I caught the American Cinematheque’s 4K restoration of Visconti’s ‘Death in Venice’..

Surprising is that Death in Venice was said to be about Gustav Mahler. I was surprised to hear this because when I read the book by Thomas Mann, I thought it was more about Thomas Mann himself, as it was about a famous pre-World War I author, Gustav von Aschenbach, making a trip to Venice in the hope of overcoming writer’s block.

Though I had seen the film when it came out in 1971, I thought it starred Burt Lancaster so I was surprised again to see that it starred Dirk Bogarde, who I recalled in The Night Porter (1974), but not in Death in Venice.

Then I realized that I was mixing up Death in Venice with The Leopard (1963) which I also saw on its release and again during this great retrospective of Visconti that the American Cinematheque was showcasing. It seemed entirely new to me.

Whatever I had seen when these two films first came out is a mystery to me because both of these films, seen this past month, were totally new to me, as if I had never seen them before. THAT is a masterpiece, always a totally new universe, no matter how often you see it. Every time is like the first time…that is the thrill and joy that only great art can give us.


Visconti used Mahler’s 5th and 3rd Symphonies in the score. This past month I have been on a Mahler binge. I went with my friend Larry to the Doheny Mansion in the West Adams area of L.A. to hear The Da Camera Society’s Piano Quartet in A Minor by Mahler played by the Skride Piano Quartet in the Pompeian Room (Hunt & Eisen, 1899 and Alfred F. Rosenheim, 1913). The next week we went to see and hear the Pasadena Symphony play Mahler’s Symphony №1 ‘Titan’ with the conductor, David Lockington. We left with the rest of the audience on Cloud Nine. The late-Romantic music of Mahler’s utterly individualistic style left us breathless and ecstatic.

The Doheny Mansion, Number 8 Chester Place,, centerpiece of Mount St. Mary’s College’s Doheny Campus in Los Angeles, California, Photo taken by Bobak Ha’Eri, on May 27, 2007


Then on making the plan to see The Damned by Visconti, about a Nazi officer, with my German friend Petra, to our surprise, we were treated to Death in Venice based on the novel by Thomas Mann in a restored 4K version. It was playing instead of ‘The Damned’ because Warner Bros. had decided to pull it and replace it. But this was no bait and switch. Warner Bros.’ 4K restored version of Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella was so thrilling, and the German connection with Mann retained the good match between my viewing partner and the material; I am happy to wait to see what I hope will be WB’s soon-to-be-restored version of The Damned.

What could be better? Well to learn that it was about my beloved Mahler, that made it even better. Visconti on Mahler, based upon a book by Thomas Mann, is a recipe for heavenly delight for me.

It is interesting to see what three people on Gramaphone, the World’s Best Classical Music Reviews had to say about the film and its music by Mahler:

Thu 6th June 2013 #1 oscar.olavarria

RE: Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and Mahler’s Adagietto

Once I read that it had been Visconti’s “Death in Venice” film, which made Mahler’s 5th Symphony “Adagietto” famous! What do you think about this? Because in first place, in my opinion “Death in Venice”’s version of the “Adagietto” is the worst of all I’ve heard, badly played and badly recorded, by a mediocre orchestra…

Fri 7th June 2013 by tagalie

RE: Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and Mahler’s Adagietto

It’s probably correct to say the film made the adagietto, at least, famous. What people who bought the 5th for that one movement thought of the rest of it, who knows.

And what about the people who bought “Also Sprach Zarathustra” after seeing Kubrick’s “2001”? Must have been quite a shock to them.

No, the version Visconti used isn’t the best but his linkage of sound and visuals was excellent as it is later in the film when we hear “O Mensch, gib Acht!” from the 3rd.

Fri 7th June 2013 #5 naupilus

RE: Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and Mahler’s Adagietto

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Visconti’s use of the music presented the adagio to a wider audience and possibly then a fraction of those got to know the work in total, which has to be a good thing.

Personally I think the adagio from the sixth might have been a better use, but film directors should make their own choices! The most affecting use of Mahler I know was in Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon” where they use the choral entry from the last movement of the Second Symphony in combination with the funeral of a key character…

— Naupilus

I personally agree that his “linkage of sound and visuals” was excellent as was the song from the 3rd. The opening scene, as Dirk Bogarde approaches Venice in a gondola, is as breathtaking as the finale. And how Visconti mixes the documentary footage of gondolas docking at the Lido jolts us into a reality after watching Bogarde’s character Gustav von Aschenbach in what seems to be a reverie until the viewer realizes he is listening to his own music in his head (for he is its composer) while we are listening to the same music as a score to a moving picture story about to unfold. The story begins for us in media res as Dirk Bogarde suddenly barks to the gondolier that he wants to go back and take a vaporatto and the gondolier assures him that vaporattos do not go to the Lido where he is taking him. Then the confusion of unboarding ensues, and the gondolier mysteriously disappears; Gustav is told he has been arrested because of his chicanery.



As von Aschenbach arrives at Grand Hotel des Bains, my own memories begin to take over and I go into my own reverie, recalling that we stayed there at Hotel des Bains a couple of years during the Venice Film Festival when Eleonora Granata persuaded Alberto Barbera, its Artistic Director, to invite us (FilmFinders). We had a great time, hanging out with our dear friend Thomas Castaneda, the Universal publicist working with the late great Nadia Bronson as UI hosted George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez the stars of the Academy Award winning Out of Sight which was The Opening Night Film. We joined the posse, that is, the delegation, as we filed into the orchestra seats in the Venice Opera House, La Fenice, newly restored and later into the palace for dinner.


La Fenice, Photo by By Youflavio — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46062999


Le Grand Hotel des Bains, where Ruth Vitale, then VP of acquisitions for Paramount Pictures came to the front desk breathless from shopping with bags and bags from Gucci, Missoni, Ferragamo and whoever else she bought luxury goods from…She is cashmere herself, we would say to each other. Le Grand Hotel des Bains where Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice. I wandered through the Hotel, and especially the writing room, imagining Thomas Mann writing there when he visited in 1911 and caught a glimpse of the boy.



Wikipedia picture 3 Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach and Bjorn Andresen as Tadzio star in ‘Death in Venice,’ directed by Luchino Visconti, 1971. Supplied movie still.


The gloriously aristocratic Silvana Mangano plays the mother of Tadzio, the beautiful young man that Gustav goes gaga over and an equally beautiful young Marisa Berenson plays Frau von Aschenbach (aka Alma Schindler Mahler).

Watch the trailer here.

The Whistler sunset on the canals captures the melancholic ending for which the title stands and is almost exactly reproduced by Visconti in the movie.



Such melancholic madness, something Mahler himself felt and voiced when he feared he would never finish his 10th Symphony (and he did not finish it), could never be filmed in this way today when we need humor or speed to be able to sit through a film.

The very glory of Death in Venice comes from the outset in the slow, visceral identification with a tormented genius and as the music reaches its crescendo and then sadly ends, so does the movie, and the music as well, hold a leisurely tension throughout, rising and falling depending upon the looks the young Tadzio bestows on an increasingly besotted soul seeking solace.


Sydney Levine is one of the most respected voices in the world of Independent Film.  Her extensive experience in the international film business includes executive positions in acquisitions as well as teaching and writing.  She co-founded Film Finders, the first independent film database.