It is set in pre-WWI Venice. Main character Gustav von Aschenbach, a middle-aged intellectual (played by Dirk Bogarde), arrives in Venice. There he stays in the hotel where he notices a big Polish family. He falls in love with a teenage boy, Tadzio. Much longing ensues as the main character observes the boy.
Then an epidemic breaks out in Venice. The protagonist wants to leave but then changes his mind. He goes on following the boy around the city from some distance. Meanwhile the Venice decays as the disease takes its toll. Cholera in this movie might be a metaphor for the looming WWI.
A documentary chronicling on actor Bjorn Andrésen's time playing Tadzio and the aftermath, The World's Most Beautiful Boy, will be released in 2021.
- Adaptational Job Change: Aschenbach is changed from a writer in the novel (being an Author Avatar for Thomas Mann) to a composer in the film (being loosely modeled on Gustav Mahler, whose music appears on the soundtrack).
- Author Filibuster: Gustav von Aschenbach and his friend Alfried discuss at length aesthetical questions in the scene closer to the beginning of the film.
- Canon Foreigner: Alfried and Gustav's wife did not exist in the novel and are largely used to illustrate Gustav's views on art and human nature.
- Cerebus Syndrome: The epidemic grows gradually. It goes from bad to worse all the time.
- Depraved Bisexual: From a moralistic point of view Gustav von Aschenbach is exactly this. He has sex with a female hooker and falls for an adolescent Polish boy.
- The Disease That Shall Not Be Named:
- Subverted in the movie as the viewer knows that it is cholera.
- Played with in-universe as the city authorities of Venice try to conceal the disease.
- Dying Town: Because of cholera the city gradually collapses. Lampshaded by the name.
- The Hero Dies: Yes, it happens in the end. However he does not contract cholera, he dies from heart disease.
- Leave the Camera Running: This film includes many very long takes.
- MayDecember Romance: Played with as the romance is at the distance. The characters never approach to each other.
- Mr. Exposition: The travel agent who explains in detail the spread of the cholera pandemic from India to Venice.
- Mr. Fanservice: Tadzio played by the youthful Björn Andrésen.
- Music of Note: Third and fifth symphonies by Gustav Mahler are used in this film.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Aschenbach is a thinly-veiled allusion to Gustav Mahler. Dirk Bogarde based his appearance on photographs of Mahler, even initially wearing a false nose to better resemble the composer.
- The Oner: Those long takes. Probably several of them. Especially the very last one when The Hero Dies. The music is adagietto by Mahler.
- Pædo Hunt: Played with. Gustav von Aschenbach did not take any real action so he cannot be indicted. However his attitude is problematic as they say.
- Sensual Slavs: Tadzio is Polish. And sensual too. Although without meaning to be so.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Alfried, the friend of von Aschenbach is spelt thus, not Alfred.
- Stalking Is Love: The movie implies exactly this.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between the character of Dirk Bogarde and a pretty Polish adolescent.