Björn Andrésen: ‘I was extremely uncomfortable’

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is a new documentary about the pressures imposed on the young star of Death in Venice

Two years ago, following the release of Ari Aster’s excellent horror Midsommar, cineastes happened upon a remarkable piece of trivia. As weirdness escalates, the sinister Scandinavian cultists help an elderly man over a precipitous drop and, when he fails to expire, beat in his brains with a mallet.

Few initially spotted that Björn Andrésen played this avatar of old age – the same Björn Andrésen who played an avatar of youthful beauty in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice 50 years ago.

Now 66, thinly stretched with long grey hair, Andrésen, at home in Sweden, seems genuinely touched that the connection came as a revelation. Nobody else appears to have mentioned their excitement at learning the news.

“Ari didn’t know.”


Really? So the director had no idea he was working with an icon of the 1970s?

“No. It’s like the portrait of Dorian Grey, right? If he did know he never hinted. If he knew he was really discreet about it.”

There is only brief mention of Midsommar in the fine new documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World. Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s  film is concerned with the pressures Death in Venice imposed on a young man and the ways it damaged his life.

Based on a novella by Thomas Mann, Visconti's lush drama starred Dirk Bogarde as a consumptive composer who becomes obsessed with an angelic youth while declining by the Lido. Plucked from obscurity, Andrésen was asked to parade half-naked before the director during his audition. The Cannes premiere was a dizzying attack. He lived in fear of fans cutting locks from his abundant blonde hair. He achieved some unlikely later fame in Japan, but life thereafter was a real struggle. There was an uncomfortable experience with an older man in Paris. His young son died in 1980.

“I made a living,” he says in a measured tone. “I had a few jobs. I worked in a kindergarten in Copenhagen. I was turnkey in the state prison in Stockholm. I worked in shops. I was a teacher. That was the best job I ever had. Maybe playing on stage can be compared. But there is no satisfaction that can compare with seeing your kids walk from class with straight backs.”

Let us go back to that audition. Did he have any idea of Visconti’s status? Formally dubbed Count of Lonate Pozzolo – though a self-declared communist – the Italian filmmaker began with neorealism before moving on to lavish epics such as The Leopard and Death in Venice. By 1972, he was a genuine legend.

“Actually, I had no idea,” he says. “Someone called me and said: the great Luchino Visconti is in town and wants to see you. And I thought, for some reason, is this some sort of horror film? Yeah. Visconti? It sounds so pretentious. I went to the audition and waited like all the others. We were then out buying swimming trunks and taking nude photos. That wasn’t so pleasant. And when it was over I was instructed to read the novella. Which I did, like the well-mannered nice boy I am.”

Andrésen, seeming older than his years, pauses and frets. “Excuse me. Did that answer your question?”

Nobody would be so naive as to think such things don’t still go on in auditions. The distinction is that, back then, it seemed that few thought there was anything wrong with asking an inexperienced young actor to remove his clothing at a first meeting. Nobody was hiding the information. The encounter was filmed and appears in The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.

“I was extremely uncomfortable,” he says. “As you say, in the ’70s, maybe people weren’t aware. There was also a trend then that you should be ‘free’. It was partly about being very uncomfortable, and, at the same time, being ashamed of that emotion. There were a lot of conflicting emotions.”

It should be clarified that nobody in the film is suggesting there was any more serious abuse during the production and promotion of Death in Venice. But Andrésen was flung into the maelstrom with little of the support a young man required. He didn’t even really want to be an actor. It seems his grandmother, who cared for him after his mother’s tragically early death, was driving his ambition. Or that’s how he remembered it. The film tells a slightly different story.

“No, not at all. From a young age, music took me over,” he says. “I was really surprised to hear myself in the movie, when somebody asked me what I want to be when I grow up, saying: ‘I want to be an actor.’”

There was a world premiere in London before Queen Elizabeth, but things really took off at Cannes in May 1971. Throughout the 10 days, the inappropriate lust for Andrésen was everywhere apparent. He became, for a shining moment, the representative of the age: character and actor uncomfortably blended. It is interesting to talk about this now as he promotes a well-received documentary. I imagine the experiences could hardly be more different.

“Well, the situation is a bit bizarre,” he says. “It’s a bit of a circus – like it was 50 years ago. The difference is I’m a big boy now. I got over it. That time. I was scared sh**less. Pardon my French. Especially by the Cannes festival. I have problems with big crowds of people since then – it’s a big drama. But I am prepared to deal with it much better now.”


One subject that is not much addressed in The Most Beautiful Boy is the young Björn’s relationship with Dirk Bogarde. Anyone who has had a glance at the British actor’s published letters – awkward, catty, belligerent – will conclude that he may not have been easy to work with. But what do we know? Andrésen shrugs. It seems they didn’t have much of a relationship.

“We didn’t spend much time talking privately,” he says. “It was a uniquely professional relationship, as with Luchino. They were the grown-ups and we were kids. He was very musical and he was the first English-speaking person who could pronounce my first name right. Most people say ‘bee-yorn’. He was actually interested in the right way to say it. I said: ‘say ‘urn’ and put ‘Bj’ before it.’ That did impress me.”

A huge portion of the publicity was landed on his fragile shoulders, far more than was fair for a 16 year old. The attention was particularly intense in Japan where he briefly became a pop star. Andrésen was a talented pianist, but becoming a singing star had never been among his ambitions.

"Go to Japan! Make some money!" he says, remembering the entreaties. "Okay, I'm going. I did a couple of recordings – Japanese pop, which I was very reluctant to do, because I was into, artsy, difficult jazz. John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett and things like that. So we did some recordings and some commercials. The second time, when I came out of the plane, it was like when the Beatles arrived. There were girls with scissors after my hair. Crazy."

The documentary is notably vague about his time in Paris. A few years after the Death in Venice furore cooled down, he travelled to that city for a promised acting gig. When I ask what he would have done differently, he cautiously mentions this unhappy adventure.

“I would have said ‘don’t go to Paris’. It was 1976. Go to the conservatory instead. You can go to Paris later on.”

Why was that such a disaster?

“Well, we were supposed to make a film,” he says. “They had arranged that I could live in Paris, quite comfortably, and so on. But my piano teacher told me: ‘Don’t go, you belong in the conservatory.’ But I was persuaded by my grandmother, naturally. I gave in to peer pressure. That was foolish. But also very educating and interesting. So there’s a small part of me that says: ‘Je ne regrette rien.’”

There are clearly still some buried mysteries. But Björn Andrésen persevered. The film follows him as he contemplates his mother’s suicide and the death of his own child. He rattles drily around a notably disordered apartment in Sweden. This is a film about survival. Midsommer and The Most Beautiful Boy in the World have edged him back towards a less hectic area of the cinematic downstage. Though Andrésen is more visibly battered than many men his age, he remans wry and philosophical about his odd life.

If he could speak to the young Björn would he advise him to turn down Death in Venice?

“I’d say, ‘do it, but take me with you’.”

Take the grown-up, responsible Andrésen?

“Yes. I wish that was doable.”