austrian actors

A Little Chat about CONVERSATION PIECE (’74) by Nathaniel Thompson

For such a world-class director, it’s odd how much the great Luchino Visconti was dismissed near the end of his career. One of the fathers of Italian neorealism (including a debut film that nearly got him executed under Mussolini!) with masterpieces like SENSO (’54) and ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (’60), he entered the 1970s with a roar thanks to one of his most acclaimed films, DEATH IN VENICE (’71)… and then, like other titans around the same time such as Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, he was promptly written off. His decision to reunite with Burt Lancaster, the star of one of Visconti’s most ambitious and beloved films, THE LEOPARD (’63), for CONVERSATION PIECE (’74) should have been an international sure thing, and if you watch it now, there’s no doubt that Visconti delivers the goods. It’s a film as thoughtful and visually ravishing as most of his other films, with VENICE cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis turning what amounts to a single-location chamber piece into a visual playground.

Maybe it’s the theme of the film, an aging academic being manipulated and stymied by the younger opportunists around him, that led to such a muted response. Or perhaps, it was the fact that Visconti was proudly using his films as vehicles for his life partner, Austrian actor Helmut Berger, whom he introduced in a small but striking role in the crazy-quilt Italian anthology film THE WITCHES (’67), an ode to the many faces and talents of actress Silvana Mangano. Visconti hoisted Berger to international acclaim as the most eye-catching cast member of the scandalous, X-rated art film THE DAMNED (’69), and gave the thespian an epic-length showcase in LUDWIG (’73), which I’ll be covering later in a separate entry. What’s interesting is how Berger’s real-life persona bleeds through into his roles for Visconti, which of course makes it tempting to psychoanalyze the relationship between the two men (whose tremendous age difference was also fodder for European journalists). In each film Berger is magnetic, petulant, a bit bratty and somewhat austere, qualities that also made him perfect as the title character in a deliciously trashy, updated version of DORIAN GRAY (’70). Anyone who’s seen interviews with Berger over the years can see how these qualities emanate from the man himself, whose acerbic humor and bitchy anecdotes about his various projects and collaborators ensure there’s never a dull moment when he’s in front of a microphone.

CONVERSATION PIECE really pushes these aspects of Berger to an extreme as he embodies the ultimate early 1970s wild selfish youth, a belligerent, inconsiderate kept boy who squanders every opportunity possible with the woman who indulges him, the haughty and equally selfish Marchesa Bianca Brumonti (Mangano again, of course). There’s really no way to watch this film without wondering whether Visconti (who had suffered a stroke just before productions started) put some elements of himself in the character of Lancaster’s Professor, whose free time is spent with his book and art relic collections only to be repeatedly interrupted by these gauche interlopers. Was he saying something about the complications of sharing a life with one of Europe’s most legendary party boys? If so, it makes the ending all the more poignant and multi-layered. Many viewers struggled to find much sympathy in the conclusion, but if you read it all from Lancaster’s perspective, there’s a definite punch in what the film has to say about how human beings, especially in their twilight years, can often delude themselves into being drawn to personalities who may not be so healthy in the long run.

Visconti’s preference for classical music gave the soundtracks to his films an elegant, timeless air that paid off most spectacularly with his use of Mahler for DEATH IN VENICE. Here he reunited with that film’s conductor and arranger, Franco Mannino (who pulled the same duties on the equally classical-laden LUDWIG), for a sparer soundtrack than usual that uses multiple Mozart pieces to reflect the Professor’s state of mind. However, I’m personally more impacted by the film’s surprising interpolation of pop songs, a Visconti rarity. Of particular note, he makes expert, deeply haunting use of the powerful, beautifully orchestrated “Desiderare,” performed by popular Italian pop singer Caterina Caselli. It comes at a key point in the later stretch of the film, and it’s one of my favorite moments in all of Visconti’s movies with the visual use of light and shadow, mixed with implications of both sadness and perverse sexuality, creating a perfect fusion of sight and sound.

A special shout out has to go to the interesting, underrated young actor Stefano Patrizi, who gets the less showy role here as the quiet character Stefano. He did fine work in a number of underseen films, most notably the melodrama NEST OF VIPERS (’78) and the crime film YOUNG, VIOLENT, DANGEROUS (’76). He doesn’t even try to compete with Berger here, and it’s a shame for us viewers that he essentially went into private life after 1980 to go make TV commercials. Keep an eye on him when you watch this; he’s the sort of actor you start to notice popping up all over the place throughout the 1970s, and he never came close to phoning it in.

I’ve noted in the past that the language aspect of films like this can be very tricky, with Italian productions usually shooting without sound and having either the original actors or voice performers dubbing the films in both English and Italian versions. That’s why you’ll often see an American or British star headlining these films with their own voice matching their lip movements, with other actors around them seeming to be dubbed and sometimes out of sync. That’s a problem that really becomes a quandary with THE LEOPARD, whose shorter U.S. version has Lancaster’s own voice (a warm, essential aspect of enjoying the film) and someone else dubbing him in Italian for the much longer European cut. Fortunately, with CONVERSATION PIECE you don’t have to make any hard choices like that; it was shot entirely in English, and that’s really the version you should watch for maximum effect so you can hear Lancaster, Mangano, Berger and company performing with their own accents and intonations.

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Theodore Bikel, z”l, passed today and I was perusing Wikipedia which apparently describes him as an “Austrian-American” actor “born into a Jewish family.” Although the article mentions a lot of the work he did with Jewish organizations, it at no point actually says that Bikel was Jewish, which is … baffling, to be honest.

In addition to being the original Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and the most long-standing Tevye in Fiddler, Bikel was one of the most prominent Yiddish folk singers and a dedicated progressive activist whose activism and music and support for other marginalized groups stemmed from his own Jewish culture & identity. (This quote I posted from a collaboration with SoCalled makes that fairly clear.)

His obituary in the New York Times quotes him as responding to those who described him as Austrian or Viennese as follows: 

I am nothing of the kind; I am an Austrian-born Jew. I refuse to let a country that so shamefully treated my people lay any claim to me, to my life, to my successes, to my failures, to my very identity.

So yeah. Austria and Germany and Poland and Spain and France and the rest of Europe never wanted us and you don’t get to retroactively define Jews’ primary identities as belonging to countries that persecuted and expelled and murdered us. Screw erasure.

Theodore Bikel wasn’t an Austrian born to a Jewish family. He was a Jew who happened to be born in Austria.

זיכרונו לברכה

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Maximilian Schell winning Best Actor (by Oscars)

RIP Sir.