The Wylde Interviews: Peter Berlin
ICH BIN BERLIN
PHOTOGRAPHER, ARTIST, FILM-MAKER, FASHION DESIGNER AND PORN SUPERSTAR: PETER BERLINCREATED SOME OF THE MOST INDELIBLE EROTIC GAY IMAGERY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. JUST AS HE IS BEING REDISCOVERED BY A NEW GENERATION OF FASHION DESIGNERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS, THE RECLUSIVE ICON GRANTS
PIPPA BROOKS AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW FROM HIS HOME IN SAN FRANCISCO
Who is your favourite porn star? Mine is Peter Berlin. Even though his films and photographs were not created ‘for’ me (they were obviously made exclusively for a gay male audience) he leaves me breathless. More because I’m obsessed with human beings who become their own unique creation than necessarily because of a penchant for gay porn. Peter Berlin: the name is pure Warhol superstar, the image: pure Tom of Finland.
In the world of gay iconography, the artist Tom of Finland’s exaggerated, pumped, throbbing drawings of man-on-man physicality showed a kind of ultimate masculine fantasy. If Alberto Vargas was drawing the ultimate female form, Tom of Finland’s male pin-ups were the gay equivalent. The first time I saw Peter Berlin on film I literally gasped out loud. Here was a Tom of Finland drawing come to life! The outrageously beautiful face, framed by the signature bowl-cut hair, muscular frame, attention to clothing detail, often uniformed, always in biker boots and posing pouches and most importantly, the enormous crotch, unashamedly, graphically centre-stage. We have had tits, tits, tits, thrust at us from magazine to silver screen, TV to newspaper but still, the ultimate taboo, and the reason why the films and photographic self-portraits of Peter Berlin still shock and affect today, is the fact that they punch you between the eyes with the male sex. Like he’s thwacked you around the face with his member – but in a really joyous, beautiful way!
Armin Hagen Freiherr von Hoyningen-Huene was born in Poland and brought up in Berlin during the 1940s and 50s by his aristocratic, but poor, family. Interestingly, his great uncle was one of the 1920s and 30s’ finest fashion photographers: George Hoyningen-Huene. Famous for his chic, elegant photographs for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaarand of Hollywood stars, and also for being the lover of another photographer who defined his age, Horst P. Horst.
Berlin defined his own culture, albeit a specific, underground one, with only one star: himself.
In terms of output, Berlin made a little go a very, very long way. He is a porn star who actually only made two films:Nights in Black Leather (1972) and That Boy (1974). His erotic legacy represents an extreme gay ideal and his elusiveness, even shyness, make him all the more alluring and mysterious. Jim Tushinski’s 2005 documentary, That Man, Peter Berlin was the first time many in the straight world caught a glimpse of Berlin. His presence on the streets of 1970s San Francisco, where sexual liberation was going full-pelt (“I was already liberated in Sixties Berlin” says Berlin, drily) is the stuff of legend.
What is incredible is the way Berlin used what nature gave him to create this extraordinary object of desire. Today you can employ plastic surgery, implants, etc and build yourself with fakery. What Berlin did has the purity of sex symbols like Jayne Mansfield or Marilyn Monroe; accentuating with clothing or undress, exaggerating, playing up to and performing for the camera. His own creation. His choice. He directed himself, starred in his films, edited them, made his own costumes for, and spoke the soundtrack to, his movies. Importantly, he only did this when he felt like it, felt good. Berlin also took photographic self portraits throughout his youth and into the Eighties. In his work, he took the pinnacle of his prime to the extreme, on his own terms.
I can’t properly express the rush of excitement I felt when my mobile phone rang with an unknown number and my disinterested “hello?” was answered with “Pippa? It’s Peter Berlin!” Our conversation over the next couple of hours surprised me. Maybe I had expected arrogance? He was so honest and had a genuine interest in how I came to be interested in his work. There is a disarming shyness which has thwarted his chances of crossover popularity and even caused him to be exploited financially at every turn. I’m still in awe but I also feel his contribution to gay culture and even pop culture in terms of the iconography of the sex symbol has never been properly accredited. Also, where is the movie?! If anyone’s life was a movie-maker’s dream, Peter Berlin’s is it.
Pippa: You’ve said your upbringing was liberal. How did your family take your blossoming sexuality?
Peter Berlin: I had already started to try to look sexy: tight pants where you see the arse, right? I remember very well my mother looked at me and she was so disgusted. I was sent to a doctor: “We will turn him around”, you know? But in those days sexuality in your family was private. There I was making it a little bit public with my display and that was the problem, you know? But the good thing was, I left the house and I was free. I rented a little room and just was free and I loved that.
Pippa: What was your own reaction to your sexuality as a young person?
Peter: The first time I looked in the mirror and felt a sexual thing I thought, “I don’t have to tell anybody, I’ll keep it to myself.” Then I started to embrace it. I never had a problem with “am I gay or not gay?” or if I would go to hell. Still, in the 1960s to be homosexual was to be socially deviant and sexual activity was very much underground. Much of the gay life was happening in the parks, train stations and the street. Berlin is very green. When you went to the woods there were hundreds of gay men there. The police would come occasionally to chase us away but it was so exciting, I can’t tell you! My timing of being born was perfect!
Pippa: Cruising is a very different thing today...
Peter: Cruising on the street is now gone. They all do it on their iPhone! They’re with their boyfriends and they’re getting beeps to say someone is cruising them online. That whole thing is completely foreign to me. In a way it’s good, but also it’s an ominous sign of our times.
Pippa: In your film That Boy I love the opening scene; the camera lingers for much longer than one would expect in a pornographic film on the cherry blossom bobbing in the sunlight. It’s a very romantic image.
Peter: Good sex needs so many things. When I would go to the park in the summertime, the smell of the blossom, the temperature, everything had to be right. I think most people never experience that. When you have sex as a well-functioning thing in your life you are ahead of everyone else. You won’t get an eating disorder or develop a headache!
"BLATANT IS A GOOD WORD FOR MY DISPLAY: LOOK AT ME, FUCK YOU!"
Pippa: So good sex is the answer to the problems of the world?
Peter: Making love is an art form. It sounds so banal but I think the experience of good sex is the best that you can do to your health! I realised I was my best psychiatrist! My luxury is that I have had time to think. I just look at the world from my own point of view. The big problem in this world is the men. Straight men dismiss homosexuality. They are not allowed to celebrate their masculinity. Male sexuality is so twisted and repressed. Repressed sexuality drives men to do terrible things, drives straight men to call women whore, bitch, to kill. When you see men running in the street after a ball game, burning cars, smashing windows... no gay man is doing that. The mainstream is so fucked up. Before you can be a good lover to another man or woman you have to love yourself.
Pippa: Your film and photographic work is all about that. I’m also very interested in your work in relation to fashion. To appear so comfortably, so assuredly masculine, whilst whirring away costumes on your grandmother’s old sewing machine: I love that! And, actually, it’s not a contradiction at all, to carry on what you were saying before; why shouldn’t a man use the tools that women have used for centuries in order to look attractive?
Peter: Fashion was my turn-on. I was never on a nude beach in my life. That would be so boring. Blatant is a good word for my display: “Look at me, fuck you!”
Pippa: Genius! The clothing was a very important part of the seduction on film and cruising on the street, wasn’t it?
Peter: Even when I was walking the street as Peter Berlin I knew that the gay men who saw me would be getting off on the image that night. When people go out, especially women, they put on their make-up, want to look their best. That’s all I would do. I wanted to look provocative. I realise that’s where the fashion comes in. I like the idea of fashion with the body. A naked body is one thing but we have to dress. To dress up the body and enhance certain things. I started by buying jeans and taking them in. Then you turn out the material, then you start doing things from scratch. The pants had to feel right, look right. It’s also surprising to me that all the biggest fashion designers are gay men, but that they dress women! If my fashion were permitted for men, they would love it! But I guess the regular, young male is not ready to go there. When I look around me on the street, people are so drab. It’s so nice when someone stands out. My friend Joachim used to like to walk behind me in Paris or Rome or wherever, just to see the reactions!
Pippa: I love the story that you used women’s pantyhose to make spray-on, super-revealing trousers?
Peter: That was later. I like the idea of women’s lingerie, the sheer fabric, draping the naked body in something alluring and sexy. If you gave pantyhose to a man and said “put them on”, he would look ridiculous. I would cut the feet off and get everything up tight in the crotch area. That woman who invented Spanx did exactly what I did and made a million! [laughing] I used to dress up the young men as well and they all loved it!
The boots, belts and sailor hats, matelot shirts that Berlin wore are very Jean Paul Gaultier. The designer approached Berlin at one point to collaborate, but with characteristic shyness, the call was left unreturned. He says he couldn’t be bothered...
Peter: I function differently from most people. I am very shy. Yes, I wish I could be a little more aggressive. I’m totally not aggressive. People are always looking for fame or adulation. That was never my goal. My goal was just to get laid! Which is why Peter Berlin is still underground.
One of the most interesting things about Berlin is that he is such an exhibitionist. But so shy. I also realise during our conversation that Berlin is incredibly unmaterialistic. Apart from a job as a photographer with a German TV company in his twenties, he never really had traditional jobs. Hanging with a crowd of artists which included Robert Mapplethorpe and Warhol at one point, he was lucky enough to have best friends, like Joachim Labriola, who supported him financially and encouraged him to pursue photography.
"I ALWAYS LOVED ENGLISH BOYS. THEY WERE NOT ALWAYS SO BEAUTIFUL BUT THEY WERE KINKY AND STRANGE!"
Peter: I always ran with people who didn’t have a job, would just hang out. I never felt that I needed money for a house. I never felt I deserved that in a way. The nice house and the nice car and so on. I am different from most people in that way. I never saw myself sort of working for a company. When Nights in Black Leather came out, a modelling agent in Paris wanted to represent me. The first thing he said was, “OK, Peter, we have to tone down your image”, and I realised this man hadn’t a clue. But I understand. I knew that when you are doing what they call pornography you close a lot of doors. I paid a price for that.
Pippa: When you and Robert Mapplethorpe were hanging out together, wasn’t it you who initially got all the attention?
Peter: He was a good friend of mine and he wanted to know how to get recognised because I was being (recognised) and he wasn’t! I told him he should put his picture on a book!
Mapplethorpe famously photographed Berlin, as did Warhol. I tell him how much I loved the Mapplethorpe pictures but he brushes me off with, “Yes, but it’s a Mapplethorpe, not a Peter Berlin, I never felt as good as when I did my own pictures”. But unlike his friends, never in the history of show business has there been an individual who cared to mingle and network less than Berlin!
Peter: With my photographs I always gave them away. I bought the paper for one dollar, did my own printing and that’s why I am where I am, without money and without fame. I didn’t have that feeling Mapplethorpe had. I only wanted to have a good time. And I did.
This lack of materialistic drive meant that Berlin was often taken advantage of. By entrusting the distribution of both of his films to ‘friends’, he made virtually nothing from either release. But there is a surprising lack of bitterness when remarking on this. In fact I think I’m much more bitter about it on his behalf than he has ever been!
Peter: I felt disappointed. You give your product to someone and their business is making money. Then when the money is in their hands they find it difficult to share it. I realised that but I didn’t agonise about it. I just said OK that’s what the world is but I’d rather be me than like them.
Today, Berlin makes a modest living selling artwork, T-shirts and DVDs from his website. It feels as though he is torn between a desire to communicate his story and the more overwhelming desire for his privacy and his own company.
Peter: Before I die I would love to have a platform and get heard. When I look at people like Karl Largerfeld: he will never sit in his house like I sit in mine! I think he is booked out every day from morning to night. I can sit and do nothing. I wonder how he is when he is by himself and takes off his rings and the sunglasses. I like him because he is talented. My talent is very limited. In a way I did my thing and there it is and I’m fine with that. Everybody tells me how great I am and here I am sitting with two cats! I wash my friend’s clothes in the bathtub. I am the most boring, average person. I usually don’t acknowledge requests for interviews, I find them boring. I feel like the king who has had his kingdom taken away. I’m a little frustrated that I’m not doing what I want but I’m actually sitting here doing nothing, right? It frustrates me but not enough to do anything about it!
Not being able to relate to his appeal to others has meant he has never capitalized on it.
Peter: I was never a fan of anybody or anything. That’s why I find it strange when people say they are fans of me. You should be your own fan. I never go to museums. When you see those screaming girls on the old Beatles shows I thought it must be nice to feel that but I never did. I look at most things with little enthusiasm. Be it the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David... I have a thing about art, I feel it is too much hot air and too overestimated. You are all forgetting the people. The artist dies and suddenly the art is sold for great amounts. There is something very indecent about that.
Berlin’s work was about voyeuristic fantasy where he was the object AND the objectifier. The whole exercise is like an exploration of voyeuristic desire. There is almost a feeling that if left entirely alone, Berlin would be perfectly happy. After all, he once, famously fell in love at first sight... until he realised it was his own reflection in a window!
Peter: Life would be so easy if it wasn’t for the people around [laughs]! I am the most content by myself. I talk a lot on the phone and end up having arguments! Just the other day a friend of mine hung up on me after screaming, “I never met a German I liked!” [more laughter]. There is one exception. That is when I had a sexual encounter. The sharing of that experience is the ultimate. I just wanted to attract one person and then get the hell out of the public arena to have a good time.
Peter Berlin is in many ways a mass of contradictions; but then, as he would say, aren’t we all? I’m touched that his first thought in the morning is for his 91 year old ‘Mummy’ whom he speaks to on the phone every single day. I’m fascinated by the fact that until the late Nineties, he didn’t have a single woman in his life until he inherited his great love James’ best female friend; his first female one, when his lover died. I love that he jokes that people think he must be dead but I feel that especially with last year’s exhibition at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art of the art of Tom of Finland and Bob Mizer, that the world might be ready finally for Peter Berlin. As he said to me, “I am about fifty years ahead of my time!” But the ultimate taboo of the male sex is starting to creep into pop culture, from Hedi Slimane’s crotch shot for his Saint Laurent perfume ad to fashion shoots in Vice and Interview magazines. The male sex is very now. And there never was a male who was more SEX than Peter Berlin!
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE:
Is there anything sexual you hate doing?
I was never good at sucking cock. One day when I’d had three cocks in my mouth I thought, “I’m not a good cocksucker so Peter, stop it.”
What is the best club you’ve ever been to?
I never really was a club person. I only went to a club to be seen and see something. Studio 54 was fine because you always saw interesting people, and the more sleazy ones like Mineshaft, but I never had a sexual experience there. I hated when everyone was smoking and the music was too loud for me!
What is your favourite film?
My Dinner With Andre by Louis Malle (1981). It’s just a conversation between two old men, you should watch it. Just a conversation between two people who are friends and are listening to each other.
(When you were expecting something lurid like Pink Narcissus for an answer, this was a shockingly erudite bombshell! And I did go away and watch, and love it).
Who taught you to sew?
I never went to school to learn anything. I started buying jeans and taking them in, then you start doing things from scratch. I was obsessive, I just wanted to make things fit me. I would sit and sew with my grandmother’s old machine.
Who would play you in the Peter Berlin movie?
Owen Wilson looks a little like me, but he is already too old.
Have you ever been to London?
Yes. I was working for a German TV show. I had a great time on Hampstead Heath! I always loved the English boys, they were not always so beautiful but they were kinky and strange. I liked that.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
Usually I wake up and change the water for my two cats. You see it’s all boring now!
Do you listen to music?
No. I like classical music but I don’t turn on music. I turn on the TV, I like political shows.
Do you vote?
No. At least no one can accuse me of putting these idiots in office! I would tell young people to stop voting.
Would you live anywhere other than in San Francisco?
I don’t travel anymore. I have inertia, wherever I am I’m fine. I am very happy to be in California. I could live anywhere but I’m sort of stuck here, I guess.
Have you always cut your own hair?
Yeah, I never liked anyone doing anything to my body. Never a manicure or pedicure, nothing.
How do you feel about the way most men dress, does it appeal to you?
The fashion I see is horrendous! No dick, all baggy, no form fitting stuff. The black hip hop guys look like angels with such great bodies. I wish I could convince them that, baggy pants, yes, but don’t wear it with the boxers underneath! They should show crotch and ass but nobody goes there and that’s where I would go!!!