Thomas Mann & Gustav Mahler
There is possibly a no more overwhelming death in cinema than the one that ends this adaptation of Thomas Mann‘s novella of homosexual desire. Dirk Bogarde is perfection as the bitter, vitriolic Gustav Aschenbach, a man so consumed with what he considers ideal beauty that he welcomes his own destruction for a moment in it’s company.
Thomas Mann and Gustav Mahler had met only once, in Munich, at the premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, an event that was a huge success. The writer was struck by Mahler’s “burningly intense personality”. Eight months later, when Mann was on an Adriatic holiday, the papers reported that Mahler was seriously ill. Mann followed news of his deteriorating condition by the day, and was shocked to read of his death. He clipped a photograph of the composer. This, together with his recollection of their meeting, came to have considerable significance in his next literary creation, the novella Death in Venice.
In Mann’s novella, Aschenbach is a novelist. Visconti‘s decision to make him a composer instead opened the treasure houses of Mahler’s 3rd and 5th symphonies. Otherwise the film is faithful to its source: Aschenbach has come to Venice to recover from personal and artistic stresses. Instead, overtaken by an unrequited passion for an unattainable boy, he courts death by failing to heed warnings about the cholera epidemic sweeping the city.
The piece most closely associated with Death in Venice is the fourth movement from his Fifth Symphony, marked Adagietto, a short slow movement that is like nothing else from the 10 that Mahler composed.