Portrait of a madman: My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog, 1999)


“In the urine of a donkey in heat/in snakes’ poison, old hags’ spittle/in dog shit and foul bathwater/in wolf’s milk, gall of oxen and flooded latrines/in this juice thou shalt stew the slanderers.”

So goes a reading by actor Klaus Kinski, from poetry by François Villon, as excerpted in Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend. It’s not hard to picture Herzog as the target, especially since he plays the monologue over a shot of his own face; this documentary about the relationship between the two men shows Kinski to have been capable of incredible wrath, frequently directed at Herzog. Dead since 1991, Kinski’s perspective on Herzog, with whom he made five films, is either absent or downplayed by Herzog himself. His monologue about slanderers, however, was no doubt one that Herzog carefully selected, if only as a bizarre bit of humour.

My Best Fiend is not remotely impartial, but it makes no object of being more than personal. We are not told the story of Kinski’s life, or shown an overview of his career. Rather, we largely get Herzog’s opinions of Kinski, with insights from a few others, and are left to take the film as it is. This view may be limited, but it is a vivid one. Herzog illustrates his points with new footage of his visits to locations of his earlier films, a few interviews and photos, and also clips of Kinski from various sources, including Burden of Dreams, about the tumultuous making of Fitzcarraldo. He shows some of Kinski’s best moments, and some of his worst.

Murder is a frequent topic when it comes to Kinski. While filming Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he used a sword to strike an actor on the head; the man was only saved from death by the helmet he wore, and still bears a scar. At another time, Kinski fired a gun into a tent full of people. In response to Kinski’s threat to walk away from Fitzcarraldo mid-filming, Herzog claimed he would shoot the actor and then himself. The Indians working on the film were so disturbed by Kinski that they offered to kill him as a favour.

It should not be particularly surprising that Kinski was also capable of being kind and gentle. Herzog includes a few filmed moments and anecdotes that show this. He claims that Kinski’s autobiography exaggerated the animosity between the two of them, that the two of them concocted some of the insults together, even, and that they were indeed friends. The viewer must, perhaps, be dubious about Herzog’s honesty at every turn. Most interestingly, he talks about any warm feelings he has for Kinski as though he wishes they didn’t exist.

My Best Fiend provokes questions about cinema and art. Why was Herzog so drawn to Kinski? The actor and his offscreen behaviour is inextricable from any consideration of their films, but did he make them better? Most people who like them would say, emphatically, yes. Indeed, the excerpts of Mick Jagger’s scenes from Fitzcarraldo, later refilmed with Kinski replacing Jagger and Jason Robards, are rather terrifying. But is the genuine suffering caused by Kinski, and by Herzog’s willingness to work with him, justified? We benefit from Kinski’s performances, appreciating his madness from a safe distance – but are probably fortunate if we’ve never met him.

And what about the Roman Polanski question? How far an artist can be extricated from their work? More recently, this has become still more relevant to Kinski. His daughter Pola has alleged that he raped her as a young child. There’s no mention of this in My Best Fiend –before interviewing Eva Mattes, Herzog says that she’s one of the few women who had something positive to say about Kinski, and leaves it at that– but what we learn about Kinski here, even what we see incontrovertibly captured on camera, is enough to forever influence how the viewer sees him.

My Best Fiend is far too focused on Werner Herzog to be a complete character study of Klaus Kinski. It reveals near as much about its director, perhaps, as it does about its subject. Despite its inward tendency, however, it raises complex questions, even as it makes for an entertaining documentary. As a companion piece to the five Herzog/Kinski films, it is unmissable.


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