When, still at school, I read Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice about the writer Aschenbach's fatal visit to Venice at the end of his life, I saw it as a sad portrayal of a man who had dedicated his life to lucid rationality, who finally surrendered to a hopeless and irrational quest for beauty.
The fact that the beauty in question was an adolescent boy didn't seem to matter. This wasn't a homosexual fantasy; in the novella the boy Tadzio was an almost-abstract representation of a surrender of lifelong values.
The writer Aschenbach was a thinly-veiled portrait of the composer Gustav Mahler. But Luchino Visconti, for his far more overt cinematic version of Mann's tale, strips away this veil. His Aschenbach is now a composer. And the identification with Mahler is enforced by the use of Mahler's Fifth Symphony (the 'adagietto' movement) as the main musical theme of the movie, along with a snatch from the Third.
Although the movie loses the subtlety of the novella, it is still a remarkably beautiful piece of work. The philosophy has been largely lost, but we are left with a wonderful travelogue. The opening sequence, as Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) approaches Venice at dawn on an Adriatic steamer, is amongst the most beautiful sequences ever filmed. Some of the images of the city and its inhabitants, as cholera starts its invasion, are as horrific as the opening is beautiful.
As well as the slow, hypnotically beautiful opening of the movie, Death in Venice is a well-nigh perfect fusion of cinema image and music. The matching of Mahler's music with image provides a synergy which, once experienced, can never be forgotten. And almost as effective in a quite different way is the aural backdrop in some scenes of a small Palm-Court style string-orchestra mutilating themes from Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow.
This film is isn't one of Dirk Bogarde's finest cinema roles - it doesn't compare with his turns in The Servant, A Tale of Two Cities and So Long at the Fair. But it is still a reasonably effective piece of acting, even if it is over-fruity at times.
Most other characters in the movie are just cyphers - and the cypher best remembered is the young boy Tadzio, played by Bjorn Andresen who possesses an almost asexual appearance. It's fascinating that he is the same boy who features on the cover of feminist Germaine Greer's bizarre pin-up book Beautiful Boy.
It's a real shame that, as I mention in the audio discussion below, the sound quality of this transfer is so appallingly bad. One of the glories of the movie has been destroyed by use of a virtually unlistenable audio track.
There are three audio tracks on offer; one-channel audio in English, Italian and French.
The English is, for Australian audiences, the most important track as it offers largely undubbed dialogue - it was filmed with Dirk Bogarde speaking in English, and the dubbed versions are not very well lip-synched and don't sound at all convincing.
But this English language layer is deeply flawed. It sounds as if it was recorded on magnetic tape which has been badly stretched. Mahler's music, a key to the entire movie, wavers and wobbles above and below pitch and becomes totally unlistenable in key scenes such as the wondrous opening sequence and the closing beach scene.
Neither the Italian nor the French audio tracks suffer from this problem. This wouldn't matter if the viewer could toggle between languages while watching the movie. But the disc has been engineered to prevent that. To change language tracks, you must leave the movie to access the menu, and select language in that laborious, mood-destroying manner.
While the film lacks the deep resonances of the novella, it is astonishingly beautiful. But this edition is deeply flawed by us being presented with an almost-unlistenable English audio track.
If you purchase or rent it, reconcile yourself to having to watch with either the Italian or French language tracks only.