One of the first things which appealed to me about the Neukölln district of Berlin to which I moved five years ago was the presence of a Klaus Kinski theme bar, a concept almost as bizarre as Kinski himself. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 20th anniversary of Kinski’s passing today.
To mark the occasion, German TV has been showing the films Werner Herzog made between 1972 and 1987 which starred Kinski and assured the reputations of both men. Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde – they have few equals in German post-war filmmaking; terrifying, mesmerising accounts of obsession, ambition, isolation and madness. If you wanted someone who would turn up on the first day with cupcakes for the cast and crew, clearly Kinski was not your man; his outbursts of deranged anger were legendary. But between fits of apoplexy, he delivered performances of the utmost intensity. Not many people go there, or to put it more accurately, not many people go there and come back again. And eventually, of course, he didn’t.
The object of Kinski’s ire was generally Herzog, who retaliated posthumously with the 1999 documentary Mein liebster Feind (My Best Fiend). This is history as told by the victor, a classic of unexpected comedy which details the working relationship between the two men for which the word ‘combustible’, while inadequate to the task, will have to suffice. But as you watch Mein liebster Feind you start to wonder who was really the crazier of the two. Sure, if you were asked to identify the psychological weak link of a production you would probably go with the guy who is screaming himself hoarse for a half-hour stretch because the catering had fallen short of his standards. But it was the perennially calm director who arguably out-crazied even his incendiary star. Herzog played crazy as a long game. It is one thing to imagine an opera-obsessed entrepreneur dragging a steamboat over a hill; it is quite another thing to subject hundreds of people to the fulfilment of that idea in the South American jungle in the most appalling conditions. It was a calculating madness which harnessed Kinski’s more demonstrative demons to its own ends. His directorial approach was often simply to provoke Kinski into an ungovernable rage before shouting “action”. And Herzog didn’t necessarily need Kinski around to get his crazy on. Witness the extraordinary cinematic K-hole that is Heart of Glass, Herzog’s 1976 film in which the entire cast performed under hypnosis.
Like Francis Bacon, who claimed never to sketch out his canvases before painting, Kinski was at pains to hide his craft. But Herzog, who shared an apartment with Kinski reports not only the inevitable outbreaks of hysteria (including one impressive incident lasting 48 hours), but also the rigour with which he trained his voice. So yes, you can find clips of Kinski flipping comprehensively out, but he was first and foremost a superlative artist who deserves to be remembered for more than just his intermittent furies. Here, then, is a preview of the last Herzog/Kinski film, Cobra Verde: