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DID VISCONTI THROW A HISSY AT CANNES, OR DID HE NOT?


When I interviewed Luchino Visconti in 1971 for The New York Times, it was clear he believed that being politically correct was not the correct thing to be. It was also clear that he would never be a poster boy for the feminist movement. --GUY FLATLEY

 

"Tantrum?” Luchino Visconti squints his heavy-lidded eyes, wondering if he has heard the question properly. He has.

“Mr. Visconti, is it true that you threw a tantrum at the Cannes Festival because ‘Death in Venice’ did not win first prize, that you threatened never to return to Cannes, and that the only way the jury managed to calm you down was by coming up with a brand new prize called the 25th Anniversary Award?”

“Such gossip!” Visconti laughs, putting down his drink to prevent it from spilling onto the hotel sofa. The 64-year-old Italian director, who has whipped up controversy from time to time with such disputed works as “Rocco and His Brothers,” “The Leopard” and “The Damned,” is in New York before the opening of “Death in Venice.” His opulent yet austere version of the Thomas Mann novella, with its sexual nuance, its somnambulant tempo and its unceasing scrutiny of décor, had already brought excited preview audiences to their feet, hurrahing – or hissing.

“The prize they gave me at Cannes was much more important than the one they gave to Joseph Losey,” says Visconti. He is exhausted from his trans-Atlantic flight, and his manner has flicked from jovial to gruff and back again. “They make special prize for me–-not just for ‘Death in Venice,’ but for all my films.

“So far, it goes very well with this movie. In London, there are long queues, lots of young people with guitars and beads. It makes me very happy that the young people can understand the movie’s point of view, that they can understand this kind of love.”

Some people feel that “this kind of love” is homosexual love, that Visconti’s movie, even more than Thomas Mann’s story, is simply the study of a repressed homosexual who is suddenly seized by an overwhelming desire for a stunning adolescent boy.

“The love is not homosexual,” Visconti insists. “It is love without eroticism, without sexuality. And young people today know that love is the most important sentiment. Sex is important, too, but it is a consequence of love.

“The boy in the story represents the sentiment of love; he is the symbol for beauty. Aschenbach pursues the idea of beauty and when he sees that this perfection really does exist, it is a great consolation. But it has its fatal aspect.”

In Thomas Mann’s story, Aschenbach was a writer, but in Visconti’s movie, Aschenbach–-brought boldly to life by Dirk Bogarde-–is a composer. “It was easier for me to give the impression I wished by making him a musician, and also I wanted to use the music of Gustav Mahler. I believe that Mann was thinking of Mahler when he wrote ‘Death in Venice.’ There is much evidence to support this theory; Mann’s daughter thinks the story is about Mahler. When Mahler’s daughter learned that I was making the film, she became anxious about her father’s reputation. I heard from her a week ago. ‘I have found my serenity once again,’ she told me. She had seen my movie and her mind was set completely at ease.”

There aren’t many Krupps around these days, but if there were, it is doubtful that their minds would have been set completely at ease by “The Damned,” Visconti’s bone-chilling portrait of that German industrialist family and its role in the rise of Nazism. One typical scene showed Helmut Berger, as the clan’s most enterprising pervert, brutally raping his murderous mother, played in chalk-face by Ingrid Thulin. Another scene, shown at left, captured Berger in a Dietrich moment.

“I did hear from the last surviving Krupp. He knew that I had patterned Martin-–the Helmut Berger character-–after him. So he said to me, ‘When the picture opens in Munich, I’ll give a big party and invite you.’ I don’t know if he actually did give that party, or if he ever really went to bed with his mother. In one way, of course, he most certainly did.”

That celebrated bedroom scene has already been made to look slightly old-hat by recent developments in the American New Wave. “We see now a great flowering of American films. There are many scenes that make the one between Helmut and Ingrid look like a piece of sugar-–a family matter. Like Andy Warhol’s ‘Trash.’ That was a little stronger than incest, wouldn’t you say?”

The sea of sadism, incest and homosexuality that surged through “The Damned” was surely an artistic exaggeration? “There is invention in the film, but the invention is in the direction of reality. That family was the Krupp family, and all those S. A. troops were homosexual. The way I showed The Night of the Long Knives-–the slaughter of the young boys in their beds-–is exactly the way it was reported by witnesses. Above all, ‘The Damned’ is a social and political document.”

During World War II, Visconti felt the nearly fatal clutch of Italian fascism. “They arrested me in my house one night. I told them they were crazy, but they took me from one prison to another. Finally, they wanted to shoot me. Thank God the Americans arrived just in time and saved me.”

Although he is a member of an aristocratic family and once held the title of count and is even reported to be a millionaire, Visconti denies the charge that he votes left but lives right. “Italy is a republic now. I am not a count; I’m nothing. My family was very rich, yes, but not me. I work all the time. I do like to live comfortably, but that does not prohibit me from having ideas about social reform. I don’t have to wear a burlap bag and live in a stable to feel that way, do I? I feel that we are heading toward a better society-–with the proper equilibrium, without Maoist extremism. The world can’t go backward, it must go forward.”

In his forward march, Visconti has no intention of leaving behind all of yesterday’s institutions. Such as the church. “I am a Catholic,” he says with papal finality. “I was born a Catholic, I was baptized a Catholic. I cannot change what I am. I cannot easily become a Protestant. My ideas may be unorthodox, but I am still a Catholic.”


Among his more orthodox ideas are those regarding the sacrament of matrimony. “I do regret not having children, but I do not regret never having married. People usually get married because they are afraid of being alone. But you can be unmarried and have a beautiful relationship–-and not just with one person. The ideal condition is to have children and not marriage. I think I might have been a very good father. Perhaps I do have children somewhere-–who knows?”

Should a man make the mistake of marrying, he has every right to expect his missus to keep herself busy about the house. “Women’s liberation? Put them all in jail! What liberation do they want? They should be women…that’s enough, if they do it well. Bed, kitchen, mother. All of us have our place, our duty, our job. Their job is to get man to eat the apple, to compromise man.”

There are a few exceptions to this rule–-women who would look pitifully out of place pushing a mop or flipping a pizza. Women like Maria Callas and Greta Garbo. Not only did Callas achieve some of her finest moments out of the kitchen and on the opera stage, but she did so under the adoring direction of Visconti, most notably in productions of “La Sonnambula” and “La Traviata.” But while she was able to lure him into the world of opera, he was not the least interested in luring her into the world of cinema. And so the determined diva has finally made her movie debut, sans Visconti, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Medea.”

“I don’t like this movie. The great moment of Maria is finished. It was finished when she stopped singing. That was the real talent of Maria. I don’t think she’s a movie actress. I advised her not to do the film, but she is…” Visconti heaves a sigh and taps his head with his knuckles. “Maria is, you know, so stubborn.”

Greta Garbo is so stubborn, too. Even though Visconti has expressed his desire to have her appear in his film of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” the Swede has maintained her customary silence. “It’s true, I have said that if Garbo wants to be in my film, I won’t say no.

“For Garbo,” Visconti says, his face aglow with impish egomania, “I don’t even ask for a screen test.”