Death Becomes Visconti

Film still for Death Becomes Visconti

Notorious for their opulence and melodramatic flair, the later works of Luchino Visconti astound us with the inexplicable, argues Michael Wood.

Luchino Visconti's late films, it is rightly said, are about dying social orders. When the order is in the first instance personal, as in Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 1971), it is nevertheless clear that the dying man represents the music and culture of a whole European generation. When the order is that of a class or sex, as in The Damned (La caduta degli dei, 1969) or The Innocent (L'innocente, 1976), it is clear that a historical moment is being picked out, that a whole world is going under. This is a novelistic theme, and critics have been keen to mention Thomas Mann's 1901 novel Buddenbrooks as a point of comparison and to evoke Visconti's projects for films based on Mann's The Magic Mountain and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. All very true though even truer of The Leopard (Il gattopardo, 1963) than of the later films but a little remote from the actual experience of the films themselves.

There are plenty of deaths here, but they are not natural deaths, and the dominant images are of shock and bewilderment rather than of slow or inevitable decline. Suicide, cholera, murder are something like the norm. The Italian title of The Damned translates as The Fall of the Gods, a much more abrupt event than the twilight of Götterdämmerung or the steady glow of eternal perdition. And though Visconti at times catches the stately narrative pace of Mann or Proust, he never comes close to their suggestion of organic, ultimately explicable decay. In Visconti we just look at the damage and wonder what can have happened. The storyline of the films notionally answers our question, but only notionally. Even when we know exactly how these people arrived at these conditions, we can still scarcely believe what we are seeing, and we continue to stare at the disaster.

Just think. Dirk Bogarde, in Death in Venice, slumps in a deckchair on the beach, the dark dye from his hair trickling down his painted face, still sweating, dead. An abandoned still camera, on a tripod, stands by the sea, apparently a neat allusion by Visconti to the voyeur's art but actually already found in Mann's novella. It reminds us that even private death can be publicly recorded, and is being recorded, in this movie. And along with the image of the dead man it holds the question in our mind: what happened here? How did this distinguished musician on a holiday, the man so meticulously in control of his life that, earlier in the movie, just unpacking his suitcase in a hotel looked like a diplomatic ceremony, turn into this crumpled doll?

We can ask a similar question about Dirk Bogarde, again, at the end of The Damned. How did this ambitious industrialist, who thought he could use and control the Nazis, become this sprawled corpse? And even more urgently, in the same scene, where the camera closes in on Bogarde's inert and unclasped hand, climbs up his body, moves across the sofa where he is lying to the still-upright but also dead figure of Ingrid Thulin, then pulls back a little to get a better view of her, we are driven to ask: how did this beautiful and powerful woman turn into this raddled mummy? We ask this in the wake of the question we have been asking moments before, when she was still alive but looking like the walking dead: what made this person once so full of presence into this drained-out mannequin?

Or again, think of the closing images of The Innocent: a beautiful woman, clearly alarmed and distressed, walks through a formal garden away from a handsome Italian house; indoors, the corpse of a man lies on an ornate marble floor. A moment or so earlier, we have seen him shoot himself. The woman in this case is Jennifer O'Neill; the man is Giancarlo Giannini. What happened? If we know the story and we do, if we have watched the film up to this point do we understand these images? Yes, but not well enough. The story is not an explanation; it is what Visconti gives us to remind us of the inexplicable.

It's not that the story doesn't matter, of course. We need partial answers to our questions to understand why the questions are important. What has happened in Death in Venice is that the distinguished composer has stumbled across two secrets: the formless but intense longing for love and beauty which he harbours within himself and which latches on to a Polish boy staying at the same hotel; and the fact that Venice is ravaged by cholera, a piece of information the city is hiding so as not to scare away the tourist trade. The secrets intersect in the composer's mind. His longing becomes a kind of disease, the disease becomes a form of terminal longing, and his death on the beach is simultaneously a pathetic accident and a heroic choice, a humiliating absurdity and the only way out of the chaos his feelings are causing in him.

The story in The Damned is even more complicated, and we can ask our question about yet another image there. How did Helmut Berger, first seen as a plausible and petulant version of Marlene Dietrich camping up a song, cease to be the emblem of deviance and become a stalwart SS officer? The very last shot of the film, after the pan across the corpses of Bogarde and Thulin and a careful, lingering view of the cyanide capsules they have emptied, is of Berger, in full SS uniform, looking at the bodies and raising his arm in the Heil Hitler salute. Briefly, Bogarde has killed the patriarch of the powerful von Essenbeck family and taken over the huge steel firm, with the Nazis' blessing. But now the Nazis think he is become a little too independent and need to get rid of him. For this they use Berger, easily blackmailed because of the suicide of a little Jewish girl he seduced, and creepily delighted at the thought of humiliating his mother, Thulin, who is about to marry Bogarde. The corpses we see at the end have just been through a wedding ceremony, supervised by Berger, which was also a funeral slightly ahead of time. Bogarde is willing to die because he knows the Nazis will get him anyway, and Thulin because of a complex despair caused in part by her knowledge that her son hates her. Well, hates her too much and loves her too well, as instanced by his choosing to rape her.

As you see, this is all about as gothic and melodramatic as you can get, and many viewers have found the film too lurid to be interesting. It's true that the implication that paedophiles make the best Nazis in the end seems a little easy this is the Italian fantasy about Nazism and perversion that we also find in Rossellini but there is a more sinister and more interesting political figure in the film, played with frightening charm by Helmut Griem. This is a man who believes not in Nazism but in the licence Nazism gives, in the attraction of sheer ruthlessness and indifference to morality. He quotes Hegel, talks about murder as if he were talking about ballet, and is the puppet-master who controls all the other characters. If the gods of German industrialism fall it is because he has known exactly when to trip each of them up. His absence from the closing scenes is significant because it permits us to think about perversion and horror and ambition, all frozen in that picture of the corpses and the salute. But Griem's character, having got what he wanted here, is presumably about his business elsewhere, and we could think of him as the invisible meaning behind the last images: he is the force that can reduce the world to these horrible postures, and then move on.

In The Innocent the Giannini character is a philanderer who belatedly falls in love with his own wife, only to discover that she is pregnant by another man. He accepts the child in order to keep his wife, but in reality he can't bear the thought of it, and one day he deliberately exposes it to the cold winter air and causes its death. His wife will never forgive him, and he will never stop loving her. In spite of much brave and almost convincing talk about his lack of regret and his contempt for convention and the judgement of others, he realises that his emotional life is over, and shoots himself. The woman walking away through the garden is his mistress, who has already begun to see him as a monster, although a monster one might pity.

There is plenty of rich, even over-ripe explanation in these stories, but the images of the films the ones I've mentioned and many more are still full of mystery. This is, initially at least, a matter of style. We wouldn't ask our questions about the final images of these films if Visconti had not taught us to expect answers from images, if the works had not been full, from the start, of the suggestion that a prowling eye can discover almost everything it needs to know just by looking. Visconti once remarked that there is a dining room "in almost all of my films". This is where the family congregates and quarrels and comes unstuck, but it is also, visually, the place where the camera can monitor the whole table, where face after face and gesture after gesture can come into focus and tell their tale, and where the long takes can replicate and reinforce the stately, claustrophobic quality of the scene itself. Visconti loves moments of this kind. In Death in Venice there is a wonderful scene in the lounge of a great hotel, where the camera slowly, simply checks out the whole joint, looking at all the social specimens like a patient sociologist taking notes, until you realise that it is not quite so neutral, that it is something like the organ of the composer's boredom, and that it will stop its leisurely tour and become a different instrument entirely as soon as it finds the face of the beautiful Polish boy.

It may be that all great movie directors tempt us with the thought that seeing is everything, only to show us that it's not, but in Visconti the seeing is particularly intense and promising: we can't help seeing that we're seeing, and we can't help believing that something will come of it. There is a poignant emblem of this whole situation, a kind of figure for what Visconti's visual style is up to everywhere, in a remarkable sequence in The Innocent. Giannini doesn't yet know that his wife is pregnant, but he does suspect her of having an affair and finds her fascinating for this very reason. The two of them visit a house in the country, and as they walk in the garden, the camera closes in on his eyes looking at his wife through a walkway covered in flowers. As he moves, the camera moves with him, the full length of the walkway, his face sharply in focus, then lost behind a cluster of blossoms or a pillar, then clearly visible again, and so on. He is trying to see what can't be seen, the strange alteration that has come over his wife, as if there could be a visual clue that would explain everything. And we are seeing him looking: we know exactly what he is searching for and why he won't find it. The scene is haunting because it insists on vision; because we are seeing so much and he is seeing so little.

Trained by moments like these, we expect scenes in Visconti to tell us their stories, almost independently of the stories which led up to the scenes, and that is why the violent changes matter so much in these movies. The deaths and transformations are the results of certain processes and developments, but they also have a meaning of their own. They are images of ruin itself, wreckages of personality. And the tough question in this context is why Visconti's interminable Ludwig (1972) should be so short on such images, so listless in its ways of looking.

The story is that of the King of Bavaria, Wagner's patron, and the narrative structure seems to be the very model of the kind of questions we have been asking. We see the young Ludwig about to be crowned, we hear from the ministers who deposed him much later, we return to the coronation, and so on throughout the film. The end of the story is woven into its beginnings, and from the start we should be asking what happened, how did this turn into that? But we're not. The problem lies, I think, in Visconti's take on the character of Ludwig. The king gets older but he doesn't change; his refusal of the actual world, his appetite for art and play, remain what they always were. He can't marry; he turns even his orgies into tableaux. And in such a situation Visconti's camera becomes helpless. It can't explore because there is nothing to explore, no subtle or drastic changes to be contemplated in their details. So it just records, it shows us what's there, and what's there is always the same, give or take a sumptuous sitting room or a Bavarian lake. Still, this inertia does allow us to see, by contrast, what an actively enquiring camera looks like in the other films. You never know what it might find, and you can scarcely believe what it leaves you with.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012