I have often been given to wonder about the meaning of time. Space too of course, but somehow less so, since I often see space as a cavity in which to put things, while all that happens happens in time and is subject to time. Of course, things happen in space too and a visual artist will find more meaning in spatial than temporal relations, but for me things unfold primarily in time and space is ‘simply’ the backdrop to this unfolding. Of course, things actually exist in space-time, which means that neither time nor space can be abstracted from one another and are intimately bound up with each other in the end. The gesture towards the end of Visconti’s film, Death in Venice, in which the young Tadzio raises his left arm in the air to salute the older Aschenbach is a spatial gesture which has a profound temporal significance that goes to the heart of the meaning of the film. It is a gesture of recognition; nevertheless, it is a gesture which takes place at a distance, against the background of the sea and the distant horizon; it is a gesture which, while establishing a relationship between Aschenbach and the boy, also establishes the limitations of their relationship, as if all that was possible between them was a gesture and nothing more. The older man will go his way towards death, and the young boy towards the threshold of a life which is beckoning him. And the distance between them is therefore a necessary one. But at the same time there is a pathos involved here, a pathos which arises out of the longing of the older man for the young boy, which, of course, can never find fulfilment, because, at heart, it is the longing of the older man for his own lost youth and the world of his youth which the young boy embodies. It is this almost Proustian theme of time lost which is the real subtext of Visconti’s film I believe.
In others ways too, the film is Proustian. The whole period-atmosphere it reproduces could almost have been lifted directly out the Combray episodes in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. The hotel scenes, the marvellous beach-scenes, orchestrated to reproduce the elegance of the era to such superb effect. One almost expects Monsieur de Charlus to suddenly appear hectoring Marcel about the ungrateful – or was it effeminate? - youth of the day. What is so satisfying about this film is the way that it is stripped down to pure gesture, with nothing superfluous about it. A director with less taste would, no doubt, have had Tadzio looking on quizzically while Aschenbach’s body was removed from the beach. But no, the last image we have of Tadzio is the last image Aschenbach has, the gesture of his raising his arm in the distance. Even the discussions which take place between Aschenbach and Alfred – who was, I believe, modelled on Schoenberg – about art and the physical v spiritual origin of beauty have their place in the economy of the film as a whole. Aschenbach, who is based on Mahler - hence the extensive use of the Adagietto of Mahler's 5th. Symphony in the film – has reached a creative crisis which also finds expression in physical illness. In other words, he has come to the point in his life which marks the transition between ‘youth’ and ‘age’ (psychologically, rather than physically speaking) which people often arrive at in middle-age and he has to liberate himself from some of the puritanical (and Platonic) illusions of his youth and embrace ‘the flesh’ if he is to progress further as an artist. He is at the cusp of this developmental trajectory at the beginning of the film and it is among the reasons why he has come to Venice to recuperate.
So far so good. But of course, what he finds is not recuperation, but rather an intensification of his crisis in the guise of a 14 year old Polish boy possessed of almost ethereal beauty. The ethereality of Tadzio’s beauty will trigger a conflict in Aschenbach in relation to his own Apollonian conception of art. Is it spiritual? Or is it physical? How does beauty first manifest itself? Is it created through work? Or does it just happen? It is through Tadzio that we encounter these unresolved issues in Aschenbach, because clearly Tadzio’s beauty is physical and has no spiritual source. Yet it remains ethereal and therefore ‘spiritual’. The ‘spiritual’ leading back to the physical, and the physical leading forward to the ‘spiritual’. It is through Tadzio that Aschenbach, a married man whose daughter has died, learns to confront the aridity of his life and art and embrace physical beauty in the form of a 14 year old boy who will always remain out of reach.
Aschenbach’s first reaction is to try to run away from his own inner turmoil and the temptation which first brought it on. He attempts to flee Venice but finds at the station that his luggage has been put on the wrong train. While at the station he also sees a man collapse from the Asiatic cholera which, at the end of the film, will also take Aschenbach. He resolves to return to the Lido in Venice and there is no doubt that Tadzio is the chief reason why. His inner conflict which had manifested itself in a desire to flee temptation now turns him in the opposite direction. It’s almost as if he just needs this excuse to stay. He has ‘tried’ to flee and failed and having ‘tried’, his conscience is clear and he now is free for Tadzio. Yet, they will only keep walking past one another, both looking at the other as they pass, each somehow fascinated by the other, without anyone saying a word or making a gesture of recognition. A slight smile will sometimes flicker on the edge of Tadzio’s lips, but nothing more will happen. He will stop to look back, but the idea of their cementing an actual relationship seems out of the question. At one point when Tadzio has passed Aschenbach and his smile has been especially enigmatic, Aschenbach will sit on a bench and say, “You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone.” And not long after will utter the words. “I love you.” Yet there is no possibility that this love will ever be consummated. If he was Tadzio’s age, perhaps, like Tadzio’s Polish playmate on the beach who pulls Tadzio to him and gives him a peck on the cheek, but he isn’t. Where can his love ever be consummated, except perhaps in some imaginary realm, the realm of the artist who must die to himself? This is the pathos of the longing Aschenbach feels and the impasse he has reached in himself as a result of it. And just as he became ill before due to a creative crisis, his catching cholera and dying from it seems to be a metaphor of the impasse he has reached in himself in relation to Tadzio. He will die on the beach, but the last image he will have will be of Tadzio ‘beckoning’ him, almost like an angelic presence who will accompany him in the realm of the dead.
The real question which interests me is why Aschenbach fell for Tadzio in the first place. Oh yes, I know all about the ‘dirty old paedophile’ syndrome, but something else is at stake in this film. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Aschenbach doesn’t know himself all that well, and is therefore unprepared psychologically for someone like Tadzio; he has led a sheltered bourgeois life in which he has simply done what was expected of him. He has been married, had a child, visited brothels and so on, none of which has really fulfilled him. In Thomas Mann’s novella of Death in Venice, which is the source of the film, Aschenbach is on the side of Apollo rather than Dionysus. He fears Dionysian excess. Dionysus leads to what Rimbaud called “the dissociation of the senses”. He is also sexually androgynous. According to Arthur Evans in The God Of Ecstasy, he was the only Greek god who enjoyed taking it up the backside. In other words, he epitomised what it means to really let go. What Tadzio brings out in Aschenbach’s highly repressed psyche is something close to complete abandonment of the values he has held dear – such as art as an Apollonian vocation. As a result of his prior repressions he is caught off-guard and goes overboard completely. Dirk Bogarde’s portrayal of his almost fatuous state of mind when he is thinking about Tadzio is perfectly rendered, I believe. Had he known himself better Aschenbach would have read the signs aright and nipped any feelings in the bud before they took possession of him. He’d have seen the impossible absurdity of loving a boy of 14 and the impasse it would lead to – especially a boy so firmly ensconsed in the ‘bosom’ of his family. In brief Freudian terms, his ego would have mastered his Id and he would just have admired Tadzio’s beauty from afar. But no, he fell head over heels into the abyss which being in love all too often opens up for the unwary. Knowing oneself, is knowing all about one’s own limitations. One can only go so far thinking of oneself as immortal. Sooner or later time catches up with you and you learn to make an adjustment. An older man loving a young boy in the way Aschenbach loves Tadzio can only be premised on the feeling that one doesn’t age, that one is still somehow ‘immortal’. And beyond middle-age that illusion becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.
One other fact to bear in mind about Apollo and Dionysus is that Apollo is a god whose youth and beauty is perpetuated through his drinking of nectar, which is the drink of immortality. He is an essentially static - and frigid - god who doesn't age. Dionysus, on the other hand, is a god of dissolution, consistently torn apart and dismembered - a much more dynamic god who seems to represent the very elemental processes involved in entropy. Ageing, of course, is due to those processes. The Apollonian - spiritual - art which Aschenbach favours in the film, is only one half of any artistic equation and it needs the Dionysian - i.e., the physical - to complete it. Nietzsche saw both gods as essential to artistic creation. Apollo was the god of illusion, the principle behind the aesthetic in the first place, while Dionysus is the god of dissolution and the breaking up of illusions which alone brings life into art. And until Aschenbach encounters the Dionysian within himself and his art, he will remain repressed and his art continue to be frigid and purely Apollonian. Vital art, after all, is all about taking Dionysian risks. But Dionysus is also the god of tragedy, and Aschenbach's predicament is of necessity a tragic one.
I am not the greatest fan of films adapted from novels. Visconti, however, has excelled in the genre for the very reason that he has departed from the original novel in quite a number of ways. Partly owing to this, Death in Venice is almost perfection. Why do I say almost? It IS perfection. There are some wonderful cameo-scenes in it which really do take it beyond perfection. The scene with the ladies suddenly passing the camera on the beach with their sunshades up, almost like a flotilla of boats drifting by. The conversations in different languages on the beach. The portrayal of the hotel manager. The extraordinary visual beauty of many of the scenes. And then of course, there is Mahler’s music. I can’t praise this film highly enough. But most of all, it is the extraordinary artistic vision which informs it which makes it, in my opinion, one of the finest films ever made.