The documentary as trainwreck is a shameful but undeniable reality. There’s no getting around the fact that we frequently watch docs to learn things, oftentimes to feel things, but sometimes to experience the vicarious elation of watching someone on their worst day. Helmut Berger, Actor is most definitely in the latter category, but it has a new take on the subgenre, via its surprising focus: What happens when the subject of a documentary stops cooperating, and what then is the filmmaker’s responsibility to (or, as we see here, threshold for) not turning their film into a spiteful retaliation piece?
Documentaries are frequently discovered in post-production, and Andreas Horvath’s film about Helmut Berger could have been any number of different tales. But rather than look back at Berger’s career, or gaze upon his elbow-rubbing with the elite (both of which are dismissively touched upon via montages in the film), Helmut Berger, Actor instead focuses nearly exclusively on Berger being a giant pain in the ass to director Horvath. Was this the plan? One has to assume at some point Horvath wanted to tell the story of Berger’s acting career and presumably fascinating life, but the finished film instead details Berger’s mood swings, gross eating habits, and sexual proclivities, all the while abusing the unseen Horvath.
The conversation between the two briefly touches on a wide variety of things, but it’s never too long before it comes back to focusing on Berger treating Horvath terribly, either in person or via long voicemail messages in which Berger harangues the director about one thing or another. Following Berger on a trip to St. Tropez, the film exquisitely captures Horvath’s frustration at Berger’s lack of cooperation. As Berger lies in bed for days at a time, the camera stares across the hotel courtyard at a hotel chef, dwells on party decorations, and watches as a bored and boring Berger shovels room service into his mouth. Seemingly giving up on getting his subject to sit and talk, the director ends up building a narrative out of the collateral footage of Berger’s bad attitude.
The crux of their friction is gradually revealed to be the director’s unwillingness to get a blowjob from Berger. Their dynamic becomes more and more antagonistic before blossoming into full-blown confrontation, and their relationship ultimately shatters onscreen. It’s a violent, charged, surreally hilarious moment and after it happens, the film suggests, Horvath and Berger do not speak to one another again.
Then the film keeps going.
What follows is a spoiler of sorts, but it’s impossible to contextualize this film independent of its final scene. After it’s established that the director has cut off contact with Berger, who leaves him a string of angry, insulting, and eventually sort of contrite voicemail messages, Horvath opts to end his film with an extended scene - clearly filmed much earlier - in which Berger masturbates to completion while begging the director to join in. It’s as shocking, as raw, and as uncomfortable as you might expect, but beyond that it feels like a hateful, spite-filled, unprecedented violation of trust between filmmaker and subject.
That’s not to say it’s without merit; this scene single-handedly turns the film into something else entirely. It takes the question of “why are we watching this?” to a new, possibly self-damning level: “Why are we being shown this?” I don’t know if that was Horvath’s intent; does he see what he’s done here as just desserts, or is he willfully exposing his own hatred and asking us to judge him as well as Berger? Taking the director's onscreen anger into account, how can we trust any of what he's showing us?
Certainly that’s a question we should always be asking of our non-fiction storytellers. But the raw anger in which this final scene was delivered - and tacking it onto the end of the film, where it has all the artistic value of uploading your ex-girlfriend’s sex tape to the internet - throws the entire venture into a suspicious light. It’s a move that takes a kind of unpleasant venture into a space that feels new, and maybe unsafe.