Year of release: 1999
Writer(s): Werner Herzog
Cast: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Claudia Cardinale
Werner Herzog does not make “easy” films. So, it’s not all that strange that he would be at his best when working with difficult people. Klaus Kinski was a very difficult person. With him, Herzog made some of the best films of this century. Before the two met, no director had worked with the mercurial actor more than once. Herzog and Kinski made 5 films together.
This documentary by Werner Herzog about his tumultuous professional (and personal) relationship with Klaus Kinski was riveting. It’s fascinating to not only get an insight into the nature of Klaus Kinski, but also the nature of Herzog and how the two interacted. The film is simple in its structure: we follow Herzog as he journeys throughout the places where his story took place. From the house where he and Kinski briefly lived together when he was young, to the site of their last film together. Along the way he talks about his friend, their relationship and shares a number of anecdotes from their time working together. He also seeks out and interviews some of the people that were sucked into their vortex along the way; co-stars and extras. They all have their own perspective and Herzog lets them tell it as they saw it.
Their relationship was a complicated one. It alternated between being a warm friendship and an acrid rivalry of wills. Herzog reveals how he once seriously intended to firebomb Kinskis house. He says it in a way that suggests levity, but I don’t doubt for a second that he did indeed intend do just that, and that the only thing that stopped him was the fortuitous intervention of Kinskis dog. Just a short while later, they met at a film festival where they hugged, joked around and seemed to genuinely enjoy each others company. They were both grand personalities and paradoxically seemed to simultaneously complement and detract from each other. It sometimes seemed as though Herzog managed to coax cooperation out of their relationships only by a supreme effort of will; his intense desire to make great films won out over his exasperation with Kinski. In the world of cinema, they were almost like two celestial bodies colliding, but instead of crashing and exploding, they developed a kind of mutually beneficial orbit.
Kinski was a crazy bastard. There’s really no avoiding that little fact. A schizophrenic (he was actually diagnosed as such at one time) egomaniac. He sometimes got so involved in his performances that he seemed to lose his already tenuous grip on reality. One of his more famous debacles was his stage set retelling of the life of Jesus Christ according to Klaus Kinski, which quickly derailed into barely lucid, frantic ranting where Kinski painted himself out to be some sort of messianic figure.
Kinskis volatile nature is probably why Herzog primarily cast him in parts in which the character descends into insanity. That inherent quality in Kinski shines through, expertly modulated by Kinskis considerable acting talent and Herzogs masterful directing. That same masterful filmmaking is evident in this documentary. Herzog doesn’t stoop to just regaling us with stories of Kinskis madness, which would undoubtedly be entertaining in itself. No, he cuts down to the very bone of what made their relationship unique.