THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Along with Fine Line's recent Sex Pistols' documentary The Filth and the Fury, Anchor Bay's My Best Fiend reminds us of a time and of original individuals weren't afraid to enter dangerous territory while creating their art. In an age when living on the edge means Bruce Willis taking a slightly smaller trailer on the set of his latest bloated mega-production, the glimpse that Fiend gives us into director Werner Herzog's working relationship with his favorite actor, the late Klaus Kinski, is nothing short of astonishing. Kinski was already a well known actor when he first collaborated with Herzog for 1972's seminal Aguirre, The Wrath of God, but once the men started working together they would forever become linked in the mind of the public and in their own minds. Over the course of five monumental features they would redefine the director-actor dynamic and in the process would create some of the most indelible images ever committed to screen. Those films are Aguirre, Nosferatu (1979), Woyzeck (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1988). The legends of Kinski's insane on-set behavior have only been rivaled by the unbelievable lengths the men went to - and drove their crews to - in the process of creating their mad tales.
My Best Fiend details the development of the volatile relationship that Herzog shared with Kinski over the course of more than three decades. They first met when a young Herzog, along with his family, happened to share space in a German boarding house with Kinski. This is where Herzog first witnessed the ravings that would eventually cement into legend. Kinski once locked himself in the bathroom for 48 hours and became so wild that he shattered the sink, toilet, and bathtub into such small pieces that, according to Herzog, you could sift the remainders through a tennis racket. As he tells it, this prepared Herzog for his later collaborations with the egomaniacal actor.
Once they began working together, Herzog needed to be able to funnel Kinski's outrageous energies into the performances. Listening to Herzog discuss these maneuvers is fascinating as he is a world-class storyteller. Just his way of speaking alone is excellent. He lends gravity to everything he says and when he describes, say, Kinski shooting the tip of an extra's finger off with a rifle, you believe it. Many of the stories he tells seem too bizarre to be true but Herzog's style keeps you rapt at all times. Those who have listened to any of his commentary tracks on other discs or have seen his outrageous performance as the abusive father in Harmony Korine's otherwise pretentious Julien Donkey-Boy know that Herzog is a very commanding on-screen presence for someone who has made his mark behind the camera.
No one, however, has ever commanded the screen the way Kinski did. He seems to suck every scene into his dark eyes. His maniacal energy is the true star of the films that he made with Herzog and without him in them they would simply not be the same. Compare a short clip from Fitzcarraldo from an earlier attempt starring Jason Robards to the finished product. Robards tries his best to fill the character but when compared to the sick, desperate insanity of Kinski's Fitzcarraldo, Robards seems like a Girl Scout. During the Fitzcarraldo shooting the Indians appearing in the film offered to kill Kinski for Herzog, an offer he refused for the sake of the film, a decision he claims to have regretted many times.
If not for his obvious affection for Kinski, Herzog would sound like he was raking the late actor over the coals for tabloid prurience. But it's clear, even when Herzog talks about Kinski's worst behavior, that he misses his friend dearly. When he discusses Kinski's rare softer side with former leading ladies Eva Mattes (Woyzek) and Claudia Cardinale (Fitzcarraldo), Herzog clearly wants us to know that there was more to Kinski than ranting and raving. However, he prefaces his interview with Mattes by saying that she was one of very few women who had anything nice to say about Kinski at all, and he's quick to point out how one of Kinski's tender moments, recounted by Cardinale, turned vicious the next instant.
During the course of My Best Fiend Herzog revisits some of the most memorable sets from the five films: Peruvian river, mountains, and jungles from Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo and a small Czech town square from Woyzek. This helps raise the visuals of the film above the usual talking heads and clips of retrospective documentaries. Herzog waxes nostalgic near the end and, given the highs and lows we've seen him reach throughout his work with Kinski, it feels earned. The physical peril in which the men placed themselves so consistently must be without parallel in film history. Both Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo involve treacherous journeys down some of Peru's most violent rapids and the films were shot the way they appear, with no safety nets. In fact, the currents grew so violent that after one particularly vicious impact the bow on the giant steamboat that served as Fitzcarraldo's floating set curled around itself like a sardine can lid and a cameraman's hand was spilt down the middle.
There is another element to Herzog's recollections that boggles the mind. He talks extensively about how insane Kinski was then states that, even though Kinski thought Herzog to be mad in return, he himself is the very definition of "completely clinically sane." He then goes on to recall a time when he seriously planned to firebomb Kinski's house, a plan foiled only by the vigilance of Kinski's dog. Herzog's idea of sanity is perhaps not as close to the textbook as he may think. On one film set, for instance, Kinski threatened to quit (well, he threatened to walk off every set at some point) and Herzog told him that by the time he got around the bend there would be eight bullets in Kinski's head and ninth in Herzog's own.
My Best Fiend borrows some footage from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo. During these sequences Kinski berates a production manager for not providing food to his liking. While Herzog claims that this is a lesser rant, the viciousness of his tone is striking. In an age of reserved tantrums by stars aware that anything they say and do can be used against them on Entertainment Tonight, such unhinged behavior is rare.
Blank's footage also reveals Kinski in a different light. In the final moments of the film we see Kinski with a delicate butterfly perched on his head. The butterfly refuses to leave Kinski and time after time flies out of the frame only to be revealed on his finger or ear. It's as if the butterfly sensed that there is something more to the man than his raving exterior and the image provides the film with an ending of surprising and eloquent beauty.
The major sequence of Fitzcarraldo revolves around Kinski's insane title character designing a pulley system to pull the boat over a mountain, an image that Herzog describes as "a great metaphor, a metaphor for what I have no idea." Well, given that the sequence was achieved by doing exactly what the character planned to do without the aid of any special effects, the metaphor is clear: There is as much of Fitzcarraldo, or any of the mad characters in these films, in Herzog as there is in Kinski. That's ultimately what My Best Fiend is about: How one actor with an incredible penchant for outward expression and one director with a quiet burn so intense that he became the only one able to tame the beast, could actually be more similar than different.
The picture on My Best Fiend is outstanding. The clips from the films as well as the newly shot footage have all been cleaned up, but still maintain the graininess appropriate to productions so far on the edge. Films like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre may lean more towards art-house fare, but make no mistake: These are huge productions in incredible parts of the world containing more eye-popping visuals than Armageddon and The Rock put together.
The audio is for a film consisting primarily of interviews. There is something strange that I should point out: The audio / subtitles menu are set to a default consisting of English subtitles and German sound. I would strongly recommend switching the subtitles off and switching the audio track to English. The film clips will remain in German with English subtitles regardless and the interview footage makes much more sense dubbed into English. Watching a German film clip with documentary narration subtitled in English can be a confusing experience and the English-dubbed voice-over with German film clips makes the most sense. This is how the theatrical version played and it is the most effective. Herzog dubs his own voice and his English is excellent, made even better by his unique style of speaking.
The only extra on the My Best Fiend disc is the trailer. Obviously there doesn't need to be a director's commentary track; the whole film is the director's commentary. Some additional clips from Kinski's career and possibly some archival interviews with the actor would have been nice, but the film really does stand well alone.
Other Herzog / Kinski reviews:
Many people are not aware of the complexity and depth of the relationship between Kinski and Herzog. For those who have seen some of the pair's films My Best Fiend will be enlightening. The tales of their days together are certainly entertaining enough for those who previously had no interest in the subject. For those who haven't seen any of their films My Best Fiend is a good primer. Herzog's clear and unusual narrative coupled with generous clips from all five of the joint features should serve well to introduce newcomers to one of the most unique filmmaking partnerships of all time. The films themselves are far more complex than Herzog is able to explore in this documentary and each reflects social, political, and behavioral observations that put Herzog among the top directors of the modern era. My Best Fiend doesn't focus on that. Instead it takes us through one of the strangest, most complex, and ultimately most rewarding partnerships in film history.
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org