Luchino Visconti occupies a singular position in film history. He was instrumental in the creation of modern cinema by being the first to throw down the neo-realist gauntlet with Ossessione (1942) and later contributed one of the movement’s canonical cornerstones, La Terra Trema (1948). Of the three giants of the first wave of post war neo-realists, he was the only one to maintain his position at the forefront of art cinema into the ’60s, when Rossellini had moved to television and De Sica was making more commercial films. Visconti’s later career was devoted to the creation of a series of period movies including Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963) and Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 1971) that are still without parallel in terms of atmosphere, detail and sheer dramatic force. It was in these that his genius, although often evident from his earliest work onwards, developed fully.
As his career progressed it became apparent that Visconti was, like Bresson and Dreyer, a lonely, stubborn, uncompromising giant who navigated a very personal course that frequently ran parallel with that of film history, yet remained rather aloof from it. He made relatively few films and gained the reputation of being a fastidious and sometimes ruthless perfectionist. However, unlike Bresson or Dreyer, Visconti was not a severe minimalist who worked according to strict theories; rather his style was sumptuous, lush and constantly open to influence from his subject matter. With equally important careers in opera and theatre, as well as a deep knowledge of literature and painting, Visconti was one of the most complete artists ever to have worked in the cinema. While probably seeing himself as a classicist, Visconti arrived at many of the same formal conclusions as the more self-consciously revolutionary filmmakers of his time, but by different methods. Unlike Bresson he never rejected cinema as it was; unlike Godard he never used his films to question established techniques. Rather, Visconti pushed the cinematic creative envelope simply because the limits of film narrative were not big enough to contain the scope and complexity of his vision.
Although Visconti never managed to get his script of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past made, if ever a cinematic oeuvre managed to capture the notion of ‘time regained’, it is his. The recurring theme of his period films was the decadence and decline of upper class milieus in the face of historical upheaval: the last months of the Austrian occupation in Senso, the unification of Italy in The Leopard and of Germany in Ludwig (1972), the rise of the Third Reich in The Damned. In these films, the aristocratic Visconti – born Count Luchino Visconti de Modrone – whose life was as extraordinary as anything he ever filmed, almost certainly felt more at home in the vanished worlds he was recreating than he did in our modern one. The emotional investment he placed in their recreation was therefore far deeper than the requirements of good craftsmanship. In fact, it is tempting to view the second half of his oeuvre as sometimes almost bordering on the autobiographical, particularly after The Damned (La Caduta degli Dei, 1969). With the exception of White Nights (Le Notti Bianchi, 1957), the committed communist Visconti was adamant that all his previous films were in some way political. The Damned, although set during Hitler’s rise to power, represented a despairing comment on the events of 1968 after which the director gave up political filmmaking to concentrate on purely personal projects. While the similarities between Burt Lancaster’s Sicilian Prince caught up in changing times in The Leopard and the Milanese filmmaker were much remarked upon, Visconti retorted by citing his commitment to progressive political change. Yet, as an artist, it is undeniably his emotional connection to the past rather than his ideological beliefs that have yielded his best work.
These later, ‘personal’ films include Death in Venice, Ludwig, Conversation Piece (Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno, 1974) and The Innocent (L’Innocente, 1976). The Innocent, adapted from a novel by Gabriele d’Annunzio, is a cruel tale of marital disintegration set at the turn of the 19th century enriched by Visconti’s memories of his own parents. The other three have in common an isolated central character that has withdrawn from the world. All three deal with a confrontation with latent homosexuality and the heroes of both Ludwig and Conversation Piece are men who attempt to live in another age. The most striking parallels between events in Visconti’s life and these later films is in Ludwig, the story of a privileged aristocrat primarily concerned with art, who experiences an ill-fated love affair with a princess and subsequently becomes homosexual – all of which is equally true of Visconti. While a tortured relationship with current changes and events also featured in The Leopard, the Prince’s positive action, like Visconti’s, is very different from the evasiveness and even escapism that, to a greater or lesser extent, plagues many of the sometimes quite pathetic characters of the later films. Although any conclusions about just how much of himself Visconti saw in these men must remain largely speculative, it is interesting to consider the possible extent to which his filmmaking allowed him to recreate a world he felt more comfortable in than the one around him. For Visconti this recreation was more than simply a case of set dressing. Although his care with even the most minute details of sets, costumes and performance in his productions is legendary, this recreation extended equally into the time, rhythm and space of each period he evoked.
Visconti’s first historical movie was Senso, a bold break with neo-realism with its big stars, lavish sets and costumes, lustrous colour photography and period setting. Although in many ways a fine film, when looked at in the light of the subtle, multi-layered works that were to come, Senso is obviously just a rough sketch. It could be argued that his belated neo-realist masterpiece Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e I soui Fratelli, 1960) came much closer to what he was to achieve in his best works in its mastery of the epic form, its structural originality and its success in the very difficult job of satisfactorily melding personal drama and historical circumstances.
The first of his great late works was The Leopard, in which he reached full maturity, both thematically – in his exploration of the decline of an aristocratic way of life – and stylistically. Georges Sadoul describes this adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel about the compromises a Sicilian Prince (Burt Lancaster) has to make with the newly powerful middle class, as a “fresco” of Sicilian life at the time. (1) It is more episodic than linear, relaxed enough to engage in lengthy historical and political debate. There is an emphasis on capturing rituals – masses, dinners, travel, dances. While scenes such as the picnic towards the beginning or the slow pan across the city at sunset before the start of the famous ball scene are ‘unnecessary’ to the plot, they add enormously to the atmospheric texture of the piece. Visconti’s best films have the rare quality of existing in space as much, if not more, than in time. It is an intensely visual style of filmmaking, which involves immersing the audience in the atmosphere of each scene and gradually overwhelming them with it as opposed to rushing from one scene to the next in pursuit of narrative tension. Of all the directors who, each in their own very unique way, practice a similar approach – Dreyer, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Jansco, Angelopoulos, Tarr, certain films by Kubrick and Wenders – Visconti is the most subtle, consciously or unconsciously cloaking his radicalism in the ‘respectability’ of the period genre. I would argue that this radicalism was achieved through constant striving to tell his stories more vividly rather than by making use of any preconceived aesthetic programme. In this way, Visconti can be perceived as the transitional figure in European cinema between classicism and modernism.
In The Leopard, and his subsequent historical films, setting, architecture and the characters’ relationship to their environment are all-important. In The Leopard, with its constantly descriptive camera, the palaces and gardens that form the Prince’s world are also the physical embodiment of the history and traditions at stake. This is what the detractors who complain about Visconti’s ‘aestheticism’ fail to understand. His use of space and architecture is every bit as masterful as Antonioni’s, yet executed to achieve opposite results: Antonioni uses space and architecture to abstract his characters and stories from the very concrete reality of today, while Visconti uses space and architecture to make concrete his no longer existent and thus initially abstract reality. In this regard, the physicality of both The Leopard and its nightmare mirror image, Ludwig, is nothing short of monumental.
For all its sadness, The Leopard retains an atmosphere of sweeping romanticism. While it can’t be called optimistic, it is a story of dignified resignation in the face of circumstances, of a man attempting to make provision for changing times. Although a journey into alienation for its hero, many of its scenes bustle with lively community activity that bring to mind the colourful chaos of some of Renoir’s multi-character scenes, reminding us that it was through working with the great French director that Visconti decided to become a filmmaker. The Leopard also has a sun bronzed visual lushness that is heightened by Nino Rota’s fine score.
Ludwig also deals with an aristocrat isolated by changing times, in this case the King of Bavaria. But the melancholy of The Leopard has given way to neurosis; the romantic atmosphere has become that of a gothic horror film, with Helmut Berger’s tormented King hiding from the world like a vampire as he descends into escapism, illness and insanity. Ludwig is a film about a man avoiding coming to terms with change, put in a position of leadership for which he is hopelessly unfit and which he uses to hide from the world. Unlike The Leopard, Ludwig could not be called a likeable film. It is an icy, spare, claustrophobic record of decadence and degeneration. The bustle of palace life that animates The Leopard has turned frigid, sinister and parasitic, isolating the King at the centre of numerous intrigues. Each scene has the feeling of a solemn ceremony or, at times, an historical tableau. His view of events is detached, reflecting both the hero’s helplessness and his increasingly tenuous grip on reality.
The opening scene immediately sets the mood. The young King, on the eve of his coronation, is in his bedroom earnestly telling his priest that he intends to better himself and become a good king by investing all his time and energy in the arts and the creation of beauty. In the light of the wars and disasters to follow, this unchecked naïveté is already portending disaster. As they fall to their prayers, Visconti’s incessantly descriptive camera moves away from them, over the forbidding, almost completely dark room up to the crest of arms hanging above the bed. It is as if the darkness of the room and the oppressiveness of the decoration, heavy with history, is already swallowing up the young King’s good intentions. The coronation that follows is stiff, joyless and boring and Visconti spares us none of it. Ritual, the vehicle of life in The Leopard is invariably oppressive and funereal here, another web restraining Ludwig. In one powerful scene, we follow Ludwig into a room full of relatives, through a complicated process of bowing and hand kissing. In the middle of it all he becomes aware of a personal betrayal. Almost overwhelmed with fury and grief, he goes through the same formal procedure before leaving the room. The scene is not played as a stiff upper lip exercise in putting a good front on things. Rather it is bitterly farcical, the King’s body trembling with humiliation as he goes through the empty procedures. Ludwig is the story of a man trapped by destiny, history, and his own personal failings. And, in what is Visconti’s most extreme film, he is a man trapped by the walls that enclose him.
This is perfectly appropriate for a ruler whose favourite pastime was building what Laurence Schifano describes as “pseudo-classical, pseudo-baroque, pseudo-gothic, absurdly kitsch castles” in which he could pursue a lonely, fantasy existence. (2) It is a film of corridors, endless parades of corridors. In what is perhaps the most important scene, Ludwig’s beloved cousin Elizabeth (Romy Schneider) visits one of these castles. After shot after shot of her wandering through halls, up staircases, along corridors she finally arrives in a particularly imposing one and breaks down in hysterical, mocking laughter. She is laughing at the folly of Ludwig’s grandiose, economically disastrous architectural projects, but she is also laughing at him. The ridiculous, fantastical buildings he has constructed have become an extension of his character and his failings. It is hard to emphasise just how startling this scene is in the angst-ridden context of the rest of the film, the incredulity and spontaneity of her sudden emotion, so out of keeping with the code of behaviour common to other scenes, highlighting the painful absurdity of Ludwig’s predicament. Although Elizabeth is seen in an extreme long shot, dwarfed by her surroundings, her emotions neutralise the weight of space and she dominates the scene. She is the only character in the film able to do so. Given her place in the story, as Ludwig’s unrequited love, this scene on the one hand brilliantly materializes her rejection of him and his whole morbid fantasy world and, on the other, depicts her as a spirit of freedom that refuses to be trapped by it.
Ludwig, on the other hand, is ultimately crushed and destroyed by architecture. Having been deposed by the government as mentally unfit to govern, he is silently escorted by his captors in an interminable real time scene down an endless series of corridors to his bleak, sterile cell. It is at moments like this that Visconti’s leisurely pace turns almost sadistic, yet the relentless oppressiveness of corridor after corridor is genuinely chilling and, taken in the right spirit, possesses a hypnotic, mercilessly compacted power. It is the natural conclusion to Ludwig’s ever contracting world, a final imprisonment. All that is left is his mysterious death by drowning the first time he is let out for a walk in the grounds.
Ludwig was the third part of Visconti’s loose trilogy examining German history. The first was The Damned. This film opens and closes with shots of fire, more precisely shots of the furnace in the von Essenbeck family steel mills, and has the burning of the Reichstag as a pivotal event. This forceful denunciation of the political hellfire of Nazism sweeping through the lives of a powerful industrialist’s family (based on the Krupps) boldly embraces the kitsch side of Nazi popular culture and for this reason has frequently been dismissed as kitschy itself. It is in fact another example of Visconti’s submersion of himself and his audience in the spirit of the period he is recreating. This period takes its cue from one of Hitler’s sayings, quoted early on in the film: “Personal morals are dead. We are an elite society where everything is permissible.” What follows is a suitably infernal catalogue of horrors, including murder, rape, child abuse and incest, as the family falls into the clutches of neurotic grandson Helmut Berger who uses his Nazism to play out his monster size Oedipus complex. This is not a world order fading as in Visconti’s other films. It is a world order exploding. As usual, Visconti states his theme clearly from the outset through a stark cultural contrast. The film begins with the family coming together to celebrate the old patriarch’s birthday: his younger grandson plays the cello as the camera slowly pans across the entire household, family and servants alike in a picture of patriarchal old world stability that would not seem out of place in The Leopard. This is followed by Berger’s attempt at entertainment, a cabaret number with him dressed as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1931) that so disgusts his grandfather that he gets up and leaves. During the subsequent dinner, news arrives of the Reichstag fire. The old man will be murdered that night.
In order to convey this rampant, paranoid instability visually, Visconti employs a very risky technique, that of frequent, rapid zooms, often moving in and out several times within one shot. The potential for this effect to become tiresome and shoddy looking is enormous and not helped by the lurid lighting scheme he employs, but Visconti pulls it off. If The Leopard and Ludwig display an uncommonly solid sense of place (representing history and tradition in The Leopard, imprisonment in Ludwig), The Damned and Death in Venice work through the destruction of that spatial solidity. (Can it be pure coincidence that these are the two films that bring his historical project into the turmoil of the 20th century?) The disorientating violence of the zooms in The Damned literally pulls the space out from around the characters, enveloping them in a panicky state of alienation from their surroundings which are changing too fast. This constant spatial disintegration reflects the insecurity of the often ruthless characters’ scrabble for power in the crucible of a new and very dangerous society. It is also the opposite extreme of poor Ludwig‘s fate. He had too close a relationship with his all too solid surroundings and ended up crushed by them.
If The Damned displays a violent assault on space, Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice shows it slowly dissolving. Twenty years before Wong Kar-wai, Visconti had already penetrated the private space of a lonely, romantically obsessed individual and summoned up his emotional landscape through the expressive use of an urban environment and music. Like the furnace that sets the scene in The Damned, Death in Venice states its mood and pace in its opening image, an incredibly slow shot floating from the middle of a dusk-blue mist into the Venetian lagoon across which the boat bearing composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) to the city of his death passes. Accompanied by the music of Gustav Mahler, upon whom the character of the composer was based, this shot slowly brings the story into focus, just as at the end it again drifts out of focus. This lends a sense of instability to the melancholy, dreamlike interim. Visconti’s descriptive camera is allowed to dominate the film because there is simply nothing but description and observation in this film. As in The Damned, Visconti makes expert use of the zoom lens, but this time the zooms are for the most part slow and exploratory. The camera glides endlessly across the hotel and its guests, as well as the beaches with their numerous holidaymakers, often starting a shot as if it were from von Aschenbach’s point of view, only to finish with him in shot, creating a subtle sense of disorientation.
The only action in this film is what goes on within Aschenbach’s mind and it is by colouring the potentially neutral, at times almost documentary scenes that Visconti creates with the appropriate mood that he brings this film to life. Compared to the crushing solidity of Ludwig, space here is frequently subjective, a screen on which the dying hero projects his feelings. At the same time, this space remains mysteriously aloof from him, displaying all the inscrutability of a foreign country. This slightly threatening aspect of Venice is hinted at from the outset. As von Aschenbach is brought by gondola from the boat at the opening of the film, a dispute with the gondoleer leaves Aschenbach muttering worriedly to himself: “I don’t understand”. In the final stages of Death in Venice, when von Aschenbach discovers evidence of a cholera epidemic locals are trying to cover up for the sake of the tourist industry, the menacing aspect comes to the fore, the now corrupt beauty of the alleys and canals of Venice holding a lurking sense of death and danger far more powerful than even that evoked by Nicolas Roeg in Don’t Look Now (1973) with its more obviously grand Guignol trappings. Roeg’s rainswept, off-season Venice is immediately inhospitable, whereas Visconti, the master of decadence, seduces us with his painterly vision only to gradually reveal the danger at its heart. This parallels the process of Aschenbach’s hopeless love for a boy he has spotted on the beach and his ultimate death in pursuit of his ideal, Visconti once again using space to tell his story, this time with a delicacy that he would never surpass.
There have been many great period movies, many imaginative and personal films that approach history from every imaginable angle. Many of the best use the past to explore the present or project modern views and concerns. But just as some of Dreyer’s films could have been carved out of the very fabric of the Middle Ages, so it is difficult to believe that in films like The Leopard, Death in Venice, Ludwig and The Innocent, Visconti was not describing a present reality, a reality that had in fact already almost faded by the time Griffith was making his most important films. Visconti’s late historical films feel as if they are part of the artistic wealth of another century, while remaining completely modern and even ahead of their time in their treatment of film narrative. This mixture of formal sophistication with such a deep feeling for and personal engagement with history is what gives them their unique, slightly uncanny sense of being part of an art form far older than the cinema’s hundred and seven year life span, an art that had reached maturity before the dawn of the nineteenth century.