Mix together hedonism, glamour, frivolity, depression and belligerence, and a brand new dirty documentary shows its ugly face. The face of Helmut Berger is a mask, a persona. As he himself repeats: “Life is a stage. Applause!”. Berger was Luchino Visconti’s muse. He doesn’t differ much from Ludwig, one of the most appreciated characters Berger played: a romantic king, abandoned by his lovers and friends, tormented by his homosexuality, who will little by little slip towards madness.
Extremely manipulative, Berger establishes a conflictory relation with Horvath, the director of this documentary. As he slowly realises he won’t have him as a lover, Berger keeps desperate voice mail messages to director – which then become part of the film. When and what to show of this persona is a difficult question. Will Berger allow himself to be interviewed? Is what he says about other stars true or not? Was Brigit Bardot evil? Is he paranoid? Will he agree to travel with Horvath to France and record a testimony?
The Austrian actor hardly leaves his council house in the suburbs of Salzburg. He lives in a messy and dirty environment, in which empty bottles, stylish photos, medicine packagings and kitsch plastic flowers compose a scary scenery. Horvath films Berger’s cleaner, who is apparently the only frequenter of his flat. On her first day of work, she and her husband spent three hours getting rid of the rubbish at the entrance of the flat. The cleaner is a useful counterpoint to Berger’s reclusive lifestyle. She has some logic explanations to it: “Look at all those photos! They are all dead people. He has a lot of stuff. I believe he never forgave his mom for sending him to a boarding school.”
As it becomes clear that the narrative of Helmut Berger, Actor relies more in images than in interviews, Horvath increases the tension he is personally facing by using a frantic soundtrack and scenes of the winter in Austria. Heavy snow and muddy gardens epitomise the tension. The outcome is not a horror movie, though. It is comic.
For the new generations, Berger is known for his infamous and provocative appearances on Austrian and German TV shows. For those who have seen him in the Godfather (Coppola, 1990) or The Damned (Visconti, 1969), this final act is an intimate look at the twilight of a forgotten film star.
Helmut Berger, Actor is part of the Official Selection of Open City Documentary Festival, currently being held in London – click here for more information about the event.
Watch the film trailer below: