Björn Andrésen on His Tortured Relationship With Luchino Visconti’s ‘Death in Venice’: ‘That Son of a Bitch Sexualized Me’

Björn Andrésen on Luciano Visconti's 'Death in Venice'
Courtesy of Films Boutique

Björn Andrésen was just 16 when he landed the role that would change his life. The Swedish teenager was handpicked by legendary Italian auteur Luchino Visconti to star as Tadzio in the 1971 film adaptation of the 1912 Thomas Mann novella “Death in Venice.” In the film, Andrésen’s youth and striking looks obsess Dirk Bogarde’s Gustav von Aschenbach, a composer grappling with failing health. But that lucky break became a nightmare, particularly after Visconti labelled Andrésen the “most beautiful boy in the world” at a Cannes press conference for the film and then dropped the young man he had made a star.

“Life and career-wise, it fucked up a lot of things,” says Andrésen.

After gifting Andrésen with the memorable moniker describing his ethereal looks on that fateful day in the South of France, Visconti never spoke to the actor he’d plucked from obscurity and set off on a fateful collision course with teen idoldom.

“The job was done,” says Andrésen. “He was the kind of man who doesn’t give a shit. When you’re done, you’re done. No thanks or anything.”

Andrésen, now 66, looks far removed from the cherubic, golden-haired youth of “Death of Venice” when he talks to Variety via Zoom from his home in Stockholm. His hair is long and stark white, and his beard has reached Dumbledorian proportions. His high cheekbones are just as pronounced as they were in the 1971 film, but they jut out from a weathered face. He’s clearly lived a life. After shunning the limelight and running from his celebrity, Andrésen’s relative anonymity has been shattered by a new documentary, “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” which examines his tortured relationship with celebrity and uses his experience as a case study for the parasitic relationship that the film business has with child actors. The documentary, directed by Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, received rave reviews when it opened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and awards buzz when it premiered in U.S. theaters last fall.

“I wasn’t prepared for quite the level of attention that the film has received,” admits Andrésen. “But I’m not 16 anymore and I’m better prepared for it. You join the game, you play it. I think the film is useful, because it has awakened debates about the misuse of youth and children in this brutal industry.”

“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” contains squirmy footage of Andrésen’s audition for Visconti, in which he’s photographed shirtless and later asked to pose in skimpy swimwear. Andrésen looks disturbed about being put on display even as the director coaxes him to look into the camera.

“When they asked me to take off my shirt, I wasn’t comfortable,” says Andrésen. “I wasn’t prepared for that. I remember when he posed me with one foot against the wall, I would never stand like that. When I watch it now, I see how that son of a bitch sexualized me.”

When the film shot in Italy, Visconti struck a protective posture towards Andrésen, and acted professionally towards him on set. When filming ended, things changed. Andrésen is particularly upset about a time when the director pressured him to go to a gay club where he felt objectified.

“It was extremely uncomfortable,” says Andrésen. “I was alone with a bunch of guys. I coped with the situation. I got drunk and I don’t remember how I got back to the hotel. I think [Visconti] was testing me to see if I was gay.”

“Death in Venice” became a favorite with cinephiles, but its arthouse notoriety didn’t translate into a steady stream of movie offers for Andrésen. Instead, the actor embarked on a peripatetic existence, one that took him to Japan, where he became a pop star and huckster for consumer products. “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” also boasts footage of the actor being swarmed with fans when his plane touches down in Tokyo. It seems more enjoyable than the “Death in Venice” experience, but also surreal.

“You’ve probably seen pictures from when The Beatles visited the United States with all the screaming and it was like that,” says Andrésen. “I do envy The Beatles because there were four of them and I was all alone.”

Lindström and Petri first met Andrésen two decades ago while they were working together on a children’s television series. That relationship inspired trust, which deepened by the time that the filmmaking team took to get their fiercely private subject to open up about his experiences. They spent more than five years filming Andrésen, following him as he tries to move on from the pain of his early fame, as well as the addictions and substance abuse that followed.

“When you work with people you trust you tend to get into personal things,” says Andrésen. “I came to the conclusion — let’s just do it. I’m not the only one who has been a fool in life and maybe this can lighten somebody else’s burden. If it does, nobody is more happy than I.”

Andrésen hopes the film will encourage the entertainment industry to reassess how it treats child actors and to put more guardrails in place to ensure that kids don’t feel exploited or sexualized. But he’s not too optimistic. “They can approach things ethically and morally, but that would require an ethical, moral foundation,” he says.

“The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” arrives as movie lovers and critics are reassessing the role between artist and art. Directors like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen have made films that are widely regarded as masterpieces, but Polanski admitted to statutory rape and Allen has been accused of sexual abuse. Visconti’s offenses don’t rise to that level, but the movie he made objectified a minor and his callous treatment of that vulnerable young man impacted his life in profound ways. He also made classics like “Rocco and His Brothers” and “The Leopard” that continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers. So where does Andrésen stand on Visconti and his cinematic legacy?

“I can separate Visconti from the art, but it’s harder because he’s not anonymous personally to me,” he says. “As far as I’m able, I don’t want associations to stick together. When I was a small child, I saw a picture of an atom bomb explosion and thought: ‘Wow, look at that. Look at that beauty.’ Then you get to know what happens with this cloud. But I can separate the beauty of the cloud while at the same time being horrified with what is happening under it.”