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Reflecting on ‘Death in Venice’ at 50 – Dirk Bogarde’s finest performance

Join Greg and Sam as they discuss Luchino Visconti’s 1971 masterpiece.

Death in Venice
Credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

EF's Greg Jameson and Samuel Payne recently met up to celebrate an important cinematic landmark – the 50th anniversary of the release of Luchino Visconti's 'Death in Venice', starring Dirk Bogarde.

Beautiful, controversial, and possibly a masterpiece, there is much to be said about this fine achievement of European arthouse film. Join us on a frank, funny and reflective chat about why we love Bogarde, return to this film so often, and why we rate it so highly. 

 

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Death in Venice
Each frame is like a painting in ‘Death in Venice’. Credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sam: No, just the first two – ‘A Postilion Struck by Lightning’ and ‘Snakes & Ladders’ where he talks about the making of ‘Death in Venice’ in quite some detail. Oh, and a later one, ‘A Short Walk from Harrods’. He’s a brilliant writer – a rarity in the majority of actors I’ve worked with, who often think they can write because they can interpret text. Not always true – it’s a different skill set and one that Bogarde mastered independently of his acting. Robert Shaw was another with that talent.

Greg: I’d also argue that his literary skills improve his acting abilities, allowing his performances to stand above so many of his contemporaries.

Sam: Indeed, and on the subject of writing and the 50th anniversary of ‘Death in Venice’ in film, we should touch on the fact it’s based on a much older book by Thomas Mann. Here’s a fluke: I read the book first – a tatty penguin copy in about 1998, and it had Dirk Bogarde on the cover. It must be one of the thinnest novellas I’ve ever owned. A breezy read. Have you read it?

Greg: I have read it, but I saw the film first! I quite like Mann’s novella. It’s surprisingly funny. Gustav von Aschenbach, the protagonist, is so fussy. Do you think the essence of Mann’s story is well-realised in Visconti’s film?

Sam: It’s been such a long time and I’d like to revisit it, but from memory, I’d say the 1971 film is a robust adaptation of the 1912 novel – just a few tweaks here and there from director Luchino Visconti, but we’ll come to that.

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Greg: Let’s run down what happens. Summarise the plot for us in a sentence… The elevator pitch, if you like. Imagine I’m a Hollywood movie mogul…

Sam: In a nutshell, the story is about Gustav von Aschenbach, a late-middle-aged composer who escapes to Venice to recuperate from a physical and mental breakdown following a disastrous live performance. He’s failed to capture perfection and beauty in his music, yet when he lands in Venice, he discovers the picture of perfection in human form, and becomes obsessed. Meanwhile, there’s pestilence and decay spreading throughout the city. Would you say that’s a fair reading?

Greg: Yes, I think that’s a very fair summary. There are suggestions of inappropriate sexual fantasies that some read into Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio, a 15-year-old very beautiful boy. There’s much to suggest that Aschenbach is impotent, but he certainly latches on to this boy as his muse whilst he goes in search of inspiration for his music. But there are, it has to be said, some reasons to feel a little queasy about the real-life treatment of Björn Andrésen, who played Tadzio.

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