The hourglass in Death in Venice

Mort à Venise - affiche du film

The Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) is a short story by Thomas Mann written in 1912, the film adaptation directed by Luchino Visconti (1970) after having met the writer whom he admired. The movie is hauntingly backdropped by Gustav Malher’s Symphony No. 5 Adagietto. Thomas Mann was thinking of the composer who he knew and admired when writing his story. It’s the likely reason why von Aschenbach, the leading character of the story, is given the same first name – Gustav. And Gustav von Aschenbach, who is a well-known writer in the novel, became a music composer in the movie. It all ties in together.

The theme of this work of art is a reflection on the nature of beauty: its pursuit, its contemplation, its dangers. In his novel the ideal beauty is portrayed as a young male adolescent. Dazzled and profoundly disturbed by this, the elderly artist lives without any care for the cholera epidemic that silently spread throughout a sublime but fetid and sepulchral Venice – which would inevitably kill him.

As if bewitched, the hero loses all sense of time and reality. This idea is marvelously expressed by von Aschenbach’s evocation of the hourglass: “I remember we had the same hourglass at my parents in olden times. Sand pours through such a narrow neck that when you turn it upside down, it appears that the sand level of the upper part would always be the same. It seems that the sand is waiting for the very last moment to seep into the globe underneath. It goes so slowly that we have time to think about it. At the final moment when it eventually runs its course, there is no more time to think about it anymore – and the hourglass is empty.