Almost 30 years ago I interviewed the onetime child actor Bill Mumy, who was about 40 by then. He had played Will Robinson on “Lost in Space” when he was a kid and was now enjoying a creatively prosperous adulthood. Which has not often been the case for child actors. Citing himself and Jodie Foster, he insisted that what made a difference for them was preparation — professional training at an early age.
Growing up, Bjorn Andresen wanted to be a musician and spent time singing and playing. But his actual fate was something for which he could not have prepared: The film director Luchino Visconti hand-picked him to play Tadzio, the ravishing albeit inadvertent angel of death to Dirk Bogarde’s Aschenbach in Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.”
We meet Visconti early in this often spellbinding documentary directed by Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri. In archival footage, Visconti visits Stockholm. He says he’s been all over Europe looking for a teen boy who embodies the perfection of Mann’s vision. This pursuit would be considered very odd and possibly actionable today.
Once he picked Bjorn — the audition reel in which he asks the then-15-year-old strip to the waist is unsettling — he was protective of him on set. However, after the movie’s premiere, and the director’s proclamation that Bjorn was “the most beautiful boy in the world,” it seemed as if nobody could, let alone would, shield him.
Certainly not his grandmother, who, according to Andresen, “wanted a celebrity for a grandchild.” Andresen is in his sixties now, with long hair and a beard that camouflages his face. He often wears shades to obscure the eyes Visconti once rhapsodized over. Following Bjorn over the course of a year or so, the movie shows him continuing to act. He appears, memorably, in the 2019 film “Midsommar,” although you’d never associate Tadzio with that horror movie without studying its credits. In low-key sequences, he unpeels his personal tragedies. He explores the disappearance of his beloved mother, recounts the death of one of his own children and has a melancholy return to Tokyo, where, post “Death,” he had pop music stardom foisted on him.
It was there that his “bashonen” (a Japanese word for the quality of a young man of androgynous beauty) was a rampant cultural sensation. One sees Bjorn/Tadzio’s face and hair, or some slight variant of it, in manga and anime to this day.
Andresen’s determination to rise above misfortune, and his hopes for himself, make this movie less than a total tragedy. But it’s an often shudder-inducing cautionary tale.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World
Not rated. In English, Swedish and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.