Friday, December 11, 2009

Senta Baby

Tread carefully when watching certain mid-60s films, for if you stumble upon one featuring Senta Berger, you may come down with a fever you can’t ever shake off!

Born in Austria, Ms. Berger dreamt of being a dancer until her developing body was deemed inappropriate for that art form by her instructor. Already an accomplished singer, she then turned to acting and made her film debut while in her teens, with many of her early work occurring in musicals. Having acted in a number of German films, she appeared in Carl Foreman’s star-studded anti-war film The Victors as one of several beautiful and voluptuous European actresses such as Elke Sommer, Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider. She then guest-starred in an episode of the hit spy TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E as well as working in an installment of the anthology series Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.

Not long after, she made her way to the set of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, a (troubled) Civil War drama. According to her, she was greeted by a grip as a “German pig,” the crewmember’s wife having lost her family in Auschwitz. The project was in a state of turmoil due to Peckinpah’s conflicts with the studio and star Charlton Heston ran interference to a point, but the film was ultimately hacked up and augmented with different music until a few years back when a restored DVD was issued.

Director Peckinpah was clearly taken with her and used her in his next film The Glory Guys (from which he was also fired and replaced during filming!) These back-to-back quagmires couldn’t have made Berger feel very secure about a Hollywood career. In any case, she married German actor Michael Verhoeven (whom she met when he appeared in her film Jack and Jenny a few years earlier) and returned to Europe where her husband later turned into a prolific director. In a rare example of show business matrimonial stability, the pair remains married to this day!

Always a stunning, jaw-dropping beauty, she could occasionally get rugged as in the Kirk Douglas film Cast a Giant Shadow, in which she played an Israeli soldier. The (sort of bloated and glossy) film was loosely based on the true story of US Colonel Mickey Marcus and Douglas had the enviable “problem” of having to choose between his onscreen wife Angie Dickinson and the sultry Berger. This was still another tense production with the director constantly squabbling with Douglas and tangling also with guest star John Wayne who filmed a brief role in it. It must be said, however, despite this gritty shot, that she appears most of the time in the movie looking well-groomed and sexy, which is how it should be!

In the mid-60s, Ms Berger finally reached the era in which her unbelievable looks were fully exploited and the films of hers that Poseidon enjoys the most were made.

First up was The Quiller Memorandum, a low-key, menacing spy story about agent George Segal attempting to uncover a neo-Nazi organization in West Berlin. Max Von Sydow co-starred as a prime suspect while Berger portrayed an enigmatic beauty who assists Segal in his investigation. The film is well served by sharp location shooting and a strong cast that also includes Alec Guinness and George Sanders. Berger is luminous and it’s a treat just to hear her say the word Quiller in her accent.

Next up is another spy film, but this one wasn’t at all firmly rooted in reality, but rather reveled in the ridiculous. The Ambushers was one of a series of four Dean Martin flicks that had him playing swinging spy Matt Helm, always with a drink close by and always with his battery of “Slaygirls” in the wings to help him out of a jam.

The opening credits to this film are so much fun and feature many false-eyelashed, big-haired beauties cavorting around while a kicky title number written by Hugo Montenegro beats along. It is later, during an Oleg Cassini poolside fashion-show that Senta makes her first appearance, sashaying around to even more infectious Montenegro music.

Senta Berger, who I have enjoyed in practically everything I have ever seen her in, could have done nothing else in her life and I would still worship her daily for the way she looks in her seduction scene with Dean Martin. Her lustrous hair piled high in that way that could only happen in the mid-60s, her skin burnt umber from the sun, her earrings so big that they could double as trivets for hot pots and pans on the supper table, she wafts around in a filmy, patterned, ice blue gown.

It’s a mystery that even Jessica Fletcher couldn’t solve as to why this woman was not shot to the highest highs of cinematic success. She radiates charisma and sex appeal with every glance and breath. Later, she turns up in a tiny lime green and purple ensemble with boots and, again, looks like a million bucks.

These Matt Helm films, however, were not taken seriously (in fact, they were derided and sneered at and, in many ways, deserve it at times for their tackiness and ludicrous scenarios.) However, they have attained a small cult following thanks to the sensational clothing, the striking female co-stars and the true comic ability of some of the leading ladies such as Stella Stevens and Sharon Tate. A DVD boxed set makes it easy to grab all four of them.

Later, Ms. Berger played the object of lust of Kier Dullea in De Sade, based on the life of the legendarily salacious and sadistic author. This should have been a dynamic pairing because Dullea was one good-looking man and it goes without saying how luscious Berger was.

Unfortunately, the film is a dull, dreary mess, refusing to fulfill any promise it had of titillation. Stills from it are far more erotic than anything that actually appears in the final cut. Dullea is unappealingly styled during most of the movie and was entirely wrong for the role anyway and Berger, though she looks spectacular, is wasted horrendously.

Berger had a really “out there” role in the 1970 and 1972 Italian films When Women Had Tails and When Women Lost Their Tails. As comic takes on pre-history, she outdid even Raquel Welch in the fur bikini stakes (and did so when 31 and 33 while Welch had been 26) with a wild mane of hair and the tiniest of costumes.

In 1977, Sam Peckinpah (again!) utilized her in his devastating WWII film Cross of Iron as a nurse who falls in love with a wounded soldier. The film, starring James Coburn, James Mason and Maximilian Schell was noted for its downbeat, gritty approach to its subject matter, but has attracted a following of fans who consider it one of the very best films of its type ever made.

For all intents and purposes, American audiences lost sight of Senta Berger after this. She had two sons in the 1970s and began working on the stage as a result, though she was never without film and TV work for very long. Her German credits are extensive to say the least. Not only that, but she has evolved into a dedicated and heavily involved member of the German Film community.

She has more than once been on the jury of the Berlin International Film Festival and since 2003 has been the President of the German Film Academy. This position has kept her right in the thick of things there and has put her in contact with many major stars. Seen here with the towering Tilda Swinton, Senta looks every bit as good, if not better, at almost 70 years of age as Swinton does two decades her junior.

Berger’s two sons have established acting careers in German television and she remains a viable acting persona there, herself. It’s just a shame that she is so utterly unsung here, though any time Poseidon can wave his trident her way and awaken the masses who have never heard of her, he does so. The more recent photos of her here do not do her full justice and she remains an unspeakably chic, elegant and classy lady.


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