In the literary world, Venice was famous for “The Merchant of Venice (Shylock)” of Shakespeare. On June 16, 1973 a very important event for the movie-lovers took place. It was the premiere of the Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten, based on the novella of Thomas Mann. Dirk Bogarde was his leading lady in the movie. As for Britten , he kept up to his 3 decades reputation of great stage work. He brought to life the immortal characters created by Thomas Mann with his masterly pen and latent literary genius. Britten’s dramatic instincts made the characters as if they were born to do their respective roles. The performance of Peter Pears in the role of Aschenbach excelled. In every shot of the movie, major or minor, he has succeeded in revealing the mystery of the characters, and the intermingling and mutual responses are perfectly human in the given situation of the story. The boy Tadzio, who is staying with his Polish family in the same grand hotel, is another very interesting and pivotal character of the movie. His closeness and attachment to Aschenbach raises many questions related to human sentiments and passions, resulting in strange reactions.
Innocence is the unique blessing of divinity. Those who have lost it for whatever reasons know its immense value. Even the epidemic of Cholera did no deter Aschenbach to quit Venice. The characters created by Thomas Mann, in his novella are no ordinary ones. They are enigmatic. To reveal such characters in their genuine frame of mind through dialogues, their actions and reactions, is no ordinary effort. In this regard Thomas Mann and Britten deserve equal credits. Their capability is matching. Their flight of imagination and destination are identical; only the mediums are different.
The concept of beauty can be clear with no shape and no sex. Such a state is very difficult to experience but Thomas Mann visualizes that level in the character of Tadzio. His writings are like the masterly strokes of an artist. He uses minimum words to say the maximum. Enigmatic characters on the stage are born out of enigmatic literary work. Great deeds are done when men and mountains meet! That’s what happened when Britten challenged Thomas Mann, in the friendliest way in the movie. But the most impartial critics have to agree on one point. Movie is the responsive action and it is the subsequent product. The novella comes first. But if Thomas Mann is given hundred marks, as for the creativity aspect, Britten also gets 100% for the movie. Britten drew inspiration from Thomas Mann. The movie is the consequential product of the original literary work. Both are victors in their respective areas.
To qualify as a masterpiece, any literary work needs to have the capacity to beat the time-barrier. Its contents must have such values as applicable to the past, preset and the future. That which is not practical, cannot be spiritual either! Every mythological expression needs to be connected to realism. Love and death are topics that have ageless significance to humanity and human beings are affected by the vibrations of these two words in one way or the other.
The plot of the novel in brief: It is the story of the suppressed spiritual and physical desires to find an outlet. When you fail to transcend the mind level barriers, the wandering mind takes you back to the avenues of normal human desires and passions. Gustav von Aschenbach is caught in a similar predicament. The moral and artistic ascetic life no more enchants him and the realities of human nature are now the hurdles in his path. He is fascinated by an exotic young man by name Tadzio, the real and natural beauty! At the same time, he is repulsed to see an old man, his make-up making him look young, savvy, and good-looking youngsters all around him. This observation of Aschebach says so many things about the inner working of his mind and it is the pointer to his soul force. He loves the real beauty, and abhors the artificial one! Even the advent of the dreaded disease Cholera does not bother him. He is not willing to leave the city, for the sake of the companionship of Tadzio. Separation from the boy is unthinkable for him. Finally death embraces him, when he is enveloped in strange experiences/hallucinations.
The life of Aschenbach fits in to the Freudian perspective. The lustful reckless state of mind scores victory over the stubborn disciplined, ascetic aspects of his life. A story always tells something about the author’s real life. This could be, rather this is true of Thomas Mann. Many finer points about philosophy of life and living have been extracted by the critics of Death in Venice. Each one is right in his own light. It is said that the writers and poets see, what the rays of the sun cannot see!
This work can not be termed as the flagship work of Thomas Mann. That a beautiful, all-time great movie was chiseled out of it, adds to the merit of the work. Since the book is very short, a novella, the director of the Movie Luchino Visconti, must have had his own problems to make a two hours movie out of it. The filling was achieved by still shots. However, this is not a wasteful effort. Still shots give you some time to ponder as you watch the movie. But it is perfect ten score again. You may take just two hours to watch the movie, and it takes 120 minutes or so to read the book! The choice is yours. But first things first! Better go for the book first. But do not miss the movie either. The movie is highly realistic.
Conflict in life, its trials and tribulations, its duty and beauty are the highlights of Mann’s novel, Death in Venice. His every character has its own philosophy. Mann tries to eke out truth from their day to day living and mutual interaction. The novel has the social, political and philosophical contents. Deep impact of the writings of German philosophers and their overriding influence can be seen in Mann’s writing.
The claim that the novel and the movie initiated a tourist boom to Venice is an authentic one. The Western World flocked to Venice. What the Tourist Board could not achieve, Thomas Mann and Luchino Visconti did. Hotel des Bains attained fame because Mann himself stayed there in the year 1911 and also a certain sailor-suited boy named Wladyslaw Moes whose age was estimated around 10-11.
In weaving a story and depicting the traits of the characters, Thomas Mann’s pen works like the scale of a bullion merchant. He is so perfectly balanced and uses appropriate words in appropriate quantity. He is not willing to concede an extra word in his narrations. He is economical and therefore his writing is beautiful. He was the father of six children, an experienced married man, has seen and experienced the various facets of life and therefore, his writings have the real-life touch.
A Director of the movie has many practical problems to solve. In Death in Venice Director Visconti changed a few medical details, as a matter of technical necessity and visual presentation. In Mann’s work, it is cholera that gripped Venice, due to which a victim dies out of severe diarrhea and dehydration. The cinematic effect of showing such a scene all over the city could have been very difficult apart from gruesome and disgusting. In the movie, Aschenbach dies of a heart attack, very painful but not messy. The scene however is shot realistically, the copious perspiration and the after effects of the shooting pain, make the face paint to run.
The basic difference between the author of a novel and the movie maker of that novel is somewhat like this: the former only describes the flight of an airplane. The director of the movie is like the Pilot. He has to plan the take-off, landing and in between he has the total responsibility for the health and safety of the passengers inside (the sensitivity of the capacity auditorium). Each word is important in a novel. Each step/dialogue is important in the movie.
As for Death in Venice, the novella and the movie can be compared to the two arms of a scale. When weighed, they show equal weight and merit.