When I was a student at BYU, I took a wonderful film class with Dr. Donald Marshall. He would send us to the university’s International Cinema (really a large lecture hall with a big screen) to watch films that have made their mark in history. Death in Venice, with Dirk Bogarde, was one of those films. Dr. Marshall advised us to pay attention to the marriage of visuals and Gustav Mahler’s haunting music. But it is only recently that I read the book.
In the wrong hands and seen through the wrong eyes, the character of Gustav von Aschenbach could be viewed as a creepy pedophile. He does, after all, follow a boy through the streets and beaches of Venice. But this is not a story about lust. It is a story about beauty and its fragility. Gustav is a famous composer, sensitive and protective of the elegant Polish boy, Tadzio. Meanwhile, a merciless epidemic is sweeping through the city, leaving much death in its wake.
As a naturally visual person, I am glad I saw the film first, even though it has been nearly thirty years. But it made an impression, and I was able to conjure up those decades-old images while reading Thomas Mann’s classic novel. We are in Gustav’s mind the entire time. We feel his longing, his pain, and his mortality. Like in the film, there is little dialogue, especially between the two main characters. Just an invisible cosmic thread that binds them together, like artist and subject. It is singularly unique.