It’s generally conceded in retrospect that such major directors as F. W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, Marcel Carne, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, James Whale, and Edmund Goulding were gay. Stories abound about many others, but only a few, like Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, and Derek Jarman, came out (more-or-less) during their lifetimes. Luchino Visconti (1906–1976) was an immensely complex man, a Marxist nobleman, whose exit from the closet, Morte e Venezia (Death in Venice)—in widescreen, color, and photographed in perhaps civilization’s most spectacular location—was unprecedented. In the culmination of a career featuring lavish films like Senso and The Leopard, Visconti here let it all hang out in the service of a tale of one man’s search for beauty. In the novella on which the film is based, Thomas Mann wrote, “desire projected itself visually,” and that Visconti essentially found it in an adolescent blonde Polish boy in a skin-tight bathing suit was a moderately brazen thing to portray in a big-budget Hollywood studio film in 1971. (Warner Brothers did initially try to avoid releasing it.) This was probably too brazen for the ratings board to get the point, since they gave it a GP.
The film stars Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach, made up to look like Gustav Mahler, whose music dominates the soundtrack. Mann’s novella ostensibly “outs” Mahler; both Mahler and Mann were major cultural icons, and both apparently struggled with sexual ambiguity in their lives. Although they were both married with children, it has been speculated that Mahler was a repressed homosexual. In the case of Mann, the evidence is much more conclusive, indicating homosexual attractions throughout his life. Death in Venice was written just after the author’s stay at the same hotel in Venice where he was enraptured by Wladyslaw Moes (“the expression of pure and godlike serenity”), a dead ringer for the story’s Tadzio, and there were repeated young successors over the years who turned up as heroes in the novels, according to Mann’s diaries. (In the novella, Mann has a critic sum up Aschenbach’s heroes as possessing “an intellectual and virginal manliness.”) The distinguished critic Eric Bentley (Bertolt Brecht’s Boswell) has argued that Mann’s attraction to boys was not really carnal, but I think that in Visconti’s interpretation, only the legal and social restraints of the time checked Bogarde/Aschenbach from crossing the line between admiration and something less chaste.
Sexual obsession is not uncommon and quite acceptable in the works of many great heterosexual directors. One thinks of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and many works of Chaplin, Sternberg, Ophuls, Borzage, Truffaut, Rossellini, etc. It did take Visconti, at 65 and over 30 years into his career, a certain amount of courage to make Death in Venice. As a film it does not differ much stylistically from his other work. As in La Terra Trema, Rocco and His Brothers, and The Leopard, he takes his time, more concerned with milieu than with plot. As in the latter film, his camera seems to float and prowl over the widescreen, giddily at times, to reflect Bogarde’s uncertainty about his circumstances and his voyeurism. Does Tadzio know what he’s thinking? After Aschenbach spends endless frustrating hours watching Tadzio hungrily on the beach, Mann says “he felt exhausted, he felt broken—conscience reproached him, as it were after a debauch.” So, Visconti sticks pretty close to Mann’s text, but the graphic visuals that only the cinema offers, the vibrant flesh that one sees and imagines, enables the director to go beyond the written word.