Helmut Berger, the Austrian actor who regularly collaborated with Luchino Visconti and became one of the most recognizable faces of European arthouse cinema of the 1960s, has died at the age of 78. peacefully but still unexpectedly” on the website of his management company.
Born in Austria in 1944, Berger moved to Rome and began pursuing an acting career after expressing disinterest in following his parents into the hospitality business. He initially found work as an extra before meeting Visconti in 1964. The director of “Rocco and His Brothers” gave Berger a small part in his 1967 film “The Witches,” an omnibus film also directed by the likes of Vittorio De Sica and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Berger and Visconti began a professional and romantic relationship that would shape the European film landscape of the following decade.
Berger’s most significant roles came in two of Visconti’s subsequent projects: “The Damned” and “Ludwig.” In 1969’s “The Damned,” Berger played an unhinged fictional heir to a steel empire in Nazi Germany who was willing to bend his morals and do business with Hitler to satisfy his lusts for money and power (among other things). Three years later, ‘Ludwig’ saw him play the infamous ‘Swan King’, Ludwig II of Bavaria, in a film that explored the late monarch’s obsession with extravagance and opulent lifestyle which eventually saw him declared insane. Both films saw him play powerful men with ambiguous sexualities, which helped establish Berger as one of the foremost sex symbols of his era.
He teamed up again with Visconti in the 1974 film “Conversation Piece,” starring Burt Lancaster as an aging professor who develops a close relationship with a younger man (Berger). Many have interpreted the project as an allegory of the close relationship that Visconti and Berger have developed over the decade of collaboration. It was Visconti’s penultimate film before his death in 1976 and the final project the two men would work on together.
Berger continued acting until his retirement in 2019, memorably playing the lead in Oscar Wilde’s adaptation of Massimo Dallamano’s “Dorian Gray” and Frederick Keinszig in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part III.”