DVD Review Of My Best Fiend

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/27/06


  Werner Herzog’s 1999 documentary, Klaus Kinski: My Best Fiend, is yet another in the dazzling array of Herzog documentary, or documentary-like, films. This one follows his turbulent friendship and creative partnership with the legendary German actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog also serves as narrator, in German (with English subtitles, or dubbed into English). In the 1970s and 1980s the pair collaborated to make five indelibly memorable great films: Aguirre: The Wrath Of God (1972), Nosferatu: Phantom Of The Night (1979), Woyzek (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1988).

  In a sense, this film is pure hagiography, only in wink and a nod reverse, as Herzog proudly cements Kinski’s reputation as the madman of 20th Century film; but in the hands of any other director that’s all this film would be, schmaltzy hagiography. In the capable hands of Herzog, this film is a memorable experience in its own right.

  It opens with riveting scenes of Kinski performing in a one man show as Jesus Christ, and verbally abusing his audience, who boo and hiss, by telling the crowd of Christians to shut the fuck up and explaining that Christ wasn’t tolerant, but rather would whip them in their ugly faces. Yet, this is not serious art, but more like professional wrestling, or the audience abusing raps that Andy Kaufman used to hurl at his viewers.

  Herzog retraces his steps to places around the world where his Kinski films were shot, and gives many insights and anecdotes, including the infamous claim that he directed Kinski through the end of Aguirre at the end of a shotgun. He also claims that local tribal leaders offered to kill Kinski for Herzog, whom they feared the silence of more than Kinski’s rages. Herzog claims he said, ‘I needed Kinski for a few more shots, so I turned them down. I have always regretted that I lost that opportunity.’ This is pure bunkum, of course, but it gets people talking, sells tickets, and Herzog knows this.

  In another anecdote, Herzog muses on Kinski’s ripping of him in his own autobiography, saying it was pure theater, and he helped Kinski think of some of the epithets Kinski wanted to call Herzog. This is no shock, as anything less than pure adulation was taken as an insult. When a critic described his performance in a local theater as ‘excellent’, Kinski sneered: ‘I was not excellent! I was not extraordinary! I was monumental! I was epochal!’ This behavior was known to Herzog early on, for when he was thirteen he lived in the same boardinghouse as Kinski, who acted like an unappreciative prima donna even then.

  Yet, Kinski also had a lighter, more humane side, that we see in some rare footage of him, with Herzog, at the Telluride Film Festival in the early 1990s. The film even ends with an amazing sequence of Kinski, during the shooting of Fitzcarraldo, holding court with a Monarch butterfly that seems to be obsessed with him. Also, former female co-stars Eva Mattes (Woyzeck) and Claudia Cardinale (Fitzcarraldo) only have good things to say of Kinski and his treatment of them.

  Herzog wisely mines the insipid, and downright silly, notion of artists going mad for, as Herzog states about Kinski in writing crap about him in his autobiography, the swinish public, whom Kinski calls ‘scum’, needs to believe bad things about celebrities. Of course, Herzog feeds into this, spinning tales of dubious things Kinski did: attacking extras, cursing at small time production assistants, etc. Yet, one senses, from the beginning to the end of our film, that Herzog is merely embellishing his and Kinski’s legends for the purposes of art, and intentionally blurring reality as he does in any number of his other documentary like films, such as Lessons Of Darkness and Fata Morgana. Herzog, and Kinski, learned that one must eviscerate stereotypes by using them until they are dust. Yet, Herzog not only embellishes regarding Kinski, but also when he describes an Indian who, after being bitten by a snake while filming Aguirre, simply chain sawed off his foot, to prevent death by poison. This supposed attempt to deflect attention from Kinski and his ‘genius’ reputedly caused the actor to rage against the snake-bitten man. Again, pure and total bunkum, for the loss of blood from a sawn off foot would more quickly kill a man than any snakebite would.

  The film also has other unexpected moments of fun and pleasure, including bizarre outtakes from a supposed earlier version of Fitzcarraldo, starring Jason Robards as Fitzcarraldo, with a goofy Mick Jagger as his even odder sidekick. Whether or not this is true footage, or was merely done as a gag, is left to the viewer’s imagination, but it’s hard to imagine that Herzog would have ever wanted to make such a film.

  Kinski died in 1991, in Marin County, California, at the age of sixty-five, just three years after his last collaboration with Herzog on Cobra Verde, yet Herzog seems to never have gotten over it, for the better or the worse. The whole film, despite its mockery and offbeat tone, is a most loving tribute of one artist to another, even as Herzog claims, ‘'Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski.’ Yet, the two men and artists seemed to bring out the best in each other, for Kinski’s career long predated Herzog’s, and included small roles in epics like Doctor Zhivago, but no one today recalls a single role of Kinski’s outside the Herzog milieu. That, alone, sums up why this documentary is a must see for Herzog fans, and fans of cinema.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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