My Best Fiend

“I never thought it was possible that someone could rave for 48 hours,” director Werner Herzog says, recalling how he once shared an apartment with Klaus Kinski and witnessed the actor lock himself in the bathroom and rant for two days while destroying the fixtures. That early encounter foreshadows the pair’s turbulent relationship. Herzog and Kinski made five features together, some of which (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) are among the best films ever created about egos run rampant. And in Kinski (who died in 1991), Herzog found the perfect star for playing such out-of-control characters.

Herzog’s own documentary about his relationship with fellow German Kinski consists of an array of talking-head interviews with film footage interwoven. Though not exactly groundbreaking in structure, My Best Fiend does contain some unforgettable behind-the-scenes showdowns. One involving native Peruvian tribesmen mutely witnessing one of Kinski’s profanity-laden tirades on the set of Fitzcarraldo is particularly hilarious and frightening. It’s made all the more so when Herzog recounts that immediately afterward the tribal chief nonchalantly offered to kill Kinski right there if Herzog wished. “I needed Kinski for a few more shots, so I turned them down,” Herzog remembers. “I’ve always regretted that I lost that opportunity.”

The director revisits the locations of these five movies, all while recalling specific stories about his leading man, whom he describes as “a peculiar mixture of physical cowardice and physical courage.” With his intense, bug-eye stare and vampirically gaunt countenance, Kinski seems to have been born to play megalomaniacs. At times, it’s hard to tell whether he is acting or simply being. However, Herzog reveals hearing the actor train himself for 10 hours a day doing vocal exercises, leading one to speculate about the performer’s commitment to his craft. In one outtake from Fitzcarraldo that shows Jason Robards originally in the role (before the actor became deathly ill and was replaced by Kinski), Herzog follows it up with Kinski’s performance of the same scene. Robards, obviously a fine actor, doesn’t even begin to come close to the cinematic power the German exerts.

Herzog drags out actresses (Claudia Cardinale, Eva Mattes) who briefly worked with Kinski decades ago, but he ignores the most logical interview subject, the actor’s renowned daughter, Nastassja Kinski. And while it is plainly the director’s side of the story being told, it is somewhat disconcerting that the bulk of the film is composed of the filmmaker interviewing himself.

My Best Fiend is not quite as interesting as its subject, but it is a vivid lesson in how two artists interact. Though characterized by outrageous levels of volatility, the pairing of the director and actor invariably resulted in extraordinary creative collaborations. These men — arrogant, ambitious, sadistic, fanatical, and in Kinski’s case, probably insane — certainly deserved each other. (N/R) Rating: 6

Categories: Movies