Helmut Berger is dead: These three films made him a legend


Helmut Berger is dead: These films made him a legend

Peter Zander

Updated: 05/18/2023, 18:20

| Reading time: 8 minutes

The actor Helmut Berger.

The actor Helmut Berger.

Photo: Tobias Hase/dpa

The well-known actor Helmut Berger is dead. The 78-year-old shone in films by Luchino Visconti – for example in “The Damned”.

He was a world star. A pampered child of high society. He was an actor and self-promoter. Was fairy tale king and nightmare. He was the most beautiful man in the world – for a while. And a scandal noodle – actually always. Famous and notorious for excesses and drug escapades, for crashes and failures. Now is Helmut Berger died in his hometown of Salzburg. Peaceful but unexpected, as they say. Just eleven days before his 79th birthday. On Ascension Day – he probably would have liked that. Only three of his 70 films are mentioned here to outline his extraordinary career.

  • First: “The damned” (1969) by Luchino Visconti. His first cinema appearance: as a tranny, as Marlene Dietrich on the barrel. A degenerate son of an industrialist who first abuses a child and then his own mother and rises under the Nazis. Even the debut was an affront. Berger was immediately on everyone’s lips.
  • As a second: “Ludwig II” (1973). Again by Visconti. Berger played the Bavarian fairy tale king in the whole spectrum from the young, beautiful romantic to the bloated, extinct wreck that was close to madness. Berger has never been so good, he has never been so challenged as here. Maybe after that no director dared to tell him anything.
  • And finally, third: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1970) after Oscar Wilde. A young man who, intoxicated by his own beauty, enjoys life to the fullest, leaving nothing out, regardless of others. Many consider “Ludwig” to be his greatest role, what people like to call the role of his life.

In fact, “Dorian Gray” may have been closer and more typical. Because Berger also tasted life in all its facets. Except that in real life he didn’t have a painting that aged in his place. Life dug deep into his face. But Berger stood by: “I’ve lived three lives. And in four languages!” he once said. And even more affirmed: “Je ne regrette rien!” This is now also written on his agency’s website, as a kind of conclusion and last greeting.


Helmut Berger


May 29, 1944, Bad Ischl, Austria


May 18, 2023, Salzburg, Austria


Francesca Guidato (married 1994)


Hedwig Steinberger and Franz Steinberger

Life, a scandal. Heinrich Steinberger, as his real name was, was just 20 and a photo model when Visconti discovered him. The cinema doyen taught and raised him to become an actor. The almost 38-year-old older also shared the bed with him. The young man was not only given the shorter artist name Berger, from then on a label stuck to him: he was the personification of breaking a taboo. And lived it out with relish. Had affairs with divas like Ursula Andress and Liz Taylor, had sex with the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and sometimes with Mick and Bianca Jagger. He was all Dorian Gray then.

Helmut Berger toyed with the fact that the scandal was bought with him

Nevertheless he has visconti really loved. Since 1976, that is for almost half a century, he has described himself as Visconti’s widow and his life since then only as an afterlife. In which he was shamefully betrayed. Visconti’s noble family cheated him of almost his entire inheritance and had to lead a rather modest life. Which is why he also liked to go shopping. And played with the fact that you also bought the scandal with him. Like in the TV series “The Denver Clan”, where they wanted to increase the ratings with him, but then also got the corresponding headlines. Until he was written out of the series again. With a defiance of death, he also took on small, insignificant roles in which he was little more than a quote. But once again, 20 years later, he played Ludwig II in “Ludwig 1881”, now only the old monarch. And this time he hardly had to be made up and plumped up to look like the bloated old man. He was that himself.

But by then he had long since mutated from an actor to a self-promoter, whose only role was to frighten the citizens. But he also played them with complete seriousness and with the deepest conviction. The dazzling highlight of this shameless self-portrayal was his autobiography in 1998, which was called “I” as simply as it was egocentric. Here he divided his life into three phases, before, with and after Visconti. Above all, however, he shared with relish and served a sensation-hungry audience with gossip and gossip. How he didn’t let his predecessor, Alain Delon, in Visconti’s house. How he did it so well with Nureyev that he became “pure lust”. And then the famous chapter with the white pants: How Princess Grace of Monaco asked him to dance at a gala, but he couldn’t get up because he had wet his pants.

Shameless descriptions, perhaps also glaring exaggerations, but which one credited him with without further ado. Because he happily alienated everyone in front of the cameras and on every talk show. Even Christoph Schlingensief, a provocateur and enfant terrible like himself, he allowed himself to run into the Prater so mercilessly that he turned crimson and looked like a small, embarrassed boy. The original is always better than the copy.

Helmut Berger irritated with his bizarre short appearance in the “jungle camp”

And again and again Berger made a name for himself and put himself in the limelight. In his bizarre short appearance in “jungle camp” 2013. When he married designer Florian Wess, who was 36 years his junior, in 2015, which attracted media attention. When he masturbated in the documentary Helmut Berger, Actor. Which led to the marriage after just nine weeks.

Of course, all these glaring interruptions were intended to conceal the other, deeply injured side of this man, which is also a deep one lonliness surrounded Rather sad and painful are the last memories that one associates with him. How he celebrated his late theater debut at the age of 73 at the Volksbühne in 2019, in the brief fatal directorship of Chris Dercon. In “Liberté”. But where he just sat motionless in a carriage until the production was canceled after just a few performances.

And then, in the same year, his probably most bizarre film appearance. In Valesca Peter’s documentary “Helmut Berger, my mother and I”. Feeling sorry for the lonely star, the filmmaker’s mother invited him to live with her. Surprisingly, he said yes. The citizen fright and bird of paradise in a bourgeois surrogate family. Of course, that couldn’t go well and failed in front of the camera.

Since then it had become quiet about the star. It is now time to say goodbye to this man beyond all categories, passionately revered and passionately despised, but who left no one indifferent. An outsider, a loner to the end. But always this: an unconditional one Original.

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