The titular subject of fellow Austrian Andreas Horvath’s scandalous documentary — you can fully indulge the lurid expectations raised by John Waters calling it the best film of the year— is the 70-something thespian still best known as world cinema great Luchino Visconti’s onscreen muse (and offscreen companion) in the latter’s later years.

But that was a long time ago. Even Berger’s best non-Visconti roles (in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, a trashy “swinging London” Dorian Gray) were over by the end of the 1970s Though he continues to work sporadically, the erstwhile star of The Damned and Ludwig now lives in semi-squalid Salzburg solitude, having obviously worn out his welcome with everyone that fame and money once attracted.


If you’re expecting a respectful trot down cinematic memory lane (which Horvath probably was), forget it: Aside from a moment or two of malicious celebrity gossip, Berger evidently can’t be bothered to talk about his career or the illustrious talents he worked with. Instead, he acts out a sort of Eurotrash Grey Gardens, both on camera and in endless phone messages to the director in which he rambles senselessly, probably soused.

Indeed, he has arrived at the terrible fate of a lifelong brat whom almost no one indulges or even notices anymore. He is alternately banal, abusive, and paranoid, exhibiting petty snobberies that are a half-century out of date, contradicting himself as bluntly as admitting his sex life is now all “in the mind” one moment, then just seconds later bragging he’s “still active, like a volcano” (and offering a blowjob).

Among the ruins. Photo courtesy Andreas Horvath
Among the ruins. Photo courtesy Andreas Horvath

An always-limited actor with a limitless, needy ego, Berger’s latterday shambling-wreckdom finally exasperates Horvath so much that the filmmaker’s Job-like patience crumbles into an outburst of al fresco expletives which Berger seems to take grim masochistic satisfaction in. Yet the worst, the biggest auto-humiliation, is still to come.

Like Maxmilian Schell’s 1984 Marlene (another intended tribute to a screen legend undone by diva moodswings and non-cooperation), Helmut Berger, Actor chronicles a process in which the documentarian is browbeaten, exploited, and held hostage by his subject’s insufferable vanity. The brutal end result is Horvath’s revenge. You won’t be able to look away (or perhaps stop laughing unkindly)… but be warned, this portrait really isn’t pretty.

HELMUT BERGER, ACTOR
Thu/8 and Sat/10, 7:30 pm; Sun/11, 2pm, $8-10 
YBCA Theater, SF.
Tickets and more info here