Helmut Berger, Actor screened at Transilvania Film Festival in the “Cinema, Mon Amour” section, with Andreas Horvath’s documentary focusing on the story of a grumpy old man who seems to have nothing in common with “a star.” However, the subject is a film icon and practically the man who inspired the legendary Luchino Visconti in the 70s, starring in both Ludwig and The Damned. The Austrian actor isn’t a simple subject, nor does he tell an inspiring story of his career: he’s actually a grouchy old man, the shadow of a once great actor. He is portrayed mostly in his overly-crowded apartment in Salzburg or in hotel rooms. Horvath uses an insightful tool in order to describe his subject through the straightforward interventions of his cleaning lady, a powerful character as well. With the fame long gone and the money low, Berger became depressed and can’t come to peace with his new commoner status. In fact, the film clearly depicts Berger’s inner struggle and his cry for attention in a constant regret of his golden days. However, his frustration isn’t depicted with nostalgia and evocative memories, but with the despair of not knowing how to define himself any more.
Viewers learn how secluded the actor’s life is through Viola, a nice lady who altruistically takes care of Berger and who seems to be his only close friend. Besides her first person testimonies, the camera focuses on some atypical objects from Berger’s jammed apartment that make the work strenuous. There’s a clear lack of order, and Brigitte Bardot posters contrast with the numerous icons in the house — a sign of Berger’s clerical-repressed education. It’s a bitter observation also that Horvath correlates the adoration of the Virgin with the worship of cinema stars like once Berger was. The relationship between the director and his subject is nothing like the kind that Visconti had with his muse, and Berger’s resistance to being intimately portrayed leads to name calling, screams and inappropriate behaviour. He’s rather confident, bragging about his success and not shying away from proclaiming himself one of the greatest Austrian actors.
Narrative-wise, the storyline follows the actor without a strict plot, and judging by Berger’s undisclosed character, it couldn’t have been any other way. However, Horvath cleverly introduces some thriller marks in his story, with haunting sounds to accompany Berger’s incoherent ramblings. The director gives an explanation for his flamboyant character through the declaration: “I am a difficult person because I only had to deal with difficult persons all my life.” The actor is a colourful character in his seventies (still sexually active “like a volcano,” as he claims) who becomes infatuated with Horvath. Although this isn’t the focus of the documentary, Berger’s personal history with Visconti seems to have left a mark on his current promiscuous behaviour. He needs to develop a personal relationship with his director.
In the context of stardom, Helmut Berger seems to be a victim of forgetfulness. In an attempt to follow the steps of Berger’s best years, the pair travels to Saint Tropez, a place for the young and the restless. Instead, the glamour is washed out and Berger prefers to sit in his own mess, drink and watch TV rather than to reveal something about his persona. He prefers to disprove the director, leaving one to question why he even took part in the documentary. The critique of the system seems more evident when Berger accuses Horvath for being interested only in awards and the finishing of his project. These concerns seem obvious for any documentary filmmaker (since there is a mutual agreement to shoot), yet Berger’s words hint deeper. What remains after the project is over? What benefit does the star have apart from fame and adoration? Drifting around with fox fur around his neck, Berger demands more than Horvath’s undivided attention as a subject of his documentary, as he craves affection and intimacy.
As the movie unfolds, and the confrontations culminate with Berger trying to get Horvath arrested, the heart of the matter is revealed: “I can’t understand you!,” the director reveals, while Berger replies, “You can’t. You’ve never been a star.” This seems to offer the much awaited interpretation of Berger’s impetuous behaviour. On several occasions, he acts inappropriate, masturbating on screen or intimately provoking Horvath — an exhibitionist attitude that could only be explained by his need for attachment. These moments leave viewers wondering whether Berger might only be acting out for the camera in order to enrich a rather boring subject, or maybe he truly wants Horvath’s approval and adoration. His isolation is even more highlighted by the cleaning lady, who is the descriptive voice of Berger’s decay and states that he lacks any practical organisation, not knowing when or where he ever worked. The dialogue is focused on Berger’s craving of his former excessive lifestyle and idealisation of his celebrity status. In order to show that those times are gone, Horvath edits the scenes so that his subject disappears in a gradual dissolve while speaking, only to appear a few seconds afterwards in a Hocus Pocus game. While this kind of metaphor is a bit obvious, the focus on Berger’s apartment is favourable. Making her way between trinkets, plastic flowers, vodka bottles and memories of dead celebrities, Viola states the powerful conclusion to this work: Berger can’t find closure. He lives in his world of memories, longing for the intense years when he dominated the front pages of scandal magazines, hence his sexual awakening.
Ultimately, in the face of his new identity, Berger doesn’t act for the camera any more. A massage therapist applies and peels off a cream mask from the actor’s face. We don’t know who Helmut Berger is. Neither does he. Once a star, he will always be a star.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic based in Spain. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and Public Relations and graduated with a thesis on cult images in Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema. Apart from writing for various Romanian publications, Film Reporter, Reforma and The Chronicle, she has written for Indiewire and was selected for their 2015 Critics Academy at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. Along with her film criticism activity, Andreea has worked at Romanian Film Promotion and was the coordinator for an art center in Bucharest.