Aging, shame and decay
We are led to believe that Gustav von Aschenbach was a big artist and still is a reasonably well-known person, but is no longer performing at his best. During the movie, when the story comes and goes through different periods of his life, we start to understand what has actually happened to Gustav and why he seems to be so uncomfortable (for the lack of a better word), with his life. He’s past his prime. And, to make sure we get that idea, the dialogues Gustav has with Alfred tells it in a very direct way: ”In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.”
The age is pretty obvious to us because we can see it acting on Gustav, on the scenes from the distant past with his wife, the recent past, when he has a breakdown during a concert, and the present. The decay, in a sense, gets more evident when the story shows us that it is not only an artistic decay. His decay is also shown to us as something moral.
Gustav’s decay comes more evident when he fails to accept all the warnings to leave Lido and uses one small incident with his baggage as the perfect excuse to come back to the hotel and to Tadzio. We can see clearly that he leaves the hotel with an obvious saddened face but comes back full of joy. If we say it looks like an addiction, we won’t be too far from the truth: The kind of decay we see on Gustav, always looking for more, even when it becomes obvious that he is already sick, it’s just like all the drug-addicted characters we’ve seen everywhere in the movies. He already knows — he investigated it, he wanted to know — that the whole city is sick. He is sick.
The only thing that’s not clear to us is if he doesn’t feel that sickness — it would be something that only we know, that omniscient audience perspective that is very common — or if he has decided to sublimate it. But, for Gustav, it doesn’t really matter. The danger of staying is far less important than the visual pleasure and the platonic desire for Tadzio. And he will have to pay for it.