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'My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski'

Herzog's Kinski bio reveals turmoil of their friendship

Saturday, June 24, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Before you die, make it a point to stipulate in your will that the documentary film bio on your life be directed by Werner Herzog. Why go with anything other than first class?

'My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski'

Director: Werner Herzog

Documentary with: Herzog, Claudia Cardinale, Eva Malles, Beat Presser

Web site:

Critic's call: 3 stars


Mad actor Klaus Kinski, who died in 1991, didn't need to stipulate. Herzog had known him from age 13, directed five of Kinski's greatest films, and survived one of the wildest love-hate relationships ever recorded between a director and a star. The result is a fascinating account of their explosive friendship through Herzog's reflections and selected footage from their pictures.

Beginning with "Aguirre, The Wrath of God," their first collaboration in 1972, Herzog seemed to bring out Kinski's madness in every good and bad way -- never more than in the legendary "Nosferatu" they would make together in 1978. It is that Dracula feature from which this documentary gets its play-on-words name. But the scariest footage comes from offscreen action during the making of "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo" (1981), when Kinski's rages reach epic proportions over the greatest of trivialities.

In the latter film he played an insane European obsessed with taking a large steamboat up the Amazon and then over a mountain -- by hand and by land! Conditions in the jungle were abominable, and so was Kinski. He abuses everyone around him with fits of egomaniacal irrationality. At the end of shooting, the local Indians involved in the production offered to kill him for Herzog, free of charge.

It is fascinating to observe, and "Fitzcarraldo" was one of the most brilliant films of the '80s. But unless you know and love it -- and Kinski as an actor -- his haranguing might well get on your nerves. Herzog was and remains one of the most accomplished, visually inspired film makers in the world. But Kinski with his declamatory, over-the-top theatrical style, was something of an acquired taste.

Only Herzog seems to have been able to (barely) control and exploit the mix of courage and cowardice, fragility and power, Kinski could bring to a scene. A beautiful piece of newsreel footage of the two of them together at the Telluride festival provides he could act like a human being when he wanted to.

But he didn't want to very often.

Herzog speaks of him with reverence and brutal candor alike. My favorite anecdote is from the end of the "Aguirre" shoot:

"As usual," Herzog relates, "he didn't know his lines properly and was looking for a victim. He started shouting 'You swine!' at the camera assistant for grinning at him, demanding I fire him on the spot. I said, 'No. I'm not going to fire him -- we're 17,000 feet up in the Andes, and the whole crew would quit out of solidarity.'

"Kinski walked off, packed all his things and was absolutely serious about quitting and leaving at once -- he'd already broken his contract 40 or 50 times. I went up to him and said, 'You can't do this.' I told him I had a rifle and that he'd only make it as far as the first bend before he had eight bullets in his head -- the ninth one would be for me."

Kinski stayed.

So will his fans to the end of this well-wrought celluloid portrait.

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