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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
Von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) seeks to salvage his own youth. Credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Greg: You never forget seeing this performance. He is so inventive and doesn’t put a foot wrong. He nails Gustav von Aschenbach. It’s so truthful.

Sam: There’s one performance I’ve never quite liked, though, and I’m not mad about the dialogue the actor gets either. It’s the part played by Mark Burns, Aschenbach’s friend and critic. He spends much of the subplot barking at a weary Bogarde who refuses to bend in the wind. Burns comes across as very broad and on the nose. It’s just a touch off-note for me. Do you feel the same?

Greg: Now that you mention it, yes, I especially dislike the way he strikes the piano keys to over-emphasise a point. It is a touch shouty, but thankfully he isn’t in it a lot. Some of the actors are a bit odd – you’ve got your old man in linen with the white face at the start who welcomes Von Aschenbach off his boat.

Sam: Oh yes the mewing old creep – like Wilfrid Brambell in lipstick – who pretends he’s one of the young tourists. A warning from the future for Aschenbach, and a premonition of things to come? Then there’s the sweaty and sinister minstrel, who evades discussion about the sickness spreading across the city, then sticks his tongue out at the bourgeoisie. It’s a foreboding touch, and he’s almost demonic next to Tadzio, who stands like an angelic statue. Creeping death in the face of youth!

Greg: It’s a powerful image to get across the theme of the story without any need for dialogue. That was truly one of Visconti’s main strengths. One may say the director had limitations on performers, but he could get great performances out of great actors. And the locations really lift it all.

Sam: Yes, Venice is a key character itself, and it’s so little changed since the time Mann was writing his novella. The era is meticulously researched and evoked. The cinematography is extraordinary, isn’t it? Those pastel orange colours of the beach; the filthy brickwork in the city; the opulent costumes in the hotel. It’s very rich, and sometimes very grimy. Interesting how dirty Venice looks in this – pre-1980s clean up.

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