Movie: Death in Venice (???, 1971)

Figure 1.--This still from the movie shows the blue sailor suit worn by Tadzio and one of his sailor hats. I am not sure, however, how common it was for a boy as old as Tadzio (as depicted in the movie) to wear sailor suits.

Thomas Mann's uncharacterictically brief novella Death in Venice is a classic of German literature. It was made into a movie in 1971. The movie, of course set in Venice, was a painstaking recreation of high Edwardian fashions, including many examples of boyhood fashions. HBC is unsure, however, as to just how accurately depicted the fashions were. Another problem is that the boy chosen to play the Polish boy upon whom the film focuses was much older than the boy in Mann's book.

The Author

Thomas Mann was born June 6, 1875 in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. He was a German novelist and essayist. Mann wrote The Magic Mountain in 1924, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929. When 19 he settled with his mother in Munich. After dabbling at university he joined his brother (Heinrich Mann (1871-1950), also a novelist) in Italy and wrote Buddenbrooks. He was forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933. He settled in the United States in 1936 and in 1944 he became an American citizen. After the War in 1947 he returned to Switzerland and was the only returning exile to be féted by both West and East Germany. His novella, Death in Venice is well-known today because of Luchino Visconti's film of the same name (1971), starring Dirk Bogarde as the writer Gustav von Aschenbach who becomes entranced with a Polish boy, Tadzio (played by Bjorn Andresen), who he sees at the Lido in Venice. Mann August 12, 1955.


This novella by Thomas Mann was published in German as Der Tod in Venedig during 1912. A symbol-laden story of aestheticism and decadence, Mann's best-known novella exemplifies the author's regard for Sigmund Freud's writings on the unconscious. Gustav von Aschenbach is a revered composer whose work is known for its discipline and formal perfection. At his Venetian hotel he encounters the strikingly handsome young teenager Tadzio--a Polish boy. Aschenbach is disturbed by his attraction to the boy, and although he watches Tadzio, he dare not speak to him. Despite warnings of a cholera epidemic Aschenbach stays in Venice; he sacrifices his dignity and well-being to the immediate experience of beauty as embodied by Tadzio. After exchanging a significant look with the boy on the day of Tadzio's scheduled departure, Aschenbach dies of cholera. As in his other major works, Mann explores the role of the artist in society. The cerebral Aschenbach summons extraordinary discipline and endurance in his literary work, but his private desires overwhelm him.



Figure 2.--Tadzio is shown here in a white middy blouse. Notice the style of the scarf, always black, and lanyard. Tadzio in the book did wear sailor suits, but the Tadzio in the film is older than the age that most boys wore sailor suits.

Movie Review

Many movie reviewers find the film utterly brilliant! HBC is less impressed with the film. It is rather a slow paced film, but this may be a result of the novella it is based on. The casting of an older boy as Tadzio creates problems for one of the strongest features of the film--the luxuriant costuming. Even so, it is a thought provoking, visceral and moving tale of a composer (Bogarde) who has all but lost his ability to experience emotion and finds the beauty of a young boy disturbs him enough to re-waken his feelings. There is little in the way of dialog. Death in Venice if it is a classic--is a visual classic. There can be no more than 30 conversations or exchanges of words in this tale of smouldering obsession and even less action or movement. Yet incredibly it keeps one riveted and fascinated all throughout its running time. Bogarde gives, according to many, the performance of his life as his character and the plot develop partly through his increasing obsession of the boy and through the flashbacks of his life as a composer. Director, Visconti films in lavish beauty and style and sensibly intervenes as little as possible as the experience, (rather than plot) unfolds. Mahler's music fits the film perfectly and heightens the emotion throughout. Its a rare film where virtually nothing happens, yet everything happens.

Costume Drama

The most memorable aspect of the film is the lush costuming. Especially showcased among the boys are sailor suits. The film shows how the sailor suit fashion in the late 19th century had spread throughout Europe. It is unclear to HBC, however, how accurately the sailor suits are presented. Of special interest of course are Tadzio's sailor suits. HBC is unsure if they accurately depict the suits actually worn by Polish boys. The setting of course is northern Italy and it was a Continental hotel, so the guests would have come from many countries. No indication to me from the movie as to just what country the boys in the film may have come from.

Some confusion may result from the fact that Tadzio as depicted in the movie is older than the Tadzio in the book. Mann does mention in the book that Tadzio wore sailor suits. HBC believes, however, that boys as old as Tadzio as depicted in the film were more likely to have already graduated to more mature suits. That is not to say that some older boys did not wear sailor suits, but HBC believes that most boys Tadzio's age, as depicted in the film, would no longer have been wearing sailor suits. Also boys the age of the movie Tadzio would have been more likely to have had a short hair cut. HBC also believes that many sailor suits during this period would have had kneepants.


HBC has little information on Poland at this time, but believes that sailor suits were widely worn. One glimpse at late 19th century Polish fashions can be found in the movie, Death in Venice, the main character was a Polish boy who wore sailor suits. HBC is unsure, however, as to just how accurately depicted the fashions were. Another problem is that the boy chosen to play the Polish boy upon whom the film focuses was much older than the boy in Mann's book. We note a Polish family at a beach resort in 1916.


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Created: December 12, 1999
Last updated: 7:47 PM 9/17/2007