A Star Is Shorn
Nick Pinkerton on Helmut Berger, Actor
I will let Helmut Berger deliver his own CV: “Name another Austrian who got an Oscar for The Garden of Finzi-Continis. Or the Golden Globe? Or ‘Best Newcomer.’ And Prague, Toulouse, Lyon, Taormina… No one has this much experience.” This litany is delivered in one of the many drunk-dial voice messages which recur throughout Andreas Horvath’s Helmut Berger, Actor, usually delivered in a thick, slushy voice and ranging in tone from playful to plaintive to leering to openly contemptuous. The Oscar was a Best Foreign-Language Film win and the Golden Globe was only a nomination, but better not to quibble.
What Horvath has made here is a skin-crawlingly intimate documentary portrait of the onetime muse and dashing lover of Luchino Visconti, once described by a Vogue scribe as “the most beautiful man in the universe,” who is discovered living in seclusion and squalor in a small apartment in the outskirts of Salzburg adjacent to that which he shared with his mother until her death in 2009. (He now sleeps in her bed.) The film was shot over the course of two years as Berger was entering his seventies, shortly after finishing a run on Ich bin ein Star – Holt mich hier raus! (the German version of British reality TV export I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!), which was cut short by medical issues, and appearing as the aging YSL in Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. But for all the award statuettes and signed memorabilia, Berger’s apartment, with only a hot plate for a kitchen, could easily be mistaken that of an impoverished pensioner, though it’s difficult to get a grip on the actual state of his finances. At one point in the film he grouses about having only 200 (or is it 300?) Euros left to his name, though he’s still somehow able to decamp to a five-star hotel in St. Tropez for the Christmas holiday, and he still hobnobs with the jet set when traveling abroad, still able to pull himself together and look impeccable in cashmere and cufflinks. At home, too, he is always amongst famous faces. The walls of his apartment are covered with the images of celebrities, living and mostly dead, including Visconti and Romy Schneider, and in the film’s final scene, when Berger masturbates for the camera, zestily heaving, grunting, and croaking, he pauses from thrusting his cock at the camera to toss a stage whisper aside at the audience: “Burt Lancaster had a similar one.”
Berger is seen early on in Horvath’s film leaning back in the makeup chair, having a latex mold made of his once ravishing and now ravaged visage, and in Helmut Berger, Actor, the mask has become the face. As the above should suggest, Horvath has no interest in making a portrait of a dignified Grand Old Man of the cinema swirling a snifter of brandy and reminiscing in his firelit study—in fact, there are times when Horvath’s movie seems closer to Austrian countryman Ulrich Seidl’s The Bosom Friend (1997), a dingy little documentary about packrat breast-obsessive shut-in Rene Rupnik, whose obsession with starlet Senta Berger (no relation) borders on mania. A major difference, of course, is that Rupnik is a humble retired lumpenprole math teacher, while Berger played Ludwig II of Bavaria and has partied in Biarritz with duchesses and billionaires, and we are accustomed to seeing fame treated with bit more deference, even in the reality TV spectacles that provide a platform to the washed-up and the semi-famous in exchange for a bit of whatever dignity they have left. (And it is difficult to imagine a reality program taking the stylistic license that Horvath does, periodically letting his camera wander empty Alpine landscapes as Berger’s voice bibulously burbles on the soundtrack.)
The unusual, unsparing, and sometimes leering candor of Helmut Berger, Actor is made possible by the fact that the film’s subject seems to be totally absent any self-censoring mechanism. His substance intake may have some part in this. Despite Berger’s claim, made offhand to a masseuse, that he’s a teetotaler, he is almost invariably found surrounded by half-empty glasses and bottles and assorted cartons of pharmaceuticals, and in St. Tropez we are treated to a fantastic sight gag as he turns over his monogrammed toiletries bag and an absolute cascade of pills comes pouring out. Stripped to the waist in the makeup chair, his torso shows what appear to be the telltale bruises of a lonely, clumsy tippler—or are these abrasions just part of a role?
The story of Berger’s descent into debauchery and dissolution after Visconti’s death in 1976 is well-known, and 40 years on he seems not to have found the bottom of his downhill plummet, though this coming down to earth has in no way altered his high-handed manner. Berger’s mood shifts are abrupt and enormous, and he is frequently heard and seen dressing down Horvath as a “hypocrite” or an “egoist” or, when the filmmaker fails to show proper appreciation for the rarified company he’s been permitted into, a “fucking peasant from Salzburg.” (In Berger’s book, it seems, there is no form of life lower than that of the Austrian.) “You better accept his ways, otherwise you’re history” advises Viola Techt, the neighbor woman who cleans and keeps up Berger’s apartment and who is the nearest thing to a co-star here, returned to going about her rounds throughout the film, which lurches from place to place with a queer, herky-jerky rhythm. (The absence of any other well-defined characters, as well as the recurring images of unpeopled landscapes, reinforces the sense of Berger's isolation.) But if Berger plays the temperamental artist to the hilt, he has his limits for such behavior from others, blaming Marlon Brando for ruining Maria Schneider’s life on the set of Last Tango in Paris: “You can’t get your ass fucked with butter at the age of eighteen.”
Stray boxes of Cialis are visible among the general chaos in Berger’s apartment, and sex remains central to the newly septuagenarian actor, who was almost as famous for his adventures in polymorphous perversion than for his film career. Techt, dusting off a picture of Berger’s late, lamented mother, voices a suspicion that he was actually afraid of the woman, resenting the fact that she’d sent him off to boarding school in Feldkirch, where he had his first erotic encounters with clergymen. Berger contends that sex was essential to his collaboration with Visconti—this in the process of trying to get Horvath to concede to receiving a blowjob from him, neither the first nor the last time that Berger will try to initiate sexual activity with his director, though at first it’s not clear if he’s in earnest or merely trying to be provocative. Any doubt on this point is cleared up by the money shot, the point from which the film cannot conceivably proceed any further—where, for a moment in the sunny aftermath, Berger’s face radiates with the purest boyish glee.
Nevertheless, there is never a sense that Horvath is trying to cut his subject down to size or to pull Berger off his pedestal—if anything, Helmut Berger, Actor emerges as a testament to Berger’s indomitability, his improbable imperviousness to such a treatment, for even when he looks awful in front of Horvath’s camera, he looks magnificently awful. In the depths of depression and dissipation, Berger’s actorly impulse to aestheticize remains like muscle memory, and this lends him a sort of ridiculous, crumbling grandeur when venturing out with a mink-lined jacket and purple highlights in his wispy, often-tousled hair. There is a fantastic scene that takes place near the end of the film, unfolding in St. Tropez on the morning after an inebriate all-nighter, which begins with a clearly squiffed Berger berating a driver for leaving him waiting for 15 minutes, accusing him of being drunk and derelict on duty. This leads to a blow up between Berger and Horvath, and when Berger actually takes a swipe at the camera, Horvath, who has usually remained silent and self-contained through Berger’s regular salvos of verbal abuse, suddenly erupts in a stream of epithets towards his subject. Taking it all in stride, Berger turns and, hand cocked on hip, fires back an imperious “So what?”, then with a disdainful brush-off gesture shuffles off on his way. In the midst of the violent emotion, Berger’s camera-ready poise is disconcerting, hilarious—and by showing his monstre sacré at his worst, Horvath actually reconfirms the existence of such a thing as star power.