Helmut Berger, the Austrian actor and regular Luchino Visconti collaborator who become one of the most recognizable faces of European arthouse cinema in the 1960s, has died at the age of 78. The news was announced by the actor’s agent, who wrote that he died “peacefully but nevertheless unexpectedly” on his management company’s website.
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 industry. He initially found work as an extra before meeting Visconti in 1964. The “Rocco and His Brothers” director 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 go on to shape the European cinema landscape of the subsequent decade.
Berger’s most significant roles came in two of Visconti’s next 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 in order to fulfill his lusts for money and power (among other things). Three years later, “Ludwig” saw him portraying the infamous “swan king,” Ludwig II of Bavaria, in a film that explored the late monarch’s obsession with extravagance and the opulent lifestyle that eventually saw him declared insane. Both films saw him portraying powerful men with ambiguous sexualities, which helped establish Berger as one of his era’s most notable sex symbols.
He re-teamed with Visconti on the 1974 film “Conversation Piece,” which starred Burt Lancaster as an aging professor who develops a close relationship with a younger man (Berger). Many interpreted the project as an allegory for the close relationship that Visconti and Berger developed over their decade of working together. It was Visconti’s penultimate film before his 1976 death and the final project that the two men would work together on.
Berger continued to act until his retirement in 2019, memorably playing the titular role in Massimo Dallamano’s Oscar Wilde adaptation “Dorian Gray” and Frederick Keinszig in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part III.”