Death in Venice (1971)

GP | 130 mins | Drama | June 1971

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HISTORY

The picture was released in Italy, where it was filmed, as Morte a Venezia . Thomas Mann’s novella was first published in the Berlin magazine Die Neue Rundshaud (Oct—Nov 1912) and as a special, limited edition before being printed in regular book form in 1913. The film features numerous flashbacks of the character “Gustav von Aschenbach” remembering his wife and daughter; his numerous conversations with his student, “Alfried”; and the embarrassing encounter with the prostitute “Esmerelda.” Some of the flashbacks occur only as voice-over narration as Aschenbach thinks about his discussions with Alfried.
       In 1964, several sources reported that actor-director José Ferrer and his partner, Joseph Besch, had acquired the rights to Mann’s novella. Ferrer was slated to direct the project, with Besch set to produce and BBC drama critic H. A. L. Craig to write the screenplay. A Feb 1964 Var item stated that Ferrer and Craig were planning to write the screenplay together, and other news items noted that Ferrer would not act in the film. In Apr 1965, DV reported that Franco Zeffirelli had confirmed that he would direct the project for Besch, although by Jul 1965, sources again reported that Ferrer would be directing and that the film would begin shooting the following spring. According to a modern source, Ferrer considered John Gielgud, Burt Lancaster and Alec Guinness for the leading role. In 1969, HR and DV announced Ferrer had purchased the screen rights, presumably from Besch, and would be writing the screenplay himself.
       In Oct 1969, Var reported that Luchino Visconti would direct ... More Less

The picture was released in Italy, where it was filmed, as Morte a Venezia . Thomas Mann’s novella was first published in the Berlin magazine Die Neue Rundshaud (Oct—Nov 1912) and as a special, limited edition before being printed in regular book form in 1913. The film features numerous flashbacks of the character “Gustav von Aschenbach” remembering his wife and daughter; his numerous conversations with his student, “Alfried”; and the embarrassing encounter with the prostitute “Esmerelda.” Some of the flashbacks occur only as voice-over narration as Aschenbach thinks about his discussions with Alfried.
       In 1964, several sources reported that actor-director José Ferrer and his partner, Joseph Besch, had acquired the rights to Mann’s novella. Ferrer was slated to direct the project, with Besch set to produce and BBC drama critic H. A. L. Craig to write the screenplay. A Feb 1964 Var item stated that Ferrer and Craig were planning to write the screenplay together, and other news items noted that Ferrer would not act in the film. In Apr 1965, DV reported that Franco Zeffirelli had confirmed that he would direct the project for Besch, although by Jul 1965, sources again reported that Ferrer would be directing and that the film would begin shooting the following spring. According to a modern source, Ferrer considered John Gielgud, Burt Lancaster and Alec Guinness for the leading role. In 1969, HR and DV announced Ferrer had purchased the screen rights, presumably from Besch, and would be writing the screenplay himself.
       In Oct 1969, Var reported that Luchino Visconti would direct and produce the screen version of Mann’s novella for Mega Film, although by 1970, it was announced that the project would be made for Mario Gallo’s Alfa Cinematografica company. According to a Jun 1970 Var article, the Mann family estate “sided with Visconti in sealing the part” of Aschenbach for actor Dirk Bogarde and helped to obtain the rights from Ferrer for Visconti. Contemporary news items and HR production charts add that Warner Bros. was the main financial partner in the enterprise. The Jun 1970 Var article reported that Warner Bros. supplied $1,600,000 of the film’s budget. The rest of the financing came from the French company P.E.C.F. Films.
       Visconti, Bogarde, screenwriter Nicola Badalucco and cinematographer Pasquale de Santis had recently worked together on the 1969 film The Damned (see above). Several contemporary sources reported that actress Silvana Mangano did not take a salary for appearing in Death in Venice because she wanted the chance to work with Visconti. Bogarde and other “above-the-line talent” deferred their salaries, or took minimal wages, against percentage points, according to the Var article. Although their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed, studio press reported that Visconti, an Italian count, had cast many of his aristocratic friends as extras, including the following: Countess Maria Franchin Donati delle Rose, Countess Lily Morett dell’Adimari, Countess Maria Barozzi, Countess Antonia Donati delle Rose, Countess Anna Maria Balbi Valier, Countess Querini Querina, Countess Francesca Barozzi, Countess Letizia Franchetti, Donna Anna Maria Bramante, Donna Ida D’Ottariano Bressania and Marquesa Corrado Corviao. Modern sources include Marcello Bonini Olas, Bruno Boschetti, Nicoletta Elmi, Mirella Pamphili and Marco Tulli in the cast.
       The picture was shot on location in Venice, primarily at the Hôtel des Bains, the locale of Mann’s novella, and some interiors were filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Modern sources add Trieste and Bolzano, Italy as additional location sites. Although a Jul 1970 HR news item noted that the German company Taurus Films of Munich had filed a lawsuit to stop the production, the exact reason for the suit was not specified. The item reported that Visconti, who was “more than two-thirds finished after 10 weeks’ filming in Venice,” asserted that he had fully cleared the rights to the novella. No other information about the suit has been found.
       The film differs from Mann’s novella in several ways. In the novel Aschenbach is a writer, not a composer. Some literary historians have posited that Mann partially modeled the character on composer Gustav Mahler, and in contemporary interviews, Visconti recounted that because he wanted to use Mahler’s music as the film’s main score, he felt it was appropriate to change Aschenbach’s profession and to model him even more closely on Mahler. Warner Bros. press notes add that Bogarde was made up to resemble the composer. Other literary historians have noted, however, that the character of Aschenbach is related more to Mann himself, who took a similar vacation to Italy in 1911 and there saw a young Polish boy who became the inspiration for Tadzio. According to an Oct 1970 HR article, Mann’s widow and Mahler’s daughter both denied that Mahler was the “prototype” for Aschenbach.
       Although in the novel it is established that Aschenbach has a deceased wife and a grown daughter, the flashbacks in the film concerning his family were created for the picture. The novel also does not feature the characters Esmerelda or Alfried, who were added for the film. Some of the conversations Aschenbach and Alfried have in the picture are, in the novel, internal musings Aschenbach has about art and beauty.
       Numerous contemporary film reviewers criticized Visconti for adding a homosexual slant to the picture that they felt was not present in the book. The Newsweek critic, in one of the more castigating reviews, stated: “Visconti has cast the Mann story in the least interesting terms, treating it like a requiem for an aging homosexual.” Visconti defended himself in a 27 Jun 1971 NYT interview, in which stated that the love Aschenbach feels for Tadzio is “ not homosexual. It is love without eroticism, without sexuality,” and that Tadzio is “a symbol for beauty.”
       Although the onscreen credits “introduce” actor Björn Andresen, who plays Tadzio, he had previously appeared in a 1970 Swedish-language film. Death in Venice did mark Andresen’s first appearance in an English-language film, although his limited amount of dialogue is not in English. On 7 Jun 1970, before Death in Venice had completed production, Italian television aired a thirty-minute documentary entitled Alla ricerca di Tadzio about Visconti’s extensive search to find an unknown actor to play the pivotal role. Andresen did not act in another motion picture until the 1977 Swedish film Bluff Stop . Death in Venice did mark the feature-film debut of model Marisa Berenson.
       The film, which was lavished with praise from reviewers for its cinematography, art direction and costume design, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design and won BAFTA Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Soundtrack. The picture won several other awards given by film critics and festivals throughout the world. Visconti received a special 25th Anniversary Prize at Cannes in May 1971 for both Death in Venice and his entire body of work. According to a Feb 1971 DV news item, “special allowances” were made for the film so that it could represent Italy in the competition, despite its primarily English-language soundtrack. The news item also noted that the film had been the first picture selected for competition at Cannes that year. Several of the film’s premieres, including the Royal Premiere in London, were benefits for charities dedicated to the restoration of Venice.
       In 1973, the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s two-act opera Death in Venice , based on Mann’s novella, was held in England, with an English libretto by Myfanwy Piper. The opera has been filmed twice for British television: the first version aired in 1981, was directed by Tony Palmer and starred Robert Gard; the second one was broadcast in 1998, was directed by Robin Laugh and starred Robert Tear. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Cue
27 Jun 1970.
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Daily Variety
29 May 1964.
---
Daily Variety
14 Apr 1965.
---
Daily Variety
10 Feb 1971
p. 14.
Daily Variety
31 Mar 1971.
---
Daily Variety
28 Apr 1972.
---
Daily Variety
9 Nov 1972.
---
Filmfacts
1971
pp. 245-49.
Hollywood Citizen-News
11 Jun 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Feb 1964.
---
Hollywood Reporter
29 Jul 1965.
---
Hollywood Reporter
5 May 1969.
---
Hollywood Reporter
27 Feb 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 May 1970
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Jun 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
11 Jun 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jul 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
29 Oct 1970
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
25 May 1971
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
31 Jan 1972.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
6 Dec 1970.
---
Los Angeles Times
28 Jul 1970.
---
Los Angeles Times
4 Jun 1971.
---
Los Angeles Times
7 Jun 1971.
---
Los Angeles Times
30 Jun 1971
Section IV, p. 12.
New York
28 Jun 1971.
---
New York Times
16 Feb 1964.
---
New York Times
26 Dec 1965.
---
New York Times
4 Jan 1970.
---
New York Times
18 Jun 1971
p. 24.
New York Times
27 Jun 1971.
---
New Yorker
26 Jun 1971
p. 85.
Newsweek
28 Jun 1971
p. 90.
Publisher's Weekly
16 Mar 1964.
---
Saturday Review
19 Jun 1971
p. 28.
The Times (London)
13 Feb 2003.
---
Time
5 Jul 1971
p. 66.
Variety
19 Feb 1964.
---
Variety
22 Oct 1969.
---
Variety
21 Jan 1970.
---
Variety
24 Jun 1970
p. 27.
Variety
7 Apr 1971
p. 18.
Village Voice
8 Jul 1971
p. 54.
Vogue
Dec 1970
p. 165, 208-09, 211.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Assoc exec prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
2d asst cam
Still photos
Chief gaffer
Chief gaffer
Chief grip
ART DIRECTOR
FILM EDITORS
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dressing
COSTUMES
Cost des
Asst [to] Piero Tosi
MAKEUP
Makeup
Miss Mangano's makeup
Hairdresser
Hairdresser
Miss Mangano's hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod supv
Prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
Asst prod mgr
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novella Der Tod in Venedig by Thomas Mann (Berlin, 1913).
AUTHOR
MUSIC
Selections from Symphony No. 3 in D Minor and Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Gustav Mahler
"Für Elise" by Ludwig van Beethoven.
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Morte a Venezia
Release Date:
June 1971
Premiere Information:
World premiere in London: 1 Mar 1971; Rome opening: 4 Mar 1971; New York opening: 17 Jun 1971; Los Angeles opening: 30 Jun 1971
Production Date:
late Apr--early Aug 1970 in Italy
Copyright Claimant:
Alfa Cinematografica, S.R.L.
Copyright Date:
2 March 1971
Copyright Number:
LF110
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
Widescreen/ratio
Panavision
Duration(in mins):
130
MPAA Rating:
GP
Countries:
France, Italy, United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1911, famed German composer Gustav von Aschenbach leaves Munich for a vacation in Venice, where he hopes to restore his physical and mental health. During the boat ride, Aschenbach is annoyed by an elderly man, wearing makeup and cavorting drunkenly, who spouts nonsensical compliments. Aschenbach then takes a gondola from the steamship landing to the Lido, where he is to stay at the prestigious Hôtel des Bains, but during the trip, the gondolier irritates the composer with his surliness. Finally arriving at the hotel, Aschenbach examines the luxurious surroundings and settles into his room, which overlooks the beach and its many cabanas. As he wearily positions some photographs, he remembers his recent collapse, after which his doctor prescribed a complete rest. Aschenbach also recalls a conversation he had with Alfried, his devoted yet combative pupil, in which he mused about the nature of time and how one cannot see time running out until the very end. That evening, the composer joins the other guests in the lobby before dinner and observes the sparkling tableaux of refinement, wealth and various nationalities. Aschenbach spots a family of three young girls with a governess and their brother, a blonde teenager possessing such stunning and classical beauty that Aschenbach cannot help but stare at him as dinner is announced and the other guests leave. The family remains behind, however, while the children’s regal mother arrives and they greet her. Ascertaining from their conversation that the family is Polish, Aschenbach is charmed by the children’s good manners and the elegance of both mother and son. Upon being seated in the dining room, Aschenbach ... +


In 1911, famed German composer Gustav von Aschenbach leaves Munich for a vacation in Venice, where he hopes to restore his physical and mental health. During the boat ride, Aschenbach is annoyed by an elderly man, wearing makeup and cavorting drunkenly, who spouts nonsensical compliments. Aschenbach then takes a gondola from the steamship landing to the Lido, where he is to stay at the prestigious Hôtel des Bains, but during the trip, the gondolier irritates the composer with his surliness. Finally arriving at the hotel, Aschenbach examines the luxurious surroundings and settles into his room, which overlooks the beach and its many cabanas. As he wearily positions some photographs, he remembers his recent collapse, after which his doctor prescribed a complete rest. Aschenbach also recalls a conversation he had with Alfried, his devoted yet combative pupil, in which he mused about the nature of time and how one cannot see time running out until the very end. That evening, the composer joins the other guests in the lobby before dinner and observes the sparkling tableaux of refinement, wealth and various nationalities. Aschenbach spots a family of three young girls with a governess and their brother, a blonde teenager possessing such stunning and classical beauty that Aschenbach cannot help but stare at him as dinner is announced and the other guests leave. The family remains behind, however, while the children’s regal mother arrives and they greet her. Ascertaining from their conversation that the family is Polish, Aschenbach is charmed by the children’s good manners and the elegance of both mother and son. Upon being seated in the dining room, Aschenbach moves the centerpiece to have an unobstructed view of the beautiful boy. While eating, the composer remembers a conversation with Alfried in which they heatedly debated the relationships between beauty, reality, art and spirituality. Aschenbach, an austere man who believes that only by maintaining domination over the senses can one achieve wisdom, dignity and truth, rejected Alfried’s opinion that the creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual, spontaneous act. They also argued about evil, which Alfried says is “the food of genius,” while Aschenbach vigorously asserted that the true artist must be an exemplary, unambiguous model of moral balance and strength. In the morning, Aschenbach asks the manager how long the sirocco, a hot, oppressive wind, will last, as it is aggravating his poor health. Annoyed by the manager’s evasiveness, Aschenbach goes to breakfast, where he again sees the beautiful youth with his family. Aschenbach then walks to the beach, where he watches the boy play with his friends and learns that his name is Tadzio. Enchanted by Tadzio’s grace and exuberance, Aschenbach eschews his work to relax, enjoying the sunshine and some strawberries. That evening, however, discomforted by Tadzio’s nearness in the elevator, Aschenbach becomes distraught and is unable to concentrate. Fearing an emotional entanglement, he remembers another argument with Alfried during which the younger man accused him of being afraid of direct, honest contact with others because his rigid moral standards dictate that his behavior be as perfect as his music. Using his health as an excuse, Aschenbach prepares to leave the next day, but after dawdling to catch one last glimpse of Tadzio, he learns at the train station that his trunk has been sent to the wrong town. Petulantly, Aschenbach demands its immediate return, and upon being told that it will take three days, insists that he will not leave Venice without it. Making his way back to the hotel, Aschenbach is suddenly happy and carefree, relieved that the decision to stay was made for him. Returning to the beach, he revels in watching Tadzio romp with his friends, one of whom, Jaschu, is particularly attached to him. Content, Aschenbach remembers a long ago, beautiful day in the countryside that he enjoyed with his wife and their young daughter. In the present, Aschenbach is so inspired by Tadzio that he begins composing. Another day, as he goes to the beach, Aschenbach walks behind Tadzio and considers catching up to talk to him, but is overcome by the effort and grabs onto a pole for support while the boy wanders off. Later, Tadzio is alone in the lobby and playing the piano when Aschenbach enters. Trembling with emotion, Aschenbach asks the manager about newspaper stories that there is sickness in Venice, but the manager assures him that all is well. Aschenbach persists, asking about the notices posted by the health department, and the manager states that it is merely a precaution taken because of the heat and the sirocco. As Tadzio continues to play, Aschenbach remembers a visit he made years earlier to a brothel, where a prostitute named Esmerelda was playing the same tune when he entered her room. Embarrassed at having given in to his base desires, Aschenbach wept with shame after their assignation. Later that evening, Tadzio smiles sweetly and openly at Aschenbach as the composer passes the promenading family, and the older man is overwhelmed by emotion. Murmuring to himself that the boy should never smile such a smile at anyone, Aschenbach finally breaks down and whispers aloud, “I love you.” Unable to deny his feelings for the boy, Aschenbach begins to follow the family everywhere, even on Sunday when they attend church. Walking behind them and hiding to avoid observation, even though Tadzio is usually aware of his presence, Aschenbach trails his beloved throughout Venice. One day, he notices a foul-smelling liquid being smeared on streets and buildings, but no one will answer his questions about what it is. One evening, as the hotel guests sit on the veranda, Tadzio lingers near Aschenbach while a troupe of garish local musicians performs. When Aschenbach asks the leader why Venice is being disinfected, the man dissembles about “the usual precautions.” Still suspicious, the next day Aschenbach goes to a British travel agency. There, the manager tells him that Asiatic cholera has reached Venice and that despite the government’s struggles to contain and cover it up, the death toll is mounting and every hospital bed is filled. As the manager warns him to flee Venice immediately, Aschenbach fantasizes about informing the mother that she needs to leave also, then caressing Tadzio’s head in farewell. At the hotel, however, Aschenbach is torn between his desires to warn the family or to keep the news secret so that Tadzio will stay. Calling himself a rogue, he remembers his wife’s grief at the death of their daughter. Soon after, Aschenbach visits a barber and despairs over his gray hair. The barber, while reprimanding him for neglecting his appearance, promises to restore his youth. By applying hair dye and covering the composer’s face with a liberal amount of foundation, rouge and lipstick, the barber transforms the formerly staid man into a dandy. Believing himself dashing, the satisfied Aschenbach searches for Tadzio. He finds the siblings, led by their governess, as they wander around the now ruined streets of Venice, empty of tourists and covered with mounds of burning rubbish. Lost and frightened, the family searches for a route to the hotel, although Tadzio ensures that Aschenbach can maintain sight of him. Aschenbach cannot keep up, however, and collapses, sweating and gasping. Crying over his wretchedness, he remembers his last concert, at which the audience loudly rejected his compositions. Near fainting, Aschenbach was led away by his wife, while Alfried castigated him for achieving a perfection and severity of form that was devoid of all emotion. That night, as he tosses in his bed at the hotel, Aschenbach remembers Alfried’s bitter declaration that the composer is old. In the morning, Aschenbach sees a pile of luggage in the lobby and learns from the manager that it belongs to the Polish family, who will be departing after lunch. Heartbroken, the composer staggers to the nearly deserted beach, where Tadzio is wrestling with Jaschu, who is upset that his friend is leaving. When the larger Jaschu shoves Tadzio’s face in the mud, Aschenbach struggles to get up from his chair to help the boy but cannot. As his tears mingle with the dye running from his hair, Aschenbach watches forlornly while Tadzio regains his feet and wanders alone into the water. Finally succumbing to the cholera, Aschenbach grows delirious and imagines that the perfect boy is pointing off into the distance, at the sun and water. Smiling slightly, Aschenbach stretches out a hand to his beloved, then collapses and dies alone. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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