Who is Peter Berlin? Back in the 1970s, Peter Berlin was a minor iconic figure within the gay community through his work as an art erotic photography model and the star of two porno films, “Nights in Black Leather” (1972) and “That Boy” (1976). Berlin was readily identifiable with his Dutch boy haircut, lean muscular torso (usually displayed in an open shirt or an open jacket sans shirt) and a considerable endowment (always displayed barely tucked in very tight pants). He vanished from sight in the 1980s after appearing in some artsy-sleazy videos and erotic art from Tom of Finland; his disappearance created a minor mystery for a short while, though it is unlikely most gay men under 40 even heard of him.
Jim Tushinski’s documentary “That Man: Peter Berlin” tracks the elusive man to a San Francisco apartment, where at the age of 60 he appears to be in both fine physical form and spirited conversation. The man is wonderfully frank and hilariously self-centered, commending himself for looking good three decades ago and looking fine today. He also makes some rather odd and irrelevant pronouncements (he considers narcotic usage to be less lethal than smoking or drinking). Even more astonishing is his home, which is a shrine to himself with tons of photos and drawings of the Peter Berlin persona in full flex glory.
The real Peter Berlin (which is a nom de porn) was a German immigrant who arrived in San Francisco in the 1960s, at a time when gay liberation was beginning to take route. He occasionally rubbed shoulders and other body parts against famous queers such as Sal Mineo and Andy Warhol but ultimately enjoyed being the center of attention. Yet while he sold the image of the ethereal stud, he never prostituted himself and he rarely shared the lens or his off-screen life with others. In his current interviews, he refutes endless claims of Peter Berlin sexual hijinks by insisting he was never sexually active since arriving in America.
To pad the story, the film brings in noteworthy experts such as former porno king Jack Wrangler, porno director Wakefield Poole, writer Armistaud Maupin and filmmaker John Waters (who steals the show by describing Berlin as “Dinah Shore with a hard-on” – now how come there weren’t lines like that in Waters’ recent debacle “A Dirty Shame”?). Their commentary builds the Peter Berlin myth to epic proportions, and he is even compared to Greta Garbo for both star power and the lingering mystery of disappearance at the peak of popularity.
But ultimately, the film overplays its hand. At 80 minutes, the film feels as if it is stretching its limits by trying to make a star out of someone who was basically a flash in the pan over 30 years ago (the film would’ve been much more successful at 60 minutes or less – there is not enough material to warrant this running time).
And curiously, no one seems to see the obvious: Peter Berlin was the gay equivalent of Linda Lovelace, the 70s porno sensation who was famous solely for one notoriously brief slice of time but who never found the way to expand into mainstream acceptance or to stay relevant as tastes and styles changed.
As gay history, “That Man: Peter Berlin” might be retro fun for those who recall the gay scene of the early 70s and could be seen as being of academic relevancet for those who came of age after that era. But as portrait of a demi-god of a distant period, it is difficult to understand what the hubbub was all about or why anyone would be interested in Peter Berlin today.