Austrian-born actor Helmut Berger‘s final credits rolled today, Thursday, May 18. He was a major European movie star in the 1960s and 1970s, famous from his roles in films by Italian director Luchino Visconti. He was 78 years old when he left. Berger was born on May 29, 1944; he almost made it to 79.
In 1964, Berger met Visconti who would become his partner in life and art. Visconti gave Berger his first acting role in the anthology film The Witches (Italian: Le Streghe) in 1967, but he gained his international fame in The Damned (1969), a film that fascinated me for its depravity when I was 15 years old. In The Damned, Berger mimics Marlene Dietrich as Lola in The Blue Angel (1930). The Damned brought Visconti a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film, one of Visconti’s better-known works, is about a German industrialist’s family which begins to disintegrate during the Nazi consolidation of power in the 1930s. The film opened to widespread critical acclaim but faced controversy from ratings boards for its scenes including depictions of men-on-men sex, women-on-women action, plus pedophilia, rape, and incest. In the USA, the film was given an X rating.
In the equally twisted role of King Luwig II of Bavaria in Visconti’s Ludwig (1972), Berger reached the apex of his acting career, playing the monarch from his youth to his dissolute final years, and creates a lunatic lord of decay drawn from his own weaknesses and depths.
Visconti introduced young Berger to musicians, models, and international artists such as Rudolf Nureyev, Maria Callas, Leonard Bernstein, and Mick Jagger. Berger had an affair with Nureyev, but he didn’t appreciate the famous dancer’s passion for garlic and vodka. He claimed a one-time sexual encounter with Jagger.
Visconti’s death (he was said to have smoked 100 cigarettes a day) in 1976 drove Berger into deep despair and financial collapse. Visconti’s will, in which Berger was to be the heir, was never located. Another former lover of Visconti, filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, berated Berger publicly, accusing him of exploiting his mentor. Berger attempted suicide on the first anniversary of Visconti’s death and fell into alcohol and drug addiction. In his memoir, Ich Die AutoBiographie (1988), Berger refers to his relationship with Visconti as a marriage and claimed to be the director’s widow.
Berger worked in B-movies and a few high-profile films like the rather demented Ash Wednesday (1973) with Elizabeth Taylor and The Godfather 3 (1990). He also worked in televison, including the role of Peter De Vilbis on season four of the nighttime soap, Dynasty. After Visconti’s death, no director was able to bring out Berger’s considerable talents to the screen again.
I was very drawn to Helmut Berger in the 1970s. I swooned at photos of him in After Dark magazine and in fashion layouts. Check out his work in Dorian Gray (1970), a warped Italian version of the Oscar Wilde tale, set in sexually charged 1970’s London. It was a role Berger was born to.