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My Best Fiend
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by Chris Parry

"Quite simply one of the finest, most reverential documentaries I've seen."
5 stars

Klaus Kinski was insane. Truly, unbelievably insane. He would tear up the homes of his friends, run around naked like a maniac, attack movie extras with prop swords, shoot bullets wildly into the night, refer to the human race as ‘the scum’, go through the dictionary to create grandiose new vulgarities with which to throw around at will, abuse and deride even those who saw him as genius. He would hold “Jesus Tours” where he would stand before stadiums full of people and tell them he was God, as they laughed at him and giggled at his insanity. He was also one of Germany’s great actors, the likes of which will never be seen again. Werner Herzog made five films with Kinski, and his appreciation for the actor’s talent was paramount to the recording of some of his finest work. In this documentary, Herzog goes back over the places and people who punctuated his years with the tempestuous German thespian, and it’s a genuinely glorious piece of celluloid history.

The real beauty of this documentary is the intricacy of the footage. Herzog himself was a megalomaniac director of the highest order, and his epic features like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck are now seen as classic works about men on the edge of sanity, but in their time were portrayed as Kevin Costner-like wastes of money with their exotic locations (Peru, Pogo and Czechoslovakia respectively) and questionably compus participants. Thankfully, as part of Herzog’s epic directorial style, he had cameras going everywhere, almost all the time, and this footage is invaluable when telling the tale of the real Klaus Kinski.

As the actor runs riot in front of the camera, Herzog’s near madness behind it at once conflicts with Kinski, drives his neuroses deeper, and then flushes it out to create the epitome of method acting. Kinski never held back from his criticism of Herzog, even going so far as to spread the rumor that he directed the actor while pointing a shotgun at him for an entire film, but though Kinski spent many years telling anyone who would listen that Herzog was a no-talent hack, Herzog’s love for the actor is obvious and genuine. Herzog’s best works were about adventuring madmen – megalomaniacs who went misunderstood by the world as they descended into delirium – and it’s clear that he knew his leading man was insane, but also knew that there could be nobody better to portray those he wanted on the big screen.

“You can lick my ass, I’m going to smack your face!”

In one particular piece of footage, from the production of Fitzcarraldo, Kinski screeches at the production manager about the standard of the food, as hundreds of Indian tribesmen look on in bewilderment. Kinski, wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, takes his rage to a higher level with each new sentence.

As Herzog intersperses footage from his classic films with behind the scenes footage from the actual productions, interviews with those he once worked with alongside long, rambling, screaming passages of Kinski flying off the handle at those around him, you begin to see not only how a great actor needs to be insane, but also how a great director needs to exploit that insanity and channel it to suit his own means. Kinski never looks to heal Kinski, and if anything he pushes him deeper into the bowels of his own personal hell. The two clash like bighorn sheep, pounding into each other in a daily test of whose balls are biggest on the day. As Herzog reveals that the Indian tribesmen extras from Fitzcarraldo actually offered to kill Kinski for the director, he doesn’t pull Kinski away for his own safety, nor does he even tell the tribesmen that their offer is out of the question. Instead he tells them, “No, I need him for more scenes,” and then uses the tribesman who made the threat in a scene where Kinski’s character is confronted by an angry tribal chief who wants him dead, capturing the obvious hatred the chief had for the actor as part of his scene.

“Every grey hair on my head I call Kinski.”

And every grey hair on Kinski’s head could no doubt be called Herzog. It’s no coincidence that many on Herzog’s films came away injured, maimed, nearly killed. The director would just as soon drive a boat into rocks and almost capsize it with a full crew on board just to get a good shot, as he would stand by as his lead actor descended into madness and then say, “let’s shoot.” Fitzcarraldo was a story about a madman who would do anything for his art, including drag a giant ferryboat across acres of jungle in the pursuit of opera. The catch, of course, is that in order to make the movie, Herzog had to do just that himself.

My Best Fiend exposes both Herzog and Kinski as polar opposites who can’t work together without drifting close to the edge, but who have an undoubted love and respect for one another as they fight their demons to make cinematic history. Herzog’s recollections of working with (and threatening the life of) Kinski are well worth hearing, and almost always just this side of unbelievable, and with footage so revealing running throughout, it’s almost as if the feature films themselves were secondary in the pursuit of making this documentary about one (actually two) of the world’s great artistic talents.

The last minutes of Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, as Kinski’s conquering explorer Aguirre drifts down a lonely South American river on a broken and beaten raft, staggering amongst his dead crew and rusting cannon, his body thinned from starvation, his eyes wide from madness, his armor scratched and dented, with spider monkeys crawling over every inch of the stricken wooden vessel, aptly sums up both Herzog’s career and Kinski’s life. Aguirre tells himself of how he’ll take his soon-to-sink boat to the ocean, sail it north to Trinidad where he and his crew (who are by now rotting carcasses) will take the island from the Spanish crown, then west to Mexico where they’ll take the land from Cortez. Insane and raving, completely ignoring his own inevitable demise, he says the words, “I am the wrath of God! Who else is with me?”

Kinski wasn’t the wrath of God, but he was a damn fine actor, and this documentary so entranced and informed me, that I plan on going out and seeing every one of his films again, just to see if how they affected me the first time I saw them is enhanced by what I now know of those behind the production. And if that’s not the mark of a damn fine documentary film, I don’t know what is.

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originally posted: 01/17/02 10:04:09
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User Comments

6/04/11 mr.mike Interesting , but I'm glad I got it free from the Library.3.5 stars. 3 stars
1/17/09 Shaun Wallner Awesome Story! 5 stars
6/15/05 mcr great film 5 stars
12/25/04 John very insightful and gripping hommage to a superb act - very entertaining or 5 stars
11/14/99 MrShowbiz A simple act of self-appreciation from Werner Herzog. 3 stars
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  03-Nov-1999 (NR)



Directed by
  Werner Herzog

Written by

  Claudia Cardinale
  Werner Herzog
  Klaus Kinski

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