A new documentary tells the story of how early fame in the Italian director’s Death in Venice became a living nightmare for its teenage star Björn Andrésen
In 1971, Luchino Visconti, a powerhouse of Italian neorealism, released a daring and controversial new film. Death in Venice was adapted from a Thomas Mann novella and dramatised a middle-aged composer’s obsession with a beautiful teenage boy. In a time of plague, the sick and dying artist becomes convinced there is something unearthly in the boy’s perfection, and follows him tragically around the city’s narrow streets. It was all splendidly aesthetic, with Visconti’s glorious tableaux set to the mournful strains of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, but there was something vaguely sinister about it all, even at the time.
The composer, Gustav von Aschenbach, was played by 50-year-old English star Dirk Bogarde, while the object of his adoration, Tadzio, was incarnated by a 15-year-old Swede called Björn Andrésen who had hardly acted before. Visconti had been obsessed with Mann’s novella for years, and in interviews would grandiosely insist that his film told the story of a “perfect, non-sexual love”. But he was fooling no one, except perhaps himself: the older man’s obsession with the youth was homoerotic, and its implications were not entirely lost on the film’s luminous teenage star.
When the film premiered in London before an audience that included Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne, Visconti described his young lead as “the most beautiful boy in the world”, an odious title to hang around a person’s neck, and one that has haunted Andrésen ever since.
The full implications of Visconti’s high-handed capriciousness are laid out in a remarkable new documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which is released here at the end of this month. It uses archive footage and interviews to tell this remarkable story of sudden fame and its attendant miseries from Andrésen’s point of view. It’s a cautionary tale.
Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s film approaches the story laterally, and begins in the present, as Andrésen (now 66) shuffles aimlessly around his pokey Stockholm apartment: gaunt, bearded, with a flowing mane of white hair, he cuts a striking figure but seems to be living in squalor. Then we drift back to the early 1970s, to dwell on those glowing images of young Björn running on a Venetian lido.
By the time he came to Stockholm in 1970, Luchino Visconti was a giant of Italian cinema, author of classics such as Obsession, White Nights and The Leopard, and an acclaimed opera and theatre director. But Death in Venice was a deeply personal project, and had become an overwhelming obsession.
Key to its success was the casting of Tadzio, the elusive boy with whom the doomed composer becomes infatuated. Visconti had been searching for his muse for years, roving through Poland, Finland and Hungary, looking for a slight and flawless blond teen who would perfectly match his vision and Mann’s descriptions.
Visconti was a man of many contradictions, a communist with servants who lived in a palazzo. Part of a Milanese noble family, he had all the arrogance of his class. He was as openly gay as was possible in those times. In the documentary, grainy footage shows him inspecting passing lines of blond boys in Swedish schools and drawing up a shortlist for auditions held in a glitzy Stockholm hotel.
At this remove, it all seems vaguely creepy, and things are about to get worse. Clips exist of Andrésen’s audition: blond and cherubic, exquisitely handsome, painfully shy, he seems deeply uncomfortable under the stern gaze of the chain-smoking maestro, especially when he asks the boy to strip to his pants. Later in the documentary, Andrésen’s daughter, Robine, will call this a “turning point” in her father’s life, and admit she finds the audition footage “very hard to watch”, as this “deeply sensitive” young man is exposed to the whims of a remorselessly driven film-maker.
Andrésen’s life was about to change forever, but to that point had hardly been a walk in the park. Born in Stockholm in 1955, he never knew his father and was fitfully raised by mother, a kind but deeply unstable woman who could barely look after herself. Sent at an early age to what he calls a “ghastly boarding school”, he ran away and eventually ended up in the care of his maternal grandparents. When he was 10 or so, his mother disappeared and was later discovered dead in a forest: she left behind a heartbreaking note and had apparently taken her own life.
Unfortunately for Andrésen, his grandmother turned out to be a pushy and shameless showbiz granny, who recognised the potential of the boy’s appearance and missed no opportunity to capitalise on it. It was she who persuaded him to audition for Death in Venice, and though she turned up to swan around the set capturing the event for posterity on her Super 8, she would do nothing at all to protect the boy from the pressure he was now under.
“She wanted a celebrity for a grandchild,” Andrésen says now: Visconti even gave her a small part, which apparently “pleased her no end”. He himself can barely look at the finished film, which reminds him of a painful and even traumatic experience.
“To put your eyes on beauty is to put your eyes on death,” Visconti, ever quotable, tells a fawning press conference, but on the set he was ruthless, and widely feared. Andrésen only remembers being given one direction during filming — “go, stop, turn around and smile”. He felt like an object, or an ornament: according to him, all the crew were gay, and though Visconti had given strict instructions that “little Tadzio” was not to be touched, that didn’t stop them looking.
“I didn’t really have any concept of how big all this was,” Andrésen recalls, but he was about to find out. Visconti was a darling at Cannes and, after its London premiere, Death in Venice was given the royal treatment at the 1971 festival. At press conferences, Visconti spoke for Andrésen, whose command of other languages was limited, and at one point came out with the following, flabbergasting statement: “He was more beautiful then [during the shoot], he’s older now.” The Italian objectified him shamelessly, never pausing, it seems, to wonder how the teenager might be coping with it all.
He was coping badly: Cannes was a “living nightmare,” he says. “Everyone was looking at me. I was terrified, it felt like swarms of bats around me pretty much all the time.” Andrésen felt particularly uncomfortable when Visconti took him to a gay nightclub, an experience he found deeply unsettling.
After the fuss had died down, and though Visconti had tied him into a three-year contract for reasons of exclusivity perhaps, Andrésen felt thrown away, rejected. Back in Stockholm, he tried to settle back into a normal life, and concentrate on his first love, music, but it was impossible. He was famous now, and everywhere he went he was recognised and ogled.
Soon after the film’s release, he accepted an invitation to travel to Japan, where Death in Venice had turned him into an unlikely idol. A series of TV ads led to several hit records, and endless marketing and publicity outings: at one point, his old agent recalls, he was making more than 25 appearances a night. He was given pills to counteract tiredness, but no pill could counteract the boy’s gathering confusion and depression.
Everywhere he went, he was mobbed as though he were the fifth Beatle. At Tokyo nightclubs, girls would appear from nowhere with scissors to clip locks of his hair: he inspired manga artists, and numerous cartoon characters were based on his unique appearance.
During the 1970s, as Andrésen reached adulthood, he came to feel like “a wandering trophy”. In 1975, he found himself in Paris, where a group of wealthy men put him up in an apartment and paraded him at clubs and parties. He was lost, well and truly, and though his life would later be briefly anchored by parenthood, bad luck followed him everywhere.
Towards the end of the documentary, Andrésen recalls the lowest moment in his difficult life, when his nine-month-old son died of sudden infant death syndrome. Andrésen was lying beside the child at the time, passed out as he admits from “too much alcohol”: had he been awake, he feels, the boy might have been saved.
This trauma and much else haunts the older Andrésen. He has dabbled in music, acted sporadically, and was most recently seen giving an eye-catching turn as a member of a crazed commune in Ari Aster’s gothic horror Midsommar. But he seems laden down, almost ghost-like, as he wanders Stockholm’s streets and sits alone in cafés, smoking and remembering: his relationship with his daughter is kindly, but distant.
For all that he’s charming, distinguished-looking, almost courtly in his manners. He may indeed be the most beautiful old man in the world. But you can’t help wondering how things might have turned out if Björn Andrésen hadn’t attended that audition, and entered the orbit of a gifted but ruthless director.
‘The Most Beautiful Boy in the World’ will be released in selected cinemas from July 30