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The Wrath of Klaus Kinski: An Interview
with Werner Herzog
By the time Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski teamed up for the filming of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Kinski had appeared in scores of films and Herzog, with five features behind him at the age of twenty-eight, was one of the most promising directors of New German Cinema. The role of Aguirre, the mad sixteenth-century Conquistador leading a splinter group of rebels to self- destruction while searching the Amazon for the fabled El Dorado, had appealed to Kinski enough to brave the prospect of two grueling months of filming on location in the Peruvian jungle.
After weeks of drifting down the Amazon on a raft, wearing heavy period costumes in the sweltering heat, with little food or drinking water on account of Herzog's alleged hell-bent quest for authenticity, Kinski's already feisty disposition turned lethal and he threatened to quit the production. "You can't do it," replied Herzog, who was filming on a tight budget that allowed little room for mistakes, let alone starting over with a new leading man. "I told him I had a rifle," Herzog explained, "and he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head-the ninth would be for me." "Whoever heard of a pistol or rifle with nine bullets," Kinski commented about the incident in his autobiography-but the pact was sealed. Kinski completed the film and Aguirre went on to become Herzog's first international hit.
The unlikely allegiance forged by the two men on the location of their first film together spawned a creative relationship which lasted over fifteen years and produced four more extraordinary films, regarded by many as Herzog's masterpieces, including Nosferatu the Vampyre (a remake of Murnau's classic), Woyzeck, and Fitzcarraldo. But the storm never abated: over the years their fights became legendary and in his outrageous autobiography, Kinski Uncut (Viking Penguin, 1996), Kinski repeatedly lambasted Herzog with interminable, blistering tirades: "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep," he wrote. "He doesn't care about anyone or anything except his wretched career as a so-called filmmaker Herzog doesn't have the foggiest inkling on how to make movies!"
Of course, Herzog's own version of the relationship (including an intriguing explanation for Kinski's vituperative comments) was bound to follow at some point, and My Best Fiend, his feature-length documentary on the late Klaus Kinski, who died in 1991, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this spring.
Echoing the beginning of Kinski's autobiography, My Best Fiend opens with an incident that occurred, during Kinski's tour of Germany with a one-man show in which he played Jesus. The location is the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin, capacity twenty thousand, in the early Seventies. A tight close-up of a wild-eyed Kinski widens to reveal him alone on a stage, glaring into the dark auditorium. Someone in the audience just heckled him and he's trying to locate the voice. Suddenly a man is next to him and reaches for the microphone. Kinski pushes him away and a fight ensues. Kinski thunders on: "I am not the Jesus of the official church tolerated by those in power. I am not your superstar." The heckler finally gains the microphone: "I doubt that Jesus was like Kinski. Jesus was a patient man, he didn't say 'shut up' to those who contradicted him!" Kinski wrangles the mike away from him and declares that he will not continue until this "miserable jerk" leaves; then he walks away in great, angry strides, throwing microphone and tripod off the stage.
Using this footage out of context, unexplained, My Best Fiend succeeds in creepily establishing the tone of Kinski's madness, and then proceeds to expose Herzog's peculiar brand of lunacy. Through a tightly woven tapestry of remarkable archival footage, excerpts from the feature films, interviews and personal recollections, Herzog chronicles the pivotal points of their collaboration-from a thirteen-year-old Herzog's first encounter with Kinski, to their early fights on the set of Aguirre, his plans to burn down Kinski's house with him in it, their reconciliation at the Telluride Film Festival, and the incidents during the making of Fitzcarraldo.
"Kinski seriously thought that I was crazy. Of course I am not-not 'clinically,' at least-but he was right in that I was perhaps too choleric," concedes Herzog, although some might argue that hauling a ship over a mountain from one tributary to another-the central metaphor of Fitzcarraldo and an enterprise that delayed the completion of the film by four years-is a dead giveaway in matters of insanity. When everyone else deserted him, however, Kinski stood by Herzog. The film was eventually completed and won the Director's Prize at Cannes in 1982.
As if Herzog himself were addressing the jeers and accusations of an unseen spectator, My Best Fiend seems to waver between a harangue and a plea, often portraying Kinski as the culprit rather than the subject of the documentary. But when Herzog resists the urge to play the impoverished but visionary filmmaker victimized by a megalomaniac prima donna, an ineffable sense of loss seeps through. Kinski becomes the recipient of a rueful and formidable homage made all the more poignant by Herzog's reluctant appreciation of his belligerent muse and by his struggle to defer to a powerful bond that shaped both his filmmaking career and, as he puts it, his destiny.
My Best Fiend will be released this fall by New Yorker Films and is set for a U.S. premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and a New York theatrical opening at the Film Forum on November 3rd.-A.G. Basoli
Cineaste: What motivated you to make a documentary about Klaus Kinski now?
Werner Herzog: The time was right. I couldn't have made it five, six, or seven years ago. I always had the feeling that I should round the films up, that something was missing-like the chain was missing a link. There's something mysterious about time. All the turbulence, all the turmoil, has somehow settled. My perspective has shifted and that's why the film has humor in it, and people laugh. Of course, some of it is very bizarre. I see it myself and I can face it, now, with calm humor and a certain serenity-but only because time has passed.
Cineaste: In the film you chose to ignore Kinski's background, personal life, psychological make-up-how he became Klaus Kinski. Why?
Herzog: It never interested me. I never wanted to make an encyclopedic film on Klaus Kinski. It was always evident to me that it should be my Klaus Kinski, that's why I have this extra, whom I met at the airport, carry a sign that says "Herzog's Kinski." My intention at the beginning was to call the film "Herzog's Kinski" but I think My Best Fiend is a better title. The film is as much about me as it is about him, about our strange relationship. Which is the reason why, for example Nastassja Kinski is not in the film and Pola Kinski isn't in it, either. I believe his character becomes somewhat evident of course as seen through my eyes and through his deeds.
Cineaste: How did you choose the footage and the people you interviewed? It seemed as if his female costars had only good things to say about him.
Herzog: I could easily have found hundreds of female partners who would have told the most atrocious stories of what a permanent pestilence he was on set. But that would have been a stupid and easy game. I didn't want it. I see him differently now. Not that I can claim he was a good man-he was not. He was demonic, evil, but he was wonderful at the same time. Gracious and full of humor and warmth. Not only through the choice of witnesses, but of the footage as well, I wanted to create an homage, an apotheosis of Klaus Kinski. I'm sure he would have liked the film.
Cineaste: What was your technique for dealing with his tantrums?
Herzog: There was no technique involved. Here is this man, Kinski, and you have to put him on the screen. You have to take all his rage, all his intensity, all his demonic qualities, and make them productive for the screen. That was the task and there was no time for learning. I had to master the situation from day one, from the first day of shooting Aguirre. On set you have no choice. I had to be strong enough to shape him and force him to the utmost, beyond the limits of what is normally required for the shooting of a film. But he would push me equally-to the limit. It was not permissible to take even a little step back from his level of intensity and professionalism. And, of course, he literally would have been ready to die with me, if I had died on the ship in the rapids. He would have sunk in the ship with me, and vice versa. But I cannot deny that there were moments, which were dangerous, when we could have killed each other.
Cineaste: In the film you alluded to the fact that he "wasted" himself in your films-you used that word "wasted."
Herzog: Yes, he was empty and destroyed to a degree that he needed a long time to get back on his feet, and for me it was similar. I needed some time to lick my wounds. The only exception was Nosferatu and Woyzeck, when we had only a hiatus of five days in between shooting. We did it back to back and, of course, it was a great strain on him in particular, and on me as well, but so what.
Cineaste: How heavy a toll was it for you?
Herzog: Nobody should be interested in the price one has to pay to work with extraordinary people. The film is the only thing that matters.
Cineaste: There is a moment in the film-when you are both at Telluride-when the affection between you two is palpable.
Herzog: Thank God that moment exists on film, because the media do not believe me. He was always labeled as the Bösewicht of film-the villain! And I tried in interviews, say after Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, to put across that side of Klaus Kinski. Nobody would ever print a word of that. He was grandiose and very generous. One time I said to him, "Klaus, you look so elegant, what is it?" I looked at him and I said, "Ah, it's the jacket," and he said, "Oh, Yves Saint Laurent made this for me and I got it yesterday in Paris." I said, "This is a wonderful jacket," and he ripped it off his shoulder and threw it on me and said, "Now take it. It's yours." He would give away his car in a split second-because he felt like giving me his car. Of course, I gave it back to him later.
Cineaste: But you kept the jacket.
Herzog: I still have it and I still wear it once in a while. It's a little bit short, his arms were a little bit shorter than mine, but I like it the better because of that.
Cineaste: Would you both have been lesser human beings had your encounter not taken place?
Herzog: I cannot answer because he was part of my life and I was part of Kinski's life. Of course there was life before Kinski and in between Kinski-in between the films I made with him. I made Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek with Bruno S., and Land of Silence and Darkness and, of course, there was life after Kinski. I met him for the first time when I was thirteen. The film explains the chain of events.
We lived in the same pensione. The owner of this place had picked him up from the street, literally, and given him a room and food for free and did his laundry. He entered this place like a tornado, a force of nature, and it didn't take him one minute to destroy and lay waste to all the furniture. It was strange because I remember that everybody was immediately scared of Kinski. I was the only one who was not scared. I was astonished. I looked at him as if an extraterrestrial had just landed, or a tornado had just struck. The way you watch a natural disaster, sometimes with strange amazement. That is the feeling I remember.
Of course, he didn't remember me, I was a child at the time, and the next time we met it was for Aguirre. As a private person and a filmmaker, I think it was a necessary collaboration, that the two of us found each other. There was a certain inevitability about it-it was destiny. Though the ancient Greeks would use this term with necessary caution.
Cineaste: Were there any similarities between Kinski and Bruno S.?
Herzog: Both of them had an enormous presence on screen, a presence and intensity that is almost unprecedented in cinema. Kinski was not an actor-I wouldn't call him an artist either, nor am I. Of course, he mastered the techniques of being an actor, the technique of speech, of understanding the presence of light and of the camera, the choreography of camera and of bodily movements. Bruno S. didn't have that and so had to be taught. But at the core of Klaus Kinski was not his existence as an actor-he was something beyond that and apart from it.
Cineaste: Would you say, then, that your fiction films with him were documentaries about Kinski, as well?
Herzog: If you use the term 'documentary' with very wide margins, yes. And, of course, Fitzcarraldo-moving a ship of that size over a mountain is a deed that bears a certain affinity with him, but only would take place in a documentary. The line between documentary and fiction film is obviously blurred for me. They bear such an affinity to each other that I can't really distinguish that easily.
Cineaste: What role does the German tradition play in your esthetics?
Herzog: I grew up in Bavaria. My first language was Bavarian and my own father could not understand what I was saying when I spoke in Bavarian to him and he needed my mother to translate. I had to painfully learn to speak Hoch Deutsch [High German] in high school later on, because I was ridiculed for my dialect. I have to say, with a rather primitive metaphor, that the only other person capable of making Fitzcarraldo would have been King Ludwig II. He was quintessentially Bavarian. It's not easy to define it but when I name him and you look at the castles, there's a kind of dreaminess and exuberance of fantasies that is specifically Bavarian and Austrian. There's an affinity, and it is certainly distinct from the Teutonic German culture and imagination.
Cineaste: Now you live in San Francisco?
Herzog: Yes, but that shouldn't worry you. I never left my Bavarian culture. Nor has Aguirre left its culture, it's a Bavarian film. And Fitzcarraldo is a Bavarian film. Strangely enough I function very easily in the jungle, in the Amazons, or in the Sahara Desert.
Cineaste: Would you talk a little about your Lessons of Darkness, which is the title of one of your films and of your manifesto.
Herzog: Lessons of Darkness fits in very well with my manifesto, in what I define as ecstatic truth. We have seen fifteen second film clips of fires in Kuwait hundreds of times on CNN and that is the accountants' truth. But in this film, more visibly than in others, I was searching for something different, for something beyond that, for an epic, ecstatic truth. Lessons of Darkness is a fine example for me to use in order to clarify what I mean by the terms in my manifesto-of what distinguishes the accountant's truth, what constitutes fact, and what constitutes the inherent truth of images in cinema and, of course, in poetry
Cineaste: Why issue a formulation against cinéma-vérité now?
Herzog: It's not something sudden. Since my earliest filmmaking days I have preached that I would like to be one of the gravediggers of cinéma vérité. But it was not so clearly articulated. Only after some intensive years of 'documentary' filmmaking could I better articulate what I meant. I did so finally in the manifesto that I wrote in anger-after a sleepless night, because I was too jet-lagged to sleep. I had a feeling it should be written down.
It was very strange because it was a night when I had just traveled for thirty hours from Guatemala to Catania, in Sicily. I went straight from shooting a film in Guatemala to a rehearsal of The Magic Flute. I couldn't sleep and then, when it was finally time, after forty-five hours, to go to bed, I couldn't sleep. I turned on the TV and again found the same thing on Italian TV as on Austrian, Dutch, Canadian, and U.S. TV. Documentaries are always the same sort of boring, uninspired stuff. So I tried to force myself to sleep but I couldn't and I turned the TV on again. There was a porno film on and I had the feeling, yes, even though it's just a physical performance, it comes closer to what I call truth. It was more truthful than those documentaries. I couldn't fall asleep, so I got up at three o'clock in the morning and, in this anger of not being able to sleep and seeing all these things on TV, I wrote down the manifesto, in fifteen minutes. Not to exaggerate, but the fact is it contains, in a very condensed form everything that has angered and moved me over many years.
Cineaste: Last year two films, Celebration and Idiots, were shown at Cannes that were based on Dogma '95, a manifesto written by Lars Von Trier. Are you familiar with Dogma?
Herzog: I've seen it very recently for the first time. For me it's a little uninspired because it's a technical cookbook on what to use and what not to use. But I think the basic aim of this manifesto is very necessary, seeing how much cinema has been overwhelmed by special effects and technicalities and a huge apparatus that has reduced the real life that is possible in movies. It's very strange because this year I acted in a film by a very young American filmmaker, Harmony Korine, who made his movie, Julien: Donkey Boy, according to the rules of Dogma. I played his crazed father in a dysfunctional, white-trash family. He wanted me very badly in this film as his father. For him it was important to have me in the film because he sees me as some sort of predecessor to Dogma, for the reduced technical apparatus-not as reduced as the Dogma postulates, but essential, physical, direct cinema, with all the possibilities of all the exuberance and vitality of life in it. It's very telling that you do not find this quality anymore in the big Hollywood action or special-effects movie.
Cineaste: Is your manifesto in opposition, or better, in response to Lars Von Trier's Dogma?
Herzog: No, they're after something completely different.
Cineaste: Would you ever consider doing a Dogma film?
Herzog: No, it would reduce my possibilities and my subjects. I could not do Aguirre, for example, because a historical film in costume is not permitted. Music would not be permissible and I love to work with music. So, no, certainly not, but I have respect for what they postulate and I do believe, even though it reduces a lot of possibilities, that it is at least an answer. It doesn't make filmmaking more democratic as they say, but it brings down the apparatus to its essential size. I wish that Dogma had been a manifesto that had more substance as far as, let's say, storytelling. But I think as reduced and stark as it is, it's a step that is quite interesting.
Cineaste: Do you feel that the new millennium is urging filmmakers to define new ways of making movies with manifestos, declarations, and so on?
Herzog: No. Who cares about the millennium? It's an artificial date! Even the church doesn't know when Jesus was born. I think it's obvious that in the cinema new ways have to be found en route all the time.