Moving through that list of “Blind Spots” brings me to Luchino Visconti’s celebrated adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel. Dirk Bogarde – who plays the titular character in Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), one of my favorite all-time films – here plays the object of the title.
Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach is not only incredibly named, but also a bit of a paranoid. After an artistic failure – shown in a few fleeting flashbacks – von Aschenbach heads to Venice without his wife and child. There, at a small resort, he comes across Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), a young, taciturn boy who quickly becomes his distant object of desire. Meanwhile, von Aschenbach is convinced that the plague has come to Venice, though everyone he asks refuses to concur.
If there’s a visual style immediately obvious in Visconti’s film it’s the zoom. Nearly every shot zooms, frequently to the detriment of the picture. With the understanding that this is 1971, right at the height of the popularity of the zoom, it’s still frankly a misuse. I know, to denigrate Visconti is a mortal sin, but the film feels so less controlled with the constantly searching camera and flattened space. Further, the starts and stops of the zooms are frequently abrupt – there’s no ease-in or out.
Robert Altman made McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971 – my favorite western. It’s filled with zooms, but Altman uses them appropriately – searching for Beatty’s McCabe in a snowy landscape, for example. Visconti uses them well when moving from wide to tight shots, but still insists on the zoom even in the tightest of spaces. It gets tiresome.
Nonetheless, the film is still stunning to look at. Here are a few stills that demonstrate the superiority of Visconti’s eye for framing, the beautiful cinematography by Pasqualino de Santis, costume design by Piero Tosi, and production design by Ferdinando Scarfiotti.
Those first two images feature von Aschenback and Tadzio. There’s such a gorgeous, clean simplicity to them. The vertical lines in each frame create frames-within-frames, separating and isolating characters from each other. Tadzio is alternately angel and devil in his white and red, where von Aschenbach alternates from willing seducee to innocent via his color scheme.
The depth of each image is also perfectly illustrated, where each shot in its own way – through character position and a distant horizon line, immediate foreground, and a clear vanishing point respectively – is well-spaced and emphasizes the surrounding emptiness.
Here’s a sequence towards the end of the film:
Talk about beautiful. Those shots of Tadzio in the water are heartbreaking. The shimmering light, the distant, solitary figure, the way the landscape and its surroundings all blend together – incredible.
Then there are the contrasting shots of von Aschenbach, who’s sort of a melting clown. The makeup he’s had put on his face – to make himself younger, to attract Tadzio – is literally leaking off. He’s dying – but is it of the plague, or of an overwhelming and unattainable desire, portrayed here so perfectly in shots 1 and 3?
It’s also worth noting that the angle is off. This isn’t a perfectly accurate reflection of von Aschenbach’s point-of-view. He’s photographed looking to the right of frame. Were this a true POV the corresponding shots of Tadzio in the water would reflect the angle. Instead, they’re head on. Why? It raises the transcendent view of Tadzio. He’s centered in the frame, from some kind of an omniscient view. The image of perfection. So much so that it’s less important that we see him as von Aschenbach probably really sees him, and more important that we see him as von Aschenbach wants him to be.
Von Aschenbach’s makeup completes a theme of the grotesque, painted face. Here are two other characters in the film – both side characters. We meet the first at the very beginning of the film and the second in the middle:
The first character is on the same boat as von Aschenbach. His scene is very short. He’s abrasive and joking. He mocks von Aschebach and seems to presciently speak about his desire of Tadzio The second character is at von Aschenbach’s hotel. He’s the leader of a band of musical gypsies. He too is abrasive and jocular.
Von Aschenbach essentially becomes the third clown here. By the end he’s merely a shade of the man he used to be. He’s a fool like the others – as useless and hopeless.