Peter Berling (not to be confused with the pink Narcissus Peter Berlin, the legend in his own lunch) appears Zelig-like in the context of numerous post-war German films. There he is, for instance, as executive producer of Schroeter’s Liebeskonzil and Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore. Or as an actor in various other Fassbinder films as well as Herzog‘s Aguirre – Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Furthermore he is the author of numerous historical novels based on the Holy Grail and affiliated mysteries, but the book we’re most interested in appeared last year, a great freakin’ doorstop of an autobiography entitled Hazard & Lieblos.
For some time my own holy grail of audio-visual material (smooth segues? I got ’em) has been a set of interviews conducted with the artist Alastair for Bavarian television toward the end of his life in the late 1960s. Having searched extensively it appears they have never strayed online. Now among the welter of names in Hazard & Lieblos there is mention of another lost piece of Alastair footage, a short film produced by Berling in 1966. It was conceived as the producer was planning to shoot a piece to accompany a Munich Jugendstil exhibition, and noted that the label for an artwork by Alastair bore only a birth year (1887). Making further enquiries, he discovered that the illustrator was not only alive but in Germany, and a meeting was arranged:
Before them stood a dainty old man with snow-white hair, dressed in lilac damask from his ruffle to his little violet shoes. With elegant, very lithe steps he led his visitors to a small table, where green tea stood ready. A dish stood in the middle, filled with valuables, precious metal bands decorated with valuable stones. “The pope’s knuckledusters!” commented the maestro jauntily as he poured the tea with his slender fingers.
An interview was to take place in Paris, in the fabled Hôtel la Louisiane, haunt of Existentialists, artists and jazz musicians. Berling went on ahead and decorated a room with fine fabrics. This was very much in the spirit of Alastair – a creature of utmost refinement and a connoisseur of the rarest aesthetic pleasures – who would redecorate hotel rooms even if he was there for a single night. Alastair’s was a sensibility allergic to the banal and commonplace.
The film’s star had been chauffeured right up to the plane in Munich but only when he landed in Paris did it become apparent that he had forgotten his passport. Such considerations were beneath the dignity of one whose inner life was populated by triste chimeras, lewd saltimbanques and vampiric paramours. Berling and crew were there to film Alastair’s arrival, and only an elaborate ruse got the artist through. They filmed him arriving at passport control, stopping each take and demanding some small change in demeanour from the immigration official to achieve the desired effect. After numerous takes Alastair went through, and said official simply didn’t notice that in all the confusion he never sighted Alastair’s passport.
The artist’s friend André Malraux visited the hotel during filming and may well have intervened in supplying Alastair with a replacement passport, with which he returned to Munich aboard the Orient Express.
It is difficult to imagine Alastair – the evanescent being who even in his heyday was little known to the public, who viewed the 1890s through the prism of the 1920s – even existing in the 1960s, let alone turning up on television. Sadly, for us, the only remnant of this film I can find is the black and white still above. The search goes on.