«Berger almost seems like a Thomas Bernhard character. »

Andreas Horvath on his attempt to create a portrait of the actor and his unfathomable personality. Helmut Berger, Actor celebrates its world premiere at Venice Classics.

The lampshade on Helmut Berger’s bedside table is a globe of the world. Does the image of the big wide world in the microcosm of a lonely man who moved in urbane circles in his youth sum up the spirit of your portrait?
ANDREAS HORVATH: Naturally this arrangement is not devoid of a certain irony. And on top of that there is a photographic panorama which fills the wall, a series with Brigitte Bardot. When I spent time with Helmut Berger I was repeatedly reminded of the old night porter in Kieslowski‘s film Night Porter’s Point of View: I did a film portrait of the man in 2005. He would sit in front of a huge picture on the wall, a kitsch South Sea landscape, while he mourned the passing of communism.
His housekeeper, Viola, describes Helmut Berger as increasingly withdrawn. How did you manage to get your camera into the four walls of his apartment?
ANDREAS HORVATH: Helmut Berger is very intuitive in that respect, I think. Somebody who strikes him initially as unlikeable for some reason would stand very little chance of gaining admission. And I'm sure it was important that I work alone, so it really was just the two of us sitting there together most of the time.
What was your impression the first time you went to see him in his apartment?
Ludwig II, The Damned and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis mean a very great deal to me. But I was also fascinated at a very early stage by the other, darker side of his character: the excesses, his indifference to public opinion. When I was 20 I had a plan to make a photo book about Helmut Berger. So it was quite a sublime moment the first time I stood facing him in his apartment. Actually, that moment was just the beginning of a rollercoaster ride lasting a year and a half. But I had been warned.
If you set yourself the challenge of making a portrait of a difficult personality like Helmut Berger, how can you dictate in advance the direction you want it to take? Was it the kind of work where you primarily react rather than being able to follow your own plan or concept?
Yes, it was a constant attempt to strike a balance, to smooth over difficulties, to perform damage limitation. The plans changed constantly; for weeks on end I was on standby, but if I had to go away on business of my own for a couple of days, that was a huge problem. However, in my films I generally only have a very vague plan anyway, and I'm happy to let things take me along. That does require patience and stamina, but it has the advantage that you can be more flexible, and you don't have to force somebody into a prearranged concept.
If I understand correctly, you had planned to head towards Italy after St Tropez. And there is also talk about interviews that finally supposed to be conducted ...
ANDREAS HORVATH: Well, this is also a film about making a film. About the impossibility of really getting to know somebody, the question of what methods you can use to move towards an individual’s core. I'm not completely sure that interviews are the best method. And when somebody adopts an attitude of resistance, that also says a great deal about him. Incidentally, we did head to Italy afterwards, but at some point everything went flat. The conversations, which he had fundamentally more or less refused to get involved in anyway, became more and more laboured, and just before we got to Volterra, where Berger met Visconti for the first time, we just looked at each other and decided to go home. Actually, I’ve come to see his refusal to conduct interviews as a conscious decision to exert a crucial influence on the film, to steer the emphasis in the film towards essential or elementary things. Helmut Berger is still a thoroughly sensitive and incredibly intelligent person.
There are plenty of talk shows in German-speaking countries where Helmut Berger is invited very clearly because of his provocative potential, and he is asked in a very direct and speculative way about his sexual life, his experience with drugs and his breaking of taboos in order to feed the sense of malice about the fallen star. To what extent did you want to combat this in your film portrait, and how far were you able to succeed in doing so?
ANDREAS HORVATH: I wasn't trying to combat it at all. The way they treat all that in talk shows is a different question, but narcissism, ageing, the passing of time, the question of whether traces of the way we've lived our lives are visible within us – they’re interesting subjects that have always fascinated people, from classical times up to the present day. From Adonis, Narcissus and Dorian Gray to the interchangeable stars being produced constantly in modern times. And we shouldn't forget that Helmut Berger has always been provocative in the way he breaks taboos. Even when he wasn't what some might call a "fallen star". He has always been very ruthless about using his own body as part of the game. It seems to me that despite his efforts to be regarded as a citizen of the world, deep down in his heart Helmut Berger has actually remained a typical Austrian. The ruthlessness and the indifference in the way he uses his body as a space for projection reminds me of Viennese Actionism, has love-hate relationship with Austria is reminiscent of Oskar Werner or Helmut Qualtinger, his endless tirades recall Thomas Bernhard, his exaggerated mode of expression, scattered with faecal analogies, is like that of Werner Schwab, etc.
The apartment is shabby, colorful and crazy all at the same time. You contrast these interior images with shots of Salzburg in the rain, the desolate housing estate and – with slowly mounting intensity – the nearby Giasberg Mountain, looking increasingly inhospitable and jagged. How did you come up with these "counterpoints"?
ANDREAS HORVATH: I wanted to visualize Helmut Berger's mental world. In that sense the film adopts a very subjective, almost expressionist stance. It occurred to me that the contempt in Helmut Berger's voice when he talks about Salzburg might be rooted in unresolved fears. That's why the mountains around Salzburg become more and more threatening. After all, the Alps are what separate him from his beloved Italy and southern France. And being stuck helplessly in provincial Austria, or at least feeling as though he's stuck and helpless, is another way Berger almost seems like a Thomas Bernhard character.
The images of the external world are very closely linked to music that is full of agitation. How did the music to the film develope, and what was your aim there?
ANDREAS HORVATH: I started off with a short composition by Richard Wagner which was also used in Visconti's Ludwig II. The piece is often called Elegy or simply Theme in A Flat, and it only exists in a piano version. It was at the time of Tristan, and since Wagner returned to it towards the end of his life and played it repeatedly, it is believed that he might have wanted to use it as a prelude to his planned opera with a Buddhist background, Die Sieger. But Wagner wasn't able to devote his attention to the opera. I arranged this piece in various ways. There's even a jazz version. The reference to Ludwig II was important to me. In many respects Helmut Berger reminded me of the character in Visconti's film. Alongside that there are other compositions that illustrate state of fear and paranoia, the dark, irrational sides of a character, and they serve to make the ever-present mountain backdrop even more menacing.
In addition to the music, the sound of the film plays an important role as always – especially because a lot of messages on the answering machine make an appearance in the film.
ANDREAS HORVATH: Like many famous personalities, Berger mainly uses the telephone at night to communicate with people around the world. It wasn't unusual for him to make up to 10 phone calls in one night. He would go on like that until morning. I soon realized that they were very intimate and honest moments, when the true Helmut Berger shined through. I often sat opposite him for hours on end without him saying anything of real significance, but then suddenly there was a huge amount of emotion and honesty crammed into one phone call in the middle of the night.
Despite all the difficulties he creates for someone trying to talk to him, does his ability to fascinate still come across?
ANDREAS HORVATH:  Absolutely. He lies and deceives, he can be brutal and inconsiderate, he hides himself behind masks and he's an actor through and through – but in the end, despite all these role-plays and games of hide and seek, you glimpse repeatedly the rogue who's using these games in order to communicate with us. A quite ordinary person in search of attention and human contact.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
August 2015
«It seems to me that despite his efforts to be regarded as a citizen of the world, deep down in his heart Helmut Berger has actually remained a typical Austrian.»