Cinema: Soul Destroyed

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Vladimir Nabokov called it "posh-lost," a Russian term he translates as "crude pseudo literature." Thomas Mann called it Death in Venice, perhaps the most celebrated novella of the 20th century.

One can understand the great Russian's distaste for the work of the great German. In the story, the sun does not rise and set; instead "the naked god with cheeks aflame drove his four fire-breathing steeds through heaven's spaces." Venice is not a city, but "the fallen Queen of the Seas." The symbolism accompanying the dense, involuted prose is no less affected. But Death in Venice works, as a tale, a moral instruction and as art. Of all authors, Mann was the least ingenuous. He deliberately chose the Romantic mode to bid adieu to the romantic mood. Through the spacious andante of Death in Venice, one can hear the contrapuntal knell of the 19th century with all its values, poses and styles.

A Broken Clown. In his film adaptation, Luchino Visconti (The Damned) pays his utmost disrespect to the original by maintaining Mann's fustian and removing his intention. In the novella, the aging Author-Philosopher Gustave Aschenbach seeks renewal in Venice. But like the fugitive with an appointment in Samarra, he finds death awaiting him. An elusive and beautiful youth, Tadzio, attracts the writer. Though he never touches his beloved, never even speaks to him. Aschenbach is rendered immobile by his platonic affair. A plague of cholera racks the city. At any time the writer is free to leave, but he cannot. Eventually, rouged and dyed in imitation of youth, Aschenbach assumes the aspect of a broken clown. At beachside, he finally succumbs, still gazing at the elusive figure of Tadzio. "And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease."

Those events would be difficult to render in the best of cinematic circumstances. Director Visconti provides the worst. Mann is supposed to have based his hero on Gustav Mahler. So Visconti, ruthlessly deleting Mann's imagination, makes the neoclassic author a Romantic musician—accompanied by plaintive strains of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, emphasized until it becomes as banal as the theme from Love Story. Mann's Aschenbach was a harrowed spent figure with a dead wife and a grown daughter. Visconti's is played by Dirk Bogarde, a man barely into middle age. Accordingly, he is equipped, like Mahler, with a young wife and a deceased child.

Most important, Mann's treatment of the unconsummated affair of man and boy was a metaphor for Europe's decaying society. But Visconti takes the veneer and calls it furniture. With infinite tedium, he pores over every facet of Tadzio's Botticelli visage; with stupid distortion, he makes the boy, played by Bjorn Andresen, a flirt whose eyes flash a come-on to his helpless elder, like some midnight cowboy off the Via Veneto. He even concocts an elaborate bordello scene in which Aschenbach is shown as a heterosexual failure—a moment that proves as barren of meaning as it is of style.

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