Death in Venice: Visconti’s Masterpiece–Film Vs. Novel; Music

Italian maestro Luchino Visconti directed Death in Venice, a lush Italian–French romantic drama, shot in Panavision and Technicolor, and starring Dirk Bogarde and Björn Andrésen.

It is based on the 1912 novella Death in Venice by the German author Thomas Mann.

At the turn of the century, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Bogarde) travels to Venice for rest due to serious health issues.

In Venice, he becomes obsessed with the stunning beauty of an adolescent Polish boy named Tadzio, who is staying with his family at the same Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido.

While Aschenbach attempts to find peace and quiet, the rest of the city is gripped by a cholera epidemic. City authorities do not inform the holiday-makers of the problem, fearing they will abandon Venice; however, Aschenbach himself is dying from heart disease.

Aschenbach suddenly decides to depart from Venice, but his trunk has left the train station without him. In a moment of impulse, he decides to stay longer, waiting until his trunk has been returned; he is rather happy to return to the Grand Hôtel des Bains.

Aschenbach continues to observe Tadzio whenever possible, even following him and his family through the narrow streets of Venice. Aschenbach soon realizes that something is wrong, as a disinfectant wash is being applied to public places in the city.

Later, when Aschenbach questions the hotel manager about it, the manager downplays the epidemic as nothing of serious concern.

Rejuvenated by the continuing presence of Tadzio – though they never actually converse – he visits a barber who, in his words, “Returns to you merely what has been lost,” dyeing his grey hair black and whitening his face and reddening his lips to make him look younger. As he leaves the barber’s shop the barber exclaims: “And now Sir is ready to fall in love as soon as he pleases.”

Aschenbach continues to follow Tadzio and his family through the tiny streets of Venice, gazing at Tadzio from afar, with the latter becoming more aware of his being gazed upon.

Later that evening, Aschenbach dreams in flashback, when his last opera was received with jeers and boos from an angry crowd.

(The same kind of flashback occurs in Tennessee Willliams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, in which star Alexandra Delago (Geraldine Page) recalls the negative reception to her latest film, which further drives her to booze and younger hustlers).

In the climactic scene, Aschenbach sees Tadzio being beaten up on the beach by an older boy. Tadzio then walks away from him towards the horizon. He suddenly turns back to look at Aschenbach, then turns away to face the sun, and stretches his arm out towards it. Aschenbach too, stretches his hand as if to reach Tadzio, and at that very moment—heightened by the crescendo in Mahler’s Adagietto—he dies from a heart attack.

When people notice him collapsed on his chair, they alert the hotel staff, who carry Aschenbach’s body away.


While the character Aschenbach in the novella is an author, Visconti changed his profession from writer to composer. This allows the musical score, in particular the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony by Gustav Mahler, which opens and closes the film, and sections from Mahler’s Third Symphony, to represent Aschenbach’s writing. Apart from this change, the film is relatively faithful to the book, but with added scenes where Aschenbach and a musician friend debate the degraded aesthetics of his music.

The film’s score was performed by the Orchestra dell’Accademia de Santa Cecilia, conducted by Franco Mannino, and subsequently released by EMI.

In addition to the music of Gustav Mahler’s Third and Fifth Symphonies which embodied the character and suffering of Aschenbach, Visconti included a number of pieces from other composers. Although overshadowed as they are by the dominance of Mahler they play an important part in the film’s narrative. One is the ballad by Armando Gil, sung by the strolling player, Chi con le donne vole aver fortuna (He who wants to be successful with the ladies). Another is Beethoven’s famous piano piece Für Elise played by Claudio Gizzi.

The third which is particularly evocative, is Modest Mussorgsky’s Lullaby which in the film, heralds Ashenbach’s death. It is sung by Mascia Predit, an unforgettable soprano whom Visconti was surprised to discover among the extras when filming the last scene.

Hush, hush-a-bye, my little grandchild
Sleep in slumber deep, little peasant’s son
Hush, hush-a-bye; our forefathers never saw such a misfortune
But misfortune has come, disaster upon disaster, . . .
Hush, hush, hush-a-bye!
Your small white body lies there in the cradle
Your soul flies in the heavens
Your quiet slumber is guarded by God himself
By your side stand bright angels
Bright angels!


Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach
Mark Burns as Alfred
Marisa Berenson as Frau von Aschenbach
Björn Andrésen as Thaddeus or Tadzio
Silvana Mangano as Thaddeus’ mother
Romolo Valli as a hotel manager
Nora Ricci as a governess
Franco Fabrizi as the barber
Carole André as Esmeralda, the prostitute
Sergio Garfagnoli [it] as Jasiu, a Polish youth
Luigi Battaglia as Scapegrace
Mascia Predit as a Russian tourist
Marcello Bonini Olas as the nobleman at hotel party
Nicoletta Elmi as the little girl on the table
Marco Tulli as the man who faints at station
Leslie French as a travel agent
Antonio Appicella as a vagrant
Ciro Cristofoletti as the hotel clerk
Dominique Darel as an English tourist
Eva Axén as Thaddeus’ oldest sister
Bruno Boschetti as the train station employee
Mirella Pamphili as a hotel guest