If you haven’t seen Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, you probably know the director’s muse, Björn Andrésen. Even if you’re not familiar with Andrésen, he was the inspiration for the bishōnen archetype in manga: beautiful young men of androgynous beauty. Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s new documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World unravels the objectification experienced as a 15-year-old boy and how it compounded with family trauma to torment the actor’s life. The directors worked with Andrésen for five years and as he welcomes them into his life, their subject unpacks feelings and stories he’s never expressed, and embarks on a healing journey that involves discovering the cause of his mother’s death and embracing a faith that saves his life.
We spoke with directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri about making sure they told Björn Andrésen’s real story, their work to uncover Andrésen’s archives, Visconti’s rules to protect Björn on the Death of Venice set, and how faith saved the actors life.
The Film Stage: How did you meet Björn Andrésen?
Kristian Petri: We moved in the same circles and I was a young writer, filmmaker, and Björn was an actor, so we saw each other and our paths crossed but we didn’t really talk in any deeper sense. But then 15 years ago, I worked with a children’s TV series, and then I met him at work, where he was the main character. So we met and talked.
Kristina Lindström: I have met him before [making the film], but I also knew about him since I was a teenager. He was an icon, obviously. So I started asking him a lot of questions. About who was this boy, who was he, and what happened? And it was amazing, his life story. He didn’t tell me it all that first night, but when I went home, I said this should be a documentary.
Petri: We asked him, after we decided that we really wanted to do this, we asked him. It was not like he said yes, he was thinking about it. We met again about how to do it. We explained to him we wanted it to be a cinematic film. Also, we wanted to tell his story, not the story about the character he played in Death of Venice, Tadzio.
Lindström: This iconic picture of him as Tadzio has really shadowed his whole life. He used to call it the film that destroyed his life. So it was important for him that we didn’t want to do the same story over again.
How did you get your hands on the really compelling casting footage of Björn with Visconti?
Lindström: It was digging into archives in Europe––in the Italian television archives––and we found it.
Petri: Also the family itself had remarkable archive footage, Super 8 footage. He has been actually filmed and photographed since he was a baby and documented his whole life. There’s remarkable audio tapes from his mother and telephone conversations. When we were doing this, he was also rediscovering material all along. We were continuously being invited into a new room and he was opening the door to hear a new story or some new material. He surprised us all the way.
The documentary reveals itself as a healing journey for Björn. Was that always the intent, and if not, at what point did you realize that was happening?
Petri: I think it was a process. Maybe it was not the first intention, but it slowly developed. I definitely have a strong impression that it felt important for him to reclaim some of these places you know, like Venice, like Paris, like Japan. To take them, making it into his own story, not someone else’s.
Will you talk about the music in the film? It’s unnerving to see Björn wander tattered hallways set to this haunted score.
Lindström: Anna von Hausswolff is a very strong composer, pianist and singer. I love her music.
Petri: She’s a remarkable woman. Her music has fantastic energy and she has romantic, dark areas. She plays organ and I felt like they really match together with our pictures.
Lindström: This is the first time she’s written for a feature film.
Petri: We actually planned, if not for COVID, she would have concerts with the documentary. Hopefully in the future.
Visconti had a rule on set that his all-gay crew was not allowed to approach Björn sexually. Do you think this was to protect Björn or was it also to keep Björn to himself? In the movie Björn says, “Visconti sees me as a piece of meat on a plate.”
Petri: It’s extremely hard to know what Visconti was thinking at the time, but maybe it was, maybe it was a bit of both. You must not forget that he was an extremely professional director at work. It’s super hard to say. Also saying that the whole crew wanted sex… that’s what Björn says, his memory of how he was feeling, so I don’t know for sure if that’s the case, that’s very hard to say. We saw this fantastic material in the Italian TV archive’ Visconti was questioned if it ever bothered him being homosexual, and he just looked at the journalist and said, “Julius Caesar was homosexual.”
There’s a scene at the end of the movie where Björn says “everything worldly is uncertain unless we have faith.” What does he mean by that and why did he say it?
Lindström: I think he literally means that he wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been for his faith.
Petri: He’s Christian, and he has a very strong faith. It’s extremely important for him. I would say faith and music is most important.
Did Björn learn who his father is, and if so, why didn’t you include it in the movie?
Petri: Yes. We met Björn’s mother’s best friend Silva who said she never got to know who Björn’s father was and that Björn should leave it. But we went to the archives and there were several names in the paternity investigation that his mother stated as possible.
Lindström: It turned out that a young talented artist who died in a car accident at the age of 23 left an unborn child. This daughter who never met her father turned out to be Björn’s half-sister. Björn’s mother was a good friend of this young artist, Lasse Hallberg.
Petri: We filmed all this and kept it in the film for a long time but it became too long and too difficult to assimilate. We eventually kept the parts of the story that were most central for Björn. It was a very difficult decision to cut it out. We tried for a long time with different versions. But when we made the drastic decision to remove it, the film landed. We have cut out a lot of very, very good material in general. That is what making a film is and the difference between writing a book.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World premiered at Sundance Film Festival.