The madness of Klaus Kinski
With his eyes wide and his upper lip locked in the kind of perpetual snarl that seems right at home on his harsh, German face, Klaus Kinski accusingly points a finger at his audience.
I am not the Jesus of the official church, who the police, bankers, judges, hangmen, officers, church bosses, politicians and other powerful people tolerate! I am not your superstar!
The crowd laughs, boos and hurls insults. Kinski is enraged, demanding that they “shut the fuck up.” And when a well-meaning man takes the mic from him and declares that “Christ was tolerant. If someone contradicting Him, He would not tell them to shut up,” Kinski hurls back:
No, he didn’t say shut up. He took a whip and smacked their ugly faces! That’s what he did, you stupid pig!
Clearly there has been a misunderstanding. Kinski is merely performing his Jesus Christus Erloser monologue (or at least trying to), but his reputation has preceded him and this crowd is not interested in the same performance Kinski is.
This incident encompasses the first few minutes of director Werner Herzog’s documentary, My Best Fiend Klaus Kinski, which chronicles the bizarre relationship these men developed over the course of working on five films together. A sort of jumbled hodge-podge of professional admiration, pure hatred and honest to goodness friendship.
It is not a surprise that someone like Herzog—a bit of a character himself—would be attracted to someone like Kinski. Herzog believed that the only way to tell a story was to immerse yourself completely in it, a belief that led him deep into the jungle with an army of spanish soldiers and their Indian slaves to film Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). Kinski played the title character who, in a slow decent into madness, takes control of his expedition and dutifully, arrogantly marches them towards certain doom. It could be argued that this wasn’t much of a stretch for Kinski, whose own madness fed the characters, as Herzog had predicted.
There were on-set fights. Kinski ranted about anything and everything. Sometimes the crew took the brunt, other times the cast. But Kinski’s favorite target was always Herzog, the only man who represented any real challenge to his own egomaniacal dominance. Herzog claims that when Kinski decided to quit the film after a particularly heated spat he had to threaten him with a gun to keep him on set. Kinski claims he was the one with the gun.
Surviving Aguirre, the two men then reconnected for Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), a retelling of F.W. Murneau’s atmospheric silent film, Nosferatu (1922). For Herzog there was never another option for the lead. Kinski embodied the Count’s lecherous, misshapen visage like no one else could have.
That same year they reteamed for Woyzeck, a film about a soldier on the brink of (you guessed it) madness. Later came Fitzcarraldo (1982), about a man attempting to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. Mad determination is/was a running theme for both of these men. There is a clip from the filming of Fitzcarraldo in My Best Fiend displaying Kinski’s wrath at it’s most petulant. It all started over food.
Five years later the duo filmed their fifth and final collaboration: Cobra Verde (1987). It is a strange film involving a bandit hired by a plantation owner to watch over his slaves who is eventually banished to Africa where he is tormented and ridiculed. Driven to the brink of (wait for it) madness, the bandit leads a rebellion against an African King. I’m not fond.
The final scene in Cobra Verde has the exhausted title character attempting to make his escape via a boat, which he then collapses next to after many desperate attempts to get it into the water, alone. He lays on the beach as the tide washes in. A polio-stricken African roams along the waters edge. Herzog lists this film, and in particular, this moment as the one that finally broke Kinski. After all, how can he go on like this forever? Kinski himself said that he had given all he had left.
The fact is, Kinski made three more films after Cobra, including Kinski Paganini, which he wrote and directed. At the time of his death, Kinski had over 130 films to his credit. Five of them were with Herzog. Despite repeated threats, Kinski had never quit on Herzog because Kinski needed his madness corralled, funnelled and focused. No one had the stomach for it but Herzog.
Towards the end of My Best Fiend Herzog laments that there are times when he misses Kinksi, despite it all. Did he threaten Kinski’s life, even going so far as to plan his murder? Sure. Would he work with him again? In a heartbeat.