Polish-born actor Klaus Kinski (1926-91) appeared in well over a hundred films, but is best remembered for the five he made with German director Werner Herzog between 1972 and 1988. Kinski was an alarming screen presence, even in small roles; with his large, disdainful mouth and huge, frightened eyes, he looked like a study in voluptuous anguish.
Since he was difficult to cast – and difficult to work with – much of his résumé consisted of Euro-trash – sleazy horror flicks and soft-core sado-porn. But for Herzog, Kinski was an ideal leading man, his tortured and determined demeanor perfect for the lead in their first collaboration, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), the story of a mad conquistador whose fate is to imagine himself the ruler of an uncaring jungle.
My Best Fiend is Herzog’s documentary remembrance of Kinski, who apparently was as nearly insane as some of the characters he played. The film opens with his infamous "Jesus tour" of the early ‘70s, with the actor assuming the persona of the Messiah on stage and screaming abuse at his audience in what is either an early example of performance art or a man having a protracted nervous breakdown – or both. These screaming fits, we soon learn, were a regular part of Kinski’s off-screen life and Herzog explains how he would provoke them between takes, so that the actor could settle into his roles. It must have worked, since Kinski’s performances for Herzog – particularly in Aguirre, Woyzeck (1978) and Nosferatu (1979) – seemed disciplined if not quite restrained.
Of course, Herzog himself is no day at the beach and is, being half-mad as well, a somewhat unreliable narrator. But he does balance his horror stories with recollections by Kinski co-stars Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes, both of whom remember a shy, affectionate and consummate professional.
And for the film’s coda, there’s an extraordinary piece of footage of Kinski interacting with a butterfly with almost supernatural grace – the "fiend" revealing a gleeful and gentle childish side, a moment both beguiling and eventually sad.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.