. It can also be said of this film that it is the only serious attempt so far to deal cinematicallywith the psychological, intellectual,and literarycomplexitiesin Thomas Mann's fiction. Visconti's film is not a free adaptation;he strove for faithfulness to the original work.7 He clearly intended his film to be viewed and judged in relation to its literarymodel. This raises the familiarquestion relationshipin general: to what extent can concerningthe film-literature film recreate a work of literature? Or to what extent should a film free itself from the literarymodel in order to be able to mediate between the past and the present, between the prescriptionsof the literarywork and the requirements of the audiovisual medium of film. These questions take on a special poignancyin the case of Death in Venicebecause Thomas Mann's novella is decidedly not the kind of story that lends itself easily to a cinematic treatment. It contains precious little action, it focuses on mental and psychic processes, and it exploits with great sophistication and success the specific artistic possibilities of its own medium. Moreover, the narratorpersona of Mann's work is not of the reticent, self-effacing variety but a most vital and influentialconstituent of the novella. In other words, Mann's story relies heavily on a form of narrationwhich may be visualized easily by the inner eye of the reader but not so easily by the eye of the camera. Why this is so is perhaps best explained in Siegfried Kracauer's of Film. Accordingto Kracauer,"life, as capturedby the camera, Theory is predominantlya material continuum. . . . The world of the novel," on the other hand, "is primarilya mental continuum" that "often includes components which elude the grasp of the cinema because they have no physical correspondence to speak of."8 This distinction asserts--correctly, I believe-that by no means everything that is going on in a literarynarrationcan be filmed, since visual literacyis different from literary literacy; it also implies that Mann's notion of "geschaute Erzihlung" is an impossibility. As Kracauer and many others have argued,9film, in relation to the novel, is categoricallylimited to what is cinematically reproducible-just as film is capable of modes of



expression that remain inaccessibleto literature. A look at Mann's novella will immediately reveal a number of importantelements that elude the grasp of cinema; or to be precise, they elude the essentially conservative film technique of Visconti and his cameramanPasquale de Santis. To begin with, Visconti omits the first two of the story's five chaptersand starts out with Aschenbach's arrival in Venice. In the story, by the time Aschenbach arrives in Venice we are acquaintedwith him sufficientlyto understandwhat is happeningto him there. We have been shown that because of an unexpected snag in his work he decided to travel for a while, and we have seen how he was promptedto travel by an encounter with a mysterious strangerand by a hallucinationof a far-awayjungle swamp. This could have been filmed without much difficulty since there is enough physical concreteness to the narrationof ChapterI. This is not the case, however, in ChapterII, which presents a concise summary of Aschenbach's development as a writer and an exposition of the psychological,esthetic, and ideological issues raised by his exemplarycareer. Brieflystated, it is this: in his youth Aschenbach had been a brilliant and daring writerwhose work was distinguishedby a humanitarian sympathyfor sufferingand by an awarenessof social conditions. At age thirty-five, with growing success and fame, he decided to turn his back on what he now sees as the "Sympathie mit dem Abgrund"' of his early work. Instead, he consciously embraces a neoclassicist position. He now believes in a rigorous moral code, and has become convinced that beauty is to be attained through the mind rather than through the senses. In the terminology of Nietzsche, which is very much to the point here, he has renounced the Dionysian forces in life and become a devotee of the Apollonian principleof form and distance. In due course Aschenbach has received the approvalof the authoritiesand, in recognition of his patrioticwork on Frederick the Great, the title of nobility. He is now, at fifty, Gustav von Aschenbach. As such he finds himself, by no means unwillingly,in the role of an officiallydistinguishedfigurehead of a society which in its core is devoted to blind ethical rigor and unknowing self-righteousness. He is set up as the symbolic representative of the Prussianized German bourgeoisie before World War I. Aschenbach's fall, as Mann later recognized," foreshadows the fall of Germany in that war. The story is designed to demonstrate the falseness of Aschenbach's position and to show the gradualloss of his hardwon dignity when he is brought face-to-face with the more powerful truths of life which he had repressed. He who denied the senses and the power of the Dionysian is made the victim of those very forces. And he who has forsworn knowledge of psychologicaland social reality



ends up collaboratingwith the corrupt Venetian authorities in denying the existence of the cholera epidemic. Aschenbach's shameful degeneration notwithstanding,his end is tragic because he had explored an insoluble dilemma and paid for it with his life. He had turned away from knowledge because underneath it he perceived the abyss of a life unredeemed by beauty. But that same abyss was lying at the end of the alternativeroad he had chosen: the cult of form and the road of repression. All these issues are raised in ChapterII in a highly chargedprose crammed with allusions to a broad cultural context and relying on a highly conceptual mode of narration. We have here, in Kracauer's terms, an almost purely "mental continuum" which is cinematically unmanageable. It should be obvious already here that the omission of this crucialchapterwas bound to have far-reaching consequences for the meaning of the film. If some of the essential ideologicaldimensions of the story are missing in the film-and one has to include here the chain of images from Greek mythologyand the allusions to the Platonicphilosophy of beauty, both of which are central to Mann's intentions-one might be tempted to conclude that Visconti's film cannot and should not even pretend to be a visual recreationof Death in Venice. Has he not actually amputatedthe story by turning the tragedyof Aschenbach into a longwinded film about a progressively more decrepit looking aging homosexual who dies inexplicablyon a fling in Venice? So far we have noted only the most glaring omissions. Since these were largely necessitated by the inability of film to translate into moving pictures a certain type of narration, it is only fair that Visconti and Nicola Badalucco, who co-authored the screenplay, should not be faulted for that. This said, we may now proceed to some questions which are more appropriate, I think, to the relation between the two art forms in this film. Is there enough materialfrom Der Todin Venedig left in the film to justify its title? Are Visconti's changes and additionscompatible with the spirit of the original? And most importantly, does Visconti's handling of Mann's work amount to an artisticallyand intellectuallyconvincingstatement? There exists alreadya sizable body of criticismdealing with these and similar questions.12Most of it is in the nature of impressionistic reviews resorting to ill considered condemnation or uncriticaladmiration. Perhaps the most thoughtful analysis of the film is the one by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in his recent book on Visconti. Nowell-Smith is an admirerof Visconti's work, but he did not really like Death in Venice. This film, he concludes, "is, at times and in its own way, quite a brilliant movie." But then he adds: "Unfortunately, this brilliance is



suspended on a void," because the film is "pretentious and, above all, parasitic." According to this critic, "the existence, alongside the film, of that minor miracle of discoursive narrativeprose which is Der Todin seems to have dispensed Visconti from any attempt to produce Venedig, a discourse of his own."'" In other words, by relying too much on the viewer's knowledge of the story the film fails to make the fate of Aschenbach intelligible. A similar deprecationof the film is expressed in Geoffrey Wagner'sbook TheNoveland the Cinema. Wagnerfeels that the film "surely succeeds in complementingits wonderful original," but only-he adds somewhat venomously-"in the manner of some richly visual footnote."'4 It seems to me that neither Wagnernor Nowell-Smith does justice to the film. Admittedly, the temptation to use literature as the basic yardstick is great, particularlywith critics whose first allegiance is to literary criticism. But this temptation should be resisted. Films, even when they are based on a work of literature,should be judged as artistic creations in their own right. Opera criticism which deals with an older but similarlycomposite art form may provide a useful reminder here.'5 No critic of Verdi's Otello,for instance, would dare to label this opera a footnote to Shakespeare,nor would it make much sense to call Berlioz' Faust parasiticbecause it fails to reproduce the discourse of Goethe's Faust. I am not implying that Visconti's work is on a par with that of Berlioz and Verdi. My point is simply that if film criticism,or more precisely, the criticism of films based on literaryworks, wants to aspire to some integrity, it may be well advised to orient itself towardthe practice of opera criticism. That is to say, it should not bring to bear the artistic achievement of one work on the criticaljudgment of another, but rather compare them in their own individual rights and take into account the different requirements of the medium and the genre as well as the different historical and cultural contexts in which the two works are embedded. How close is Visconti's Morte a Veneziato Mann's Der Tod in Venedig? Even without the first two chapters the film reproducesmost of the plot material from Mann's story, enough, in any case, to justify its title. Visconti uses almost all the external events in chapters III through V from the embarrassingencounter with the made-up old fop on the boat, who foreshadows in all visual details Aschenbach's own cosmetic rejuvenation, down to his death on the beach with Tadzio's final gesture of invitation into the unknown. All this is recreatedwith strikingvisual effects which impartconcreteness to what in Mann's novella exists by allusion and suggestion. Languageis implicitand does not restrict the reader's imaginationto the degree a picture does. Moving



pictures, on the other hand, are explicit because they have to show, for instance, a particular person and a specific hotel. It follows that film by the requirements of its medium narrows down and thus changes our perception even where it strives for the utmost fidelity to the literary model. What reader, for instance, could have imagined the mysterious beauty of Sylvana Manganoas Tadzio's mother? Her physicalpresence on the screen is much more imposing than in the story although she does not do anything or say anything different. What this does is to strengthen our impressions of Aschenbach's attraction to beauty and wealth. Or who could have visualized the sumptuousness of the hotel's art nouveau decor with its immense flower vases and luxurious ferns; the squalor of some Venetian sidestreets, or the liveliness and serenity of the beach scenes? The film, being more specific than the text, exploits more vigorously the contrast between hotel, city and sea. It thus tends to underscoreAschenbach'scaptivityin the artificialworld of the internationalbourgeoisie, his helplessness and lack of orientationin the ordinaryworld, and his unconscious yearningfor a return to nature. A particularlymemorable contrast with overtones of social criticism is of the Haute Bourgeoisiein the createdbetween the polished appearance hotel and the ugliness of the same people in their uncovered state on the beach. Such contrasts prepareus for the revelation of the hidden layers in Aschenbach's soul. Film then has a magnifyingeffect, and not only physically. This is evident in Visconti's handlingof the epidemic and of Tadzio. particularly In Mann's story Aschenbach does not notice the suddenly ubiquitous stench of the disinfectant until the beginning of Chapter V. Fortunately, smell cannot be reproducedon the screen. Visconti's solution is simple and effective; he has the camera record discreetlythe cautionary notices on the walls and he shows the milky splashes of disinfectant all over this city of beauty. He also confronts Aschenbach with the lethal danger of the cholera much earlierthan Mann did, in the scene at the train station. At that point, as Aschenbach is looking forward to returningto the hotel and to Tadzio, he notices a ghastly looking man who collapses in a manner which turns out to be a foreshadowingof his own collapse (p. 274, No. 193). The presence of the epidemic is thus made more threatening, and this results in a greater awareness than in the book of the death-bounddirection of Aschenbach's infatuationwith the Polish boy. Of even greater consequence is the magnified role of Tadzio in the film. In Mann's story Aschenbach's growing passion for the boy remains completely internalized. We cannot even be sure whether Tadzio really smiles at him or whether this is to be taken as a figment of his inflamed imagination. While Mann can afford to be



discreet and ambivalent, Visconti had to create visually concrete correlatives. His Tadzio is slightly older, he assumes a more active role, and he is a real tempter, almost a flirt. Even at his first appearance,as the Polish family leaves the hotel lobby to go dining, he turns around mysteriously-as in the story-and casts-this is not in the story-a slightly provocativeglance which transformsAschenbach's facial expression from pensiveness to curiosity (p. 254f, No. 88). Similarencounters occur in the diningroom and, with particularobviousness, in the lift where Tadzio, on getting out, casts an almost licentious look at the older man (p. 267, No. 152). Perhapsthe most explicit and felicitous realization of Tadzio's role as tempter is achieved in the scene on the boardwalk (p. 281, No. 232). When Tadzio, dressed in his swimsuit, notices Aschenbach walkingbehind him, he swings-in a lovely gesture of playful erotic enticement-two or three times around one of the poles that support the awning. This represents a very skillful summary of a number of completely internalizedoccurrences in which Aschenbach is moved by a pose, a gesture, or simply the presence of the boy. The image resulting from Visconti's handling of the role of Tadzio is thus a good deal less innocent and erotically much more explicit. It also is quite one-dimensional. Whereas Mann's Aschenbach sees in this youth incarnations of several figures from Greek mythology and art, and finally of the God Hermes, the film cannot deal with this double identity of Tadzio and thus reduces his meaning to that of a homoerotictempter. Given the centrality of the Aschenbach-Tadziorelationship, the magnifiedrole of the Polish boy cannot be considered a negligibledetail. What it does is to emphasize homosexuality to a degree that actually changes the meaning of the story. In the film, Aschenbach's love is no longer a strictly internalized monodrama, since Tadzio looks and acts almost like a consenting minor. Visconti spotlights, as it were, the issue of homosexuality, and, what is more, he makes it the only issue in Aschenbach's encounter with Tadzio. Before decryingthis aspect of the film as a distortion of the original, we should try to see what function it has been assigned in the overall design of Visconti's work. Whateverthis film has to say, it has to say it through the portrayal and analysis of its central character. In what turned out to be his most controversial decision Visconti transformed Aschenbach into a composer. In doing so he availed himself of the same artistic liberty which Thomas Mann claimed in DoctorFaustuswhen he transformedthe traditional Faust figure into the genius of modern music. Visconti, in fact, defended his decision by pointing out that Mann's Aschenbach actually bears the first name and the physiognomic features of Gustav Mahler who had just died when Mann began to write Der Todin Venedig.Mann



had known Mahler personally, having made the composer's acquaintance in 1910 after a performanceof the Eighth Symphony in Munich. On that occasion he remarkedto his wife that this was the first time he felt himself in the presence of a truly great man.16 The impression Mahler had made on him was deep enough to prompt him to borrow a few external features for his portrayal of Aschenbachand thus pay homage to the memory of the great composer. Strictly speaking, this is a matter which is quite incidentalto our understanding purely biographical of the novella. Had Mann not revealed it himself, we would probably know nothing of the Aschenbach-Mahler connection. Nor would Visconti's film have become what it is: a cinematic essay on a Mahlerian type of artist and his world. Visconti put the Mahler connection into the center of his film. There is even reason to believe that the discovery of the originallyquite marginallink to Mahler provided Visconti with the decisive impulse which made the conception of the film crystallize. It has been reported that during the shooting of the film Visconti used to prime Dirk Bogardeby telling him: "Give me the Mahler who wrote the Ninth." The same reporter,Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review, provided an even more fantastic detail about Visconti's obsession with Mahler. According to Dirk Bogarde,Visconti confided to him the following story: Coming back on the train from his visit to Venice in 1911 Mann supposedlymet "this 51-year-oldweeping man with dyed hair, terrible makeup. . . absolutely hideous, and obviously in great distress." Mann spoke to him and learned that he was Gustav Mahler who said, "I've just come from Venice and I've fallen in love with a boy of thirteen."17 As Ernest Wolf has shown,18the story is a ratherclumsy and totally improbablefabricationwhich was indignantly denounced as such by members of the Mahler and Mann families.19 Visconti followed suit and denied ever having told Bogardesuch a story. He also claimed that he changed Aschenbach into a composer "solely for visual and practicalfilm-making reasons."20This strikes one as a rather weak disclaimer. The evidence of the film leaves little doubt that Visconti was as concerned with the real Gustav Mahler as he was with the fictitious Gustav Aschenbach. It is altogether plausible, it seems to me, that he would resort to the kind of "instructions" reported by Bogarde in order to help realize his vision of Aschenbach. And that vision appears to be to a large measure a reflection of Visconti's own obsessions with Mahlerand with homosexuality. In his film Visconti used Mahler's music so extravagantlyand insistently that Aschenbach and Mahler seem to blend into one. As a matter of fact, at one point Visconti's Aschenbach is explicitly and unambiguously identified as the "real" Mahler. This occurs in the



second flashback,the scene in Aschenbach's countryhouse (p. 259, No. 104), when Alfried plays a passage from the fifth movement of Mahler's Third Symphony and then refers to it as "your music," that is to say Aschenbach's music. The question here is not so much one of legitimacy as those critics believed who protested against the film for desecratingthe memory of Mahler by linking him to homosexuality.21 It should be remembered that Mann himself was repeatedly accused of having slandered in his work several fellow artists such as Gerhart Hauptmann, Georg Lukics, Goethe, and Arnold Sch6nberg. We can, therefore, safely assume that Mann would have dissociatedhimself from such narrow-mindedprotests. The real problem comes into view when we consider the importantshift of emphasis implied by the Mahler connection. Mann portrayedhis Aschenbach as a neoclassicist; Visconti's Aschenbach must be thought of as a late Romantic. This has obvious ramificationsfor the interpretationof the artist in the film. Whereas Mann was exorcisingsome of his own neoclassicisttendencies by putting Aschenbach to an ignominious death,22Visconti appearsto be engaged in rear-guard action againstthe troublesome heritageof Romanticism. The passion for music clearly forms the closest link between the artisticsensibilities of Mann and Visconti. In his film Visconti indulged in this passion by assigning to music not only a thematic but also a structural function. The most prominent piece of music used in the film, its musical trademarkas it were, is the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. It accompaniesthe opening sequence of the film, and it is intoned a total of six times at structurallyimportantjunctures down to the last scene on the beach. In his screenplayVisconti refers to this music as the "leitmotif" (p. 249, passim) of the work. This may not be a completely appropriateuse of the term but it confirms the viewer's impression that this music marks the decisive stages on Aschenbach's road to death. From its first intonation this intoxicating F-major piece for strings and harp evokes with increasing insistence an exquisitely melancholy, almost Tristanesque, atmosphere through which we are keyed to the measured and inevitable approach of death. It is quite unlikely--and impossible to prove-that Mahler's Adagietto carries, by itself, any connotations of death or dying. In the film, however, this thematic connection is clearly established. In the first flashbackwe see Alfried play a few bars of the Adagiettowhile Aschenbachmuses over a traditionalsymbol of death, the hourglass, standing on a little table to his left: at first the sand disappearsalmost imperceptiblythrough the tiny aperture, but in the end, it seems to drop as in a vortex with increasing and alarmingspeed (p. 249). Thus the otherwise undefined thought-contentof the Adagietto is defined for the purposes of the film



as the expression of an unconscious yearning for death. Aschenbach's art stands revealed as death-orientedfrom the beginning. A related function is assigned to the fourth movement of Mahler's Third Symphony, the so-called "Song of the Night." It sets in as we see Aschenbach, havingjust returnedfrom his abortiveattemptto flee the city, rest on the beach, feeling transported again-and even inspired to compose, by the sight of Tadzio. The meaning of this music is clear enough since it is a setting of Nietzsche's poem "O Mensch! Gib Acht!" ("O Man, take heed!"); it affirms that joy is deeper than grief, and that joy seeks eternity, "tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit." Here the music confirms the visual signal of Aschenbach's faint smile at this moment; this smile recurs several times and can also be recognized in the death scene. Thus the music suggests that Aschenbach is dying not miserably but voluptuously, and that he will rescue his love beyond death into eternity. Complementing these two pieces by Mahler is the haunting and mournful song which is intoned, a capella, by one of the Russian guests at the beginning of the last sequence on the beach (p. 309, No. 401); it is a cradle song, the second of Moussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death." It marks a new, comforting stage in Aschenbach's dying by evoking death as the conveyor of peace and a deliverance from suffering. All this death-related music which clearly dominates the film is meant to expose Aschenbach's inner orientation toward death. Mann makes this clear to the readerthrough various allusions and symbols but since these devices lack visual concreteness and are difficultto integrate into a film Visconti had to resort to other modes of articulation. He resorted to music. On the whole this may be regardedas an acceptable solution and certainlya more skillful one than the alternativeof a voice over narrative,which would have been awkwardand inconsistent. There are still more aspects to the musical dimension of the film. for the scenes Visconti chose the waltz from Franz Lehar's MerryWidow in the hotel lobby (p. 250, No. 70). Although Mann's story does not call for music here, Visconti's choice strikes one as singularlyappropriate. Lehar's waltz echoes very fittingly the appearanceand mentality of the hotel's clientele of which the camera is taking stock, as it were, leisurely and in slightly satirizingtravel shots. A satiricalnote may also be perceived in the thin schmaltzy playing of the hotel band. Pictorialand musical content of these scenes are blended perfectly. Perhapsthe most momentous music scene occurs with the appearance, at night, of the Neapolitan street singers on the garden terrace of



the hotel (pp. 291-294, Nos. 285-310). Here we have an almost dramaticencounter in an otherwise extremely lyricalwork. Aschenbach appears indifferent to this music since it is probablytoo vulgar for his taste. Nevertheless, his encounter with these uncanny musicians is given much weight in the film. We immediatelynotice that the leader of the group exhibits the same incongruous makeup as the old man on the boat and the same that Aschenbach himself will soon wear. Moreover, the white on the singer's face corresponds with the color of the disinfectant on which the camera had been lingering in the preceding scenes. This chromaticcorrespondencemakes it plausible that Aschenbach would want to question the singer about the epidemic. Of particular importanceis the text of the love balladsung by the band leader. It turns out to be a sarcastic and mocking love song; it opens with the lines: "He who wants success in love must never show himself enamored" ("Chi vuole colle donne aver fortuna/ Non deve mai mostrarsi innamorato"), and leads up to the unexpectedly serious confession: "I should like to die in order not to feel" ("Vorrei morire per non sentire").23Again, Visconti's choice of musical materialis nothing short of admirable. The underlyingsense of mockery is finally brought out with great deftness in the encore. It consists entirely of sung laughter and ends with the singer sticking his tongue out at the hotel guests who all seem quite oblivious of the mortal danger they are in. An almost hostile note is struck by the singer's lewd gestures; some are directed at Aschenbach personallywhom we see sitting only a few steps away from Tadzio, as tormented as ever. Visual and musical communication of this memorable scene complement each other very successfully. A purely structural function is assigned to Beethoven's "Ftir Elise." Tadzio first intones it playfullyon the piano in the empty hotel lobby (p. 283, No. 239). From the flashbackto the brothel scene, which follows immediately, we learn that the same tune had been played by the prostitute Esmeralda. This simple device of repetition identifies Tadzio as a kind of extension of that prostitute; his role is to make Aschenbach accept finally the knowledge he had refused from Esmeralda. This device also highlights very nicely the basic structureof the film. Visconti opted for a division into a slow present tense action and a series of seven evenly staggeredflashbackswhich form a kind of circle in that the last one links up chronologicallywith the first one. What we are made to see in the present tense amounts essentially to a study in loneliness and separateness. We see Aschenbach travel alone, walk alone, eat alone, and sleep alone. A pronounced and increasing separation exists between the solitary musician and the world around



him so that he is reduced to passive voyeurism and unfulfilled tormenting desire. His naturalplace is obviously with the Haute Bourgeoisieof the hotel where he is treatedwith carefullycalculatedgestures of respect as a distinguished though separate member of that class. The outside world remains hostile territoryto him; any contact with it is fraughtwith danger. Thus we see him almost lose his way as he pursues Tadzio through the labyrinthinestreets of Venice, and it is only fitting that his first collapse should occur among the garbage of a sidestreet far from the familiarcomfort of the hotel (p. 305, No. 380). Still, if we had only the present tense action the story of Aschenbach would surely remain incomprehensible. We would not understand why he traveled to Venice, why he falls in love with Tadzio, and most importantly,why this encounter has the fateful consequences that it has. Visconti had to address these questions in the flashbacks. They center around three problems: Aschenbach's relationshipto his friend and pupil Alfried, an invention of Visconti's, cast as a somewhat hysterical and aggressive advocate of Nietzsche's concept of the Dionysian; Aschenbach's family life which contributes little, I think, to the understanding of the film, and finally the crucial encounter with Esmeralda. To turn brieflyto the scenes with Alfried, they are obviously designed to fill in some of the gaps created by the omission of the first two chapters of the story. They show us that Aschenbach's decision to travel to Venice had resulted from a nervous breakdownhe suffered after the failure of one of his works whose premiere we see him conduct very briefly in the last flashback. The other more important function of the Alfried scenes is to furnish the film with a theoreticaldiscourse which will make the fate of Aschenbach intelligible. Through Alfried, Visconti sought to create an awareness of what is wrong, esthetically and psychologically, with the Aschenbach type of artist. That discourse is basicallyvery simple: Aschenbach is striving for balance at all costs and thereby avoiding reality. Alfried repeats this criticism time and again, asserting--against the evidence of the film's luscious soundtrack-that this music is stillborn. It is in the brothel scene (pp. 283-285, Nos. 240-248), the central episode of the film, that Aschenbach's problem is traced to its roots. In this flashbackwe are taken into a plush turn of the century brothel complete with piano-playingand beer-drinkingprostitutes. As Aschenbach is about to leave, a sullen and disappointedlooking Esmeraldaholds his arm in a tight grip so that he has to pull away forcefully. We are shown that Aschenbach's attitude towardthe realm of the senses is a defensive one; Esmeraldaand what she represents are not allowed to serve as an inspiration for his work-a point implicit also in Alfried's agitated



disquisitions.Unlike Mann,however,Viscontidoes not show us why came to adopthis position,since there is little and how Aschenbach in this film of Aschenbach's asceticand by no meansconappreciation andperfection. for balance temptible striving and Viscontidevisedfor this film do complement The flashbacks hownot This does the presenttense action. renderintelligible mean, and correspond to, the esthetic,psychologiever, that they summarize, argumentin the omittedparts of Mann's story. cal, and ideological fromwhichthere Whatthey amountto is a new anddifferent argument from which is of Aschenbach quitedifferent emergesa new conception and in stature is reduced that of the original. Visconti'sartistfigure the from is a ThisAschenbach failure socialrepresentativeness. start;at which is and no pointdo we see him at the heightof achievement fame, And work. in for the criticalanalysis Mann's the point of departure since Visconti refrainsfrom giving any hint of Aschenbach's prethe the vieweris in no positionto understand classicistdevelopment, make to the had to and appreciate tragic crucialchoices Aschenbach aspects of his career. Thus the film has reducedand considerably simplified the complexity of Mann's case against Aschenbach. in that he Visconti'scase againstthis type of artistis less ambivalent as the root of the problem. sexual repression diagnosesAschenbach's that I role of homosexuality This may in part explainthe magnified earlier. mentioned filmthatcallsfor comment, Thereis one moredetailin Visconti's scene. It is clearlylifted brothel the that source of and is the literary is oddin a filmthatpurwhich fromMann'slatenovelDoctor Faustus,24 did is to colWhat Visconti Venice. actually portsto be aboutDeathin works scene two different by separated lapse in the film's most crucial to more than thirtyyears. This is boundto be confusing,particularly the comAdrian Faustus. those viewerswho knowDoctor Leverkiihn, poser hero of that novel, accidentallyencounters the prostitute Esmeralda from whomhe flees at first but to whomhe returnsa few a syphilitic infection. That monthslaterin orderto contract deliberately the releaseof brain and his of an unholyillumination infectiontriggers functhe infection creativepowers. Furthermore, syphilitic unheard-of as and a a the Devil with as pact tions allegorically metaphorfor that obvious It be Visconti's should Germany'spact with Nazism. the full a to is much too frail figure carry Aschenbach weightof this art and about history by the later philosophizing highly problematic historical fact of thatnone these Mann. Not to mentionthe implications
can be made visible on screen. What then might be the purpose of this fanciful combination of two different works by Mann? If I understand



him correctly, Visconti'spoint appears to be that Aschenbach is to be viewedas a prefiguration of Leverkiihn.This is presumably the reason for naming the ship on which Aschenbach enters Venice the "Esmeralda"; undoubtedlythis is meant as a further signal that Aschenbach's crisis in Venice is ultimately conditioned by Esmeralda andhis refusalof her knowledge.The troublewiththis interpretation is that in DoctorFaustus the encounterwith Esmeralda carriesdifferent meaningswhich have no bearingon Aschenbach. The associations evokedby Esmeralda are reallyquite alien to the situation of Aschenand with Visconti's the Doctor-Faustus-connection strikes bach, toying one as pretentious a blunderin the conception and constitutes of the film. I have triedto show that Visconti's Morte a Venezia differsfrom in a number Mann'sTodin Venedig of important The filmnot respects. it tells the tells if the also a different And only storydifferently, story. film has somethingdifferent to say we shouldconcludeby addressing very brieflytwo final questions: Does the film offer a coherentand of the literarywork; and is this new plausiblenew interpretation in termsof the cinematic realized medium? interpretation successfully Visconti's of film, it seems to me, does not matchthe complexity Mann'snarrative.Withinthe different of possibilities cinema,however, Viscontihas achieveda workof impressive visualbeautyand considerable subtlety. WhereasMannreliedprimarily on verballeitmotifsand with Visconti is most successful color leitmotifs. I have symbolism, in the white this mentioned of function already film;the otherstriking in of seen the use of black. In the color be example symbolism may first shot of the film we are a shown very gloomyblacktrailof smoke whichemanates fromthe steamship "Esmeralda." the film Throughout blackis associated withthe various of death down the last to messengers scene when we see a messytrickleof blackdye running downthe face of the deceasedAschenbach.A similar andcohesion sense of structure is in evidence in the timing and sequenceof the flashbacks and in severalsmaller detailsof costumeanddecor. As for the artisticstatementof the film, it seems that we are indeedfacedhere withwhatamountsto a new interpretation of Mann's in his own termsthe Mannian novella. Visconti has restated dilemma of the artist. He couldnot havedoneotherwise, of course,sinceit wasnot thatMann of Aschenbach possiblein 1970to have the same perception had in 1912. Nor was it possibleto simplyratifyand parrotMann's
unique and historically conditioned diagnosis of the artist as though nothing had happened to our own view of the artist in the intervening of sixty years. This historicalawarenessaccounts for two characteristics



the film: Visconti's clumsy attemptto establish a connection with Doctor Faustus,and his reduction of the artistic and human stature of Aschenbach. Whereas Mann still had good reasons, subjectively and objectively, to conceive of the artist as the acclaimedand honored representative of his culture, Visconti--looking back over sixty years at the fortunes of the traditional, romantic type of artist in the twentieth century-was probablyequallyjustified in seeing that artist as a failure. And while Mann could still diagnose the artist's dilemma as tragic, Visconti-with the increased awareness in our time of the ramifications of sexual repression and alienation from reality-may have made himthat dilemma as merely a sad self more readily understoodby portraying and patheticone.25 SmithCollege

on film in his essaysand lettersare colThomasMann'spronouncements lectedin Das KinoundThomas Mann,ed. by HelgaBelach,et al. (Berlin: bookis avail1975). A copyof this privately Kinemathek, printed Stiftung in ZOrich. ableat the Thomas-Mann-Archiv 2 "Uberden Film;"Thomas ed. by HansBorgin Mann,Gesammelte Werke, S. Fischer,1960),X, p. 900 (henceforth: (Frankfurt: GW). Fora percepof the critical tive analysis debatein Germany on the relationship between film and literature,see the introduction to Kino-Debatte. Texte zum Max Niemeyerand DTV, 1978), pp. 1-36. ThomasMann'sessay "Uber of the den Film" is reprinted here, pp. 164-166. An Englishtranslation
essay can be found in Th. Mann, Past Mastersand OtherEssays,tr. by Helen Lowe-Porter(New York: A. Knopf, 1933). 3 "Film und Roman" (1955); GW, X, p. 937. 4 Ibid. s So far, and apart from Death in Venice,the following works by Thomas dir. by Mann have been adapted to film and television: Buddenbrooks, in two parts, dir. by Alfred Gerhard Lamprecht (1923); Buddenbrooks, in eleven parts,for West German televWeidenmann(1959); Buddenbrooks, von Literatur und Film 1909-1929, ed. by Anton Kaes (Tolbingen: Verhaltnis

dir. by ision (ARD), dir. by FranzPeterWirth(1979);Kdnigliche Hoheit,

Harald Braun (1953); Felix Krull, dir. by Kurt Hoffmann (1957); Tonio dir. by Rolf Thiele (1965); dir. by Rolf Thiele (1964); Wallsungenblut, Kr6ger, Tristan, for West-German television (ZDF), dir. by Herbert Ballmann dir. by Egon GOntherfor Defa (1975); Unordnung (1975); Lotte in Weimar, dir. Franz Seitz (1977). Leid, by undfrilhes 6 The only reservation Mann expressed, jokingly, was against the possible choice of Adolf WohlbrUck for the lead part; he consideredWohlbrocktoo handsome for the role of Aschenbach. See his letter of Nov. 1, 1934, to Gottfried Bermann-Fischer, in Thomas Mann. Briefwechselmit seinem



Bermann-Fischer 1932-1955, ed. by Peter de Mendelssohn Verleger GotOrried (Frankfurt:S. Fischer, 1973), p. 85. a cura di LuchinoVisconti, 7 Cf. the interview with Visconti in Mortea Venezia di LinoMiccichi(Bologna: Capelli, 1971), pp. 109-128. This book also contains the screenplayfor the film. All references to the screenplaywill be given in the text of my essay. of Film(New York: Oxford UP, 1965), p. 237. SiegfriedKracauer,Theory 9 See, f.i., George Bluestone, Novels into Film (Berkeley: University of Caliand Film (Bloomington: fornia Press, 1957); Robert Richardson, Literature Werke Indiana UP, 1969); Alfred Estermann, Die Verfilmung literarischer on this problem, see A. (Bonn: Bouvier, 1965). For a useful bibliography Kaes, Kino-Debatte, pp. 187-189. 10 GW, VIII, p. 455. 11 See Mann's letter of May 30, 1938, to Agnes E. Meyer, in Dichteraberihre Mann. TeilI: 1889-1917,hrsg. von Hans Wyslingund Dichtungen. Thomas MarianneFischer (Manchen: Heimeran, 1975), p. 437. 12 Cf. Carl Am&ry,"Venezianische Zaubereien. Luchino Visconti und sein XXV (1971), pp. 808-812; B. M. Kane, "Tho'Tod in Venedig,"' Merkur, mas Mann and Visconti," ModernLanguages,LII (1972), pp. 74-80; Ladislao Mittner, "Di due o tre Morti Veneziane," StG, XI (1973), pp. 343-354; Alexander Hutchison, "Luchino Visconti's 'Death in Venice,"' Literature/Film II (1974), pp. 31-43; Martin Schlappneret al., Quarterly, Luchino Visconti (Manchen: Hanser, 1975), pp. 117-122; Epi Wiese, "Visconti and Renoir: Shadowplay," YR, LXIV (1974/75), pp. 202-217; Irving Singer, "Death in Venice: Visconti and Mann," MLN, XCI (1976), pp. 1348-1359; Werner und Ingeborg Faulstich, Modelle der Filmanalyse (Molnchen:Fink, 1977), pp. 14-57.

13 Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti(New York: Viking, 1973), pp. 194-204. 14 Geoffrey Wagner, TheNoveland the Cinema (Rutherford,NJ: FairleighDickinson UP, 1975), p. 345. 15 I cannot discuss in the present context the adaptationof Mann's story by (first performed MyfanwyPiperfor BenjaminBritten'sopera Deathin Venice on June 16, 1973). Suffice it to say that Piper's libretto goes much farther in freeing itself from the original than Visconti's and Nicolo Badalucco's screenplay and that this fact probably accounts in great measure for the opera's artisticsuccess. Cf. Deathin Venice.An Operain twoacts. Libretto by MyfanwyPiper based on the short story by Thomas Mann, set to music by BenjaminBritten,opus 88 (London: Faber Music, 1973). 16 See Erika Mann's introductionfo ThomasMann, Briefe 1889-1936 (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1962), p. x. 17 Hollis Alpert, "Directors at Work: Visconti in Venice," SR, Aug. 8, 1970, pp. 16-18.



Ernest Wolf, "A Case of Slightly Mistaken Identity: Gustav Mahler and Gustav Aschenbach," TCL,XIX (1973), pp. 40-52.

19 SR, Oct. 24, 1970, p. 28. 20 SR, Dec. 19, 1970, p. 20.
21 Cf. anon., "Mahler und Visconti," Neue Zaircher Zeitung,Oct. 7, 1972, and

Klaus Pringsheim(Thomas Mann's brother-in-law and a student particularly of Mahler's), "Protest gegen 'Tod in Venedig,"' Abendzeitung (Mlnchen), Nov. 21, 1971: "An der Wurzel des Films Tod in Venedig ruht das Verbrechen zweifacher Verleumdung: gegentlber Gustav Mahler, dessen Bild erbarmlichentehrt wurde, gegen Thomas Mann, verehrungswalrdiges dessen Roman in den Augen vieler Kinoganger, die ihn nicht gelesen wird. Es muss haben, als Quelle der VerleumdungMahlers gebrandmarkt und wird etwas geschehen, um ein unverzeihliches Unrecht wiedergutzumachen und um die Namen zweier Gigantender europaischenLiteraturund Musik vor weiteren Beleidigungen zu schtltzen." 22 See my article "Thomas Mann und die Neuklassik," JDSG, XVII (1973), pp. 432-54. 23 I am indebted to my colleague Vittorio R. Felaco for helping me to understand this song. 24 GW, VI, p. 190ff. 25 The present paper, originally a lecture, owes much to the criticism and encouragementit received at various stages by my colleagues Peter Bloom, Nelly S. Hoyt, Anton Kaes, Judith Ryan, John Simon, and Donald White. Their reactionsand disagreementshave been invaluablein helpingme clarify my own criticalassessmentof the film.

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