Luchino Visconti declared the written page to be only a point of departure (“la pagina scritta è solo un punto di partenza”), even as the Italian film director deferentially adapted several [End Page 1033] literary classics. The most celebrated of these was based on Thomas Mann’s 1911 novella Der Tod in Venedig. Dirk Bogarde, who performed the role of Gustav von Aschenbach in the 1971 film, attested to Visconti’s irreverence not only toward the literary original but even toward his own script, with the director consistently encouraging improvisation during the shooting. This waywardness could extend even to music, as when Visconti invited the singer Masha Predit to contribute a Russian composition of her own choice and included it in the film (Modest Mussorgsky’s “Ninnananna”). The film’s near-, rather than absolute, fidelity to the novella is the point of departure for the rewarding essays in Morte a Venezia. Thomas Mann/Luchino Visconti: un confronto.
Eugenio Spedicato argues that the interdependence holding between literary and cinematic work is based not on a correspondence within the same semantic system but on substitution and homology. The film’s most notorious substitution makes Aschenbach not a venerated writer but a washed-up composer, thereby insinuating one of several allusive echoes of Adrian Leverkühn, the composer and protagonist of Doktor Faustus. (The retrospective scenes in which the composer’s cartoonishly furious colleague Alfried execrates him in Nietzschean clichés derive from Mann’s 1947 novel. In his contribution, Henry Bacon valiantly endeavors to ascribe these abominable flashbacks not to actual colloquies but to Aschenbach’s enfeebled memory.)
Visconti exploits Mann’s acquaintance with Gustav Mahler, news of whose death reached the writer while he was in Venice, which influenced the novella’s gestation, beginning with the protagonist’s first name. Morte a Venezia is largely scored by Mahler, whose fifth-symphony Adagietto gained popularity through the film. In a cinematic narrative wherein the protagonists never exchange a word, music comes to occupy much of the territory conventionally reserved for dialogue, which dynamic ultimately results in a shift from the irony of Mann’s novel into elegy.
Visconti had sought to adapt À la recherche du temps perdu to the screen, insisting that a film could not hope to imitate the style of Proust’s roman fleuve but might be able to penetrate the deep labyrinth of the “sentimento proustiano.” In adapting Der Tod in Venedig, Daniele Dottorini shows, Visconti relied not on language but on music to insinuate a “sentimento manniano.”
Umberto Eco believes this substitution of composer for author to sacrifice “the deep story” to “the novel’s surface story” (“la fabula profonda. . .la fabula di superficie del romanzo”), but at a stroke Visconti thereby escapes the sclerotic costume-drama pieties of literary adaptation and affords access to closeted Aschenbach’s turbulent inner life. Luciano de Guisti praises the adaptation as a translation into lyric and elegiac innuendoes that the capable viewer then brings to light.
The preponderance of music becomes a way of seeing. Some of the most important of the scant dialogue (some of which is in Polish and none is subtitled) is sung, be it a contralto intoning the Thus Spake Zarathustra hymn from Mahler’s third symphony, or a leering Neapolitan busker singing the popular canzone “Chi vuole con le donne aver fortuna” (in fact composed by Armando Gil eight years after Mann had published the novella). The musicologist Antonio Caroccia notes the degree to which Mahler’s compositions gravitate into Aschenbach’s repertoire, as when the raving Alfried plays a phrase from the fourth symphony and barks that it is Aschenbach’s own music. The compounding of the grotesque and the tragic in Mahler, Caroccia suggests, creates ironies that lacerate the very romanticism he conjures up—qualities that coincide with Visconti’s adaptation of Mann.
Irmbert Schenk emphasizes Mann’s adherence to the Nietzschean plot of Apollonian Prussian discipline undone by a Mediterranean Dionysian impulse, one transmuted by Freud’s death drive. Tadzio reciprocates Aschenbach’s...