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Weekly Alibi My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski

Poison Love Letter

By Heather Iger

MARCH 6, 2000:  "I am not the Jesus of the official church, who the police, bankers, judges, hangmen, officers, church bosses, politicians and other powerful people, tolerate!" howls an irate Klaus Kinski. He stands before a jeering audience obscured by the derisive blackness of the cavernous amphitheater. Kinski's eyes protruding, platinum locks flailing wildly about -- his posture erect, indomitable. Speculations regarding his sanity seem superfluous -- his dynamic presence is indisputable. A presence like his almost demands negation, and the crowd retaliates without need of prompting. "I am not your superstar!" Kinski stammers.

This captivating yet simultaneously repulsive man is the subject of Werner Herzog's most recent and extraordinarily personal endeavor, My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski. German filmmaker Herzog and his actor counterpart, Kinski, collaborated on five feature films together. Their turbulent relationship behind the camera was marked by unbridled aggression later transformed into poetic epiphanies on celluloid.

Herzog does not employ a standard "This Is Your Life" approach to the biographical documentary. My Best Fiend is, instead, an incredibly intimate portrait of his relationship with Klaus. The film is not necessarily a tribute to Kinski, who died in 1991. It is decidedly opinionated, bursting at the seams with Herzog's own frustration and anguish with Kinski's behavior. Underneath it all, though, is as deep admiration for Herzog's favorite actor and a contemplation of the profound love/hate feelings they shared for one another.

In the film, Herzog takes us back to the South American set locations of some of his most memorable films: Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. In anecdotal reminiscings shot against the ethereal backdrop of the Machupichu Mountains, Herzog recollects the numerous hardships endured by his film crew. Battling the unyielding wilderness, the production team dealt with inadequate housing, pestilence, poisonous-snake bites, even plane crashes. In the midst of these calamities, Kinski was incensed that he was no longer the center of attention. Found footage stands as testimony to his demonic tantrums. He childishly lashes out, creating false arguments with other crew members, raving about his cold coffee and threatening to walk off the set. Rumors even circulated that Herzog had to direct Kinski with a rifle pointed at the actor's head. Herzog points out that this is only a half-truth, but certainly the posed death-threats were very real. One of the chiefs of the indigenous tribesmen present for Fitzcarraldo even offered to kill Kinski for the silently fuming Herzog.

Audiences can easily see the fury, rage and madness in Kinski's portrayal of the anti-hero Aguirre, with his brooding eyes and lurching, leaden leg movements. Throughout the challenging shoot, his mania continued and the director exploited it for his purposes, provoking Kinski willfully when a scene called for this peculiar air of madness. Without this lunacy, Herzog's masterpiece may not have converged. The familiar Herzog-Kinski formula (a man with lofty vision challenged by the insurmountable forces of nature is ultimately ravaged by madness) is first established in Aguirre. The sublime rendering of this formula is never quite as potent in later reiterations. And singularly, both actor and director never surpass their monumental work within it.

According to Kinski, Herzog was the crazy one, and if one considers the awkward tribulations Werner put his staff through, with boats capsizing and limbs hacked off by chainsaws, this might hold some credence. "You are Fitzcarraldo," Herzog's photographer tells him at one point. Certainly, there is some truth to this as well, and Kinski seems to play the role of the mountain which Herzog's steamboat must be hauled over.

A superbly entertaining and yet deeply emotional piece, My Best Fiend appeals not only to admirers of Herzog and Kinski's work, but to anyone who has wanted to hug someone in one breath and maim them in the next. Perhaps no better metaphor exists for Herzog's duplicitous feelings for Kinski than in a filmed interview by Les Blank in The Burden of Dreams: The Making of Fitzcarraldo. Here, Herzog hauntingly accentuates the differences between Kinski's and his own perception of the jungle or rather perhaps, of Kinski himself: "Kinski says it's full of erotic elements. It's not so much erotic, but full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotic here. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there's a lot of misery, but it's the same misery that's all around us. The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing; they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what's around us, there is some sort of harmony. It's the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It's not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment."

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