(1999) Written and directed by Werner Herzog; Starring: Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog, Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes; Available on DVD
“Towards the end of shooting, the Indians offered to kill Kinski for me. They said: ‘Shall we kill him for you?’ And I said: ‘No, for God’s sake! I still need him for shooting. Leave him to me.’ I declined at the time, but they were dead serious. They would have killed him, undoubtedly, if I had wanted it.” – Werner Herzog (on working with Klaus Kinski during the filming of Fitzcarraldo)
We’ve all probably had friendships in one point of our life that started out with excitement and promise, only to end up toxic and bitter. Arguably few personal/professional relationships can compare with filmmaker Werner Herzog’s contentious association with the volatile actor, Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s entertaining documentary, My Best Fiend, chronicles the director’s troubled, yet fruitful association with a performer unparalleled in his reputation for being difficult. It’s a complex portrait of a gifted actor and an intense man, plagued by moments of lapsed sanity, and punctuated by fits of rage.
The opening scene is a fitting introduction to Kinski, with footage from his ill-fated “Jesus Christ” tour. The actor goes on a protracted rant, accompanied by jeers and laughter from the audience. The negative response only serves to antagonize him further, as he hurls insults and a litany of expletives at the crowd. Herzog traces his early days with Kinski, as they briefly occupied a boarding house together, where he observed the mercurial actor’s destructive tendencies. The majority of the film discusses their first professional collaborations, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982),* two productions that presented enormous challenges for the cast and crew.
* In addition to contending with Kinski’s mood swings, Herzog endured the trials of dragging a small ship up a mountainside. Bonus Fact: Jason Robards was originally cast in the title role, as Fitzcarraldo, with Mick Jagger as his assistant. We’re treated to some of the incomplete footage, which was scrapped when Robards became too ill to continue filming, and was replaced by Kinski. Les Blank’s excellent documentary Burden of Dreams covers how Herzog’s wildly ambitious production went awry in greater detail, and is highly recommended.
We’re never quite sure how much is fact and how much is fabrication in My Best Fiend. Herzog recounts how Kinski threatened to leave Aguirre before it was completed, which prompted the director to threaten his star (“I told him, I had a rifle and by the time he’d reach the next bend there’d be eight bullets in his head and the ninth would be mine.”), although he dispelled rumors that he completed the film with Kinski at gunpoint. In another instance, Herzog, in his customary dry delivery, explains how he once plotted to firebomb Kinski’s house, with the actor inside. Another case in point is Kinski’s autobiography, which Herzog attests was intentionally filled with inaccuracies. According to Herzog, the two conspired to stretch the truth for the sake of giving readers what they wanted, inventing all sorts of wild accusations and slurs against the director. Although Herzog confides, “Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski,” we’re left to speculate how much of their friction was illusory.
As the audience, we’re expected to accept Herzog’s narrative that Klaus Kinski was a megalomaniac, standing on the precipice of sanity by the thinnest margin, but it’s a dubious recounting of events. My Best Fiend is as much a tell-all about Kinski as it’s a confession of the madness that propels Herzog to make films. Herzog pointed to an instance when the actor called the filmmaker a megalomaniac, which prompted the response, “That makes two of us.” Madness and genius are strange bedfellows with the two artists, who were in some ways two sides of the same coin, willing to suffer for their art and ready to take everyone along for the ride. Both are intensely passionate about their artistic visions, with strong convictions about what should be. By the same token, they are at odds with each other because of those same convictions.
To Herzog’s credit, he balances out Kinski’s less savory aspects with some more favorable recollections. He interviews two actresses that reveal additional facets of the actor’s personality. Eva Mattes, who appeared with Kinski in Woyzeck (1979) recalled a very different portrait of Kinski, compared to his reputation, as a sensitive, fragile man. Likewise, Claudia Cardinale, who co-starred in Fitzcarraldo, recalled his professionalism and “capacity of transformation” as an actor. Herzog speaks of the actor’s perfectionistic tendencies and considerable knowledge of filmmaking, and his awareness of how to appear for the camera.
If one truth is to be gleaned from My Best Fiend, it’s that Herzog and Kinski shared a symbiotic relationship (“Kinski and I complemented each other in a strange way. I think he needed me just as much as I needed him.”). Their relationship was ephemeral, a case of capturing lightning in a bottle for a short time, which was fated to burn out. Herzog has often been accused of blurring fact and fiction, creating a narrative to suit his purpose, and I believe Herzog would agree. In his own way, he’s having fun with manipulating the audience and subverting our expectations. In the context of My Best Fiend, myth is as important as objective truth, and Kinski occupied both realms quite comfortably.