How the images and memories of one city cast light on another
I have the cover of the original vinyl recording of Visconti's soundtrack to his film Death in Venice in front of me. That film is a recasting of Thomas Mann's short story of the same name. However, in the film the protagonist Aschenbach is no longer a writer, but a composer. It's a thinly-veiled link to Mahler, whose soaring 5th symphony - especially the Adagietto movement - finds its perfect setting in the decaying splendour of the cholera-ridden Italian port. Mahler certainly visited Venice and his wife Alma had a house there - some time after Mahler had died. But in those strange contrivances by which a place becomes indelibly linked with a writer or composer, the 5th symphony by way of Visconti's film is now irretrievably linked to Mahler.
I saw the film 'Tar' last night*. (*Spoiler alert I discuss plot elements of 'Tar' in the paragraph below) That film, also about a composer in a specific city - this time Berlin - makes direct reference to Visconti's film. Lydia Tar tells her orchestra, rehearsing the 5th, to forget all they know of Visconti. To approach the music as if they had never heard it before. There was a knowing laugh amongst the cinema audience - most old enough, like me, to have seen or at least heard of Visconti's masterpiece. It was only afterwards that I was really struck by how the two films speak to each other.
Or perhaps I should say how the two cities correspond. Berlin has an austere beauty in 'Tar'. Even when the camera follows Lydia Tar as she jogs through graffitied archways, or along the banks of canals, there is that same sense of decaying splendour that you get in Visconti's Venice. I even wonder if Tar's obsession with a young cellist owes something to Aschenbach's for the beautiful boy on the beach in Death in Venice. And like the first film death is ever present in Berlin, whether it is in the collapse of the elderly neighbour whose plight Tar has ignored, or the suicidal protegee whom Tar mistreated in an earlier phase of her life. You could even say disease is present. Tar, who cleans obsessively, shrinks back and holds her hand to her mouth as her neighbour's body is removed from the adjacent flat. It is as if cholera or plague has come to Berlin.
I was also transported to that other great film set in Venice, made two years after Visconti's - Don't Look Now directed by Nicholas Roeg. A film about love and grief but with similar undercurrents of the supernatural that haunt Tar. In 'Tar', the protagonist finds herself searching for the young Russian cellist in Berlin's desolate, grim underground tenements. At one point, she catches sight of a huge black dog and panicking races for the exit, eventually sprawling and smashing her face on concrete steps. A black dog is if nothing else a cipher for depression or anxiety. Surely director Todd Field was drawing on the famous final scenes of Don't Look Now when Donald Sutherland chases what appears to be child in a red cape (analagous to the drowned child he and his wife have lost) through Venetian alleys and courtyards. When the child finally turns to reveal its face, it is in fact a devilish creature who wields a knife to murder its pursuer. The 'death' Sutherland has earlier seen in a coffin carried along the canal is in fact his own.
So, can we speak or write of any city without it carrying associations of its past lives? Probably not - and would we want to? The cities we walk around are only the most recent versions of themselves, stories layered one upon another in the same way we laid brick and concrete on the stones of the Romans. Now, when I listen to Visconti's soundtrack to 'Death in Venice' I think not only of that great ancient port but also of its Germanic counterpart, stories lapping at the edges of the canals, blurring the writing on the walls.