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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Partners In Crime: Herzog & Kinski

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations:

The history of filmmaking is full of tempestuous actors and demanding directors, and no combination of the two has ever been as volatile as that of actor Klaus Kinski and director Werner Herzog. Kinski is best known for the gallery of mentally unbalanced characters he played, characters who seemed to mirror his own intense and unpredictable personality. Of the two, Herzog was the sane one - and Werner Herzog is friggin' crazy. He's a man who once got shot while doing an interview and then dismissed his injury as being the result of an insignificant bullet. That these two men made it through one film without killing each other is amazing; that they went on to make five, and brought out the best in each other, is miraculous.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Herzog and Kinski wasted no time, starting their collaboration with the film that is their best and most intense. The story of Spanish Conquistadors in search of El Dorado, the madness of their quest exemplified by the title character who usurps the role of leader, Aguirre is a stripped down but relentlessly thrilling film. Herzog hired Kinski specifically because he seemed like a crazy person, which made for a particularly troubled production - not only did Kinski shoot the tip off an extra's finger because he and some crew members were playing a loud game of cards, but Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski if he left the jungle location - but the director was able to reign the actor in enough that the film has the feeling of controlled chaos. Aguirre is arguably Kinski's signature role and his performance, and the film itself, is absolutely mesmerizing.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

It took 7 years for Herzog and Kinski to come together again, and when they did it was for a remake of one of the defining horror movies of the silent era. Their remake of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu finds Kinski stepping into the very creepy shoes of Max Schreck to play Count Orlock, and Herzog framing the character less as a monster than as a tragic figure whose immortality has sentenced him to a lifetime of loneliness and depravity. This isn't to say that Orlock is sympathetic, per se, as Kinski's performance is too hard edged to allow for that, but Herzog is able to frame the character in such a way that the desolation of his existence comes out even as he takes the role of villain.

Woyzeck (1979)

Filmed in only 18 days, and starting just 5 days after the pair finished Nosferatu, Herzog and Kinksi teamed up again for Woyzeck and, after two films where Kinski played the outright aggressor, here he plays a character who spends much of the film being victimized - at least until he finally snaps. Kinski has such an intense, dominating screen presence that it's difficult to imagine him playing a subservient character and so his performance in Woyzeck really does have to be seen to be believed. Herzog's direction is subtle, not taking the epic proportions of Aguirre or the dreadful beauty of Nosferatu, but its quiet flourishes allow Kinski's performance to be the total focal point.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo is the most unique film among the Herzog/Kinski collaborations. Although it shares Aguirre's thematic concerns with the lengths men go to as they chase their obsessions, this film is lighter in tone and the title character is perhaps the least crazy character Kinski ever played. Brian Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald has an impossible plan to transport a steamer from one river to another by moving it over land, and the fact that Herzog decided to make the movie by trying to do just that probably tells you everything you need to know about why the filmmaker seems to have such great affection for the character. I'm not sure Kinski has ever played a gentler character than Fitzcarraldo - I mean, in this movie Kinski even smiles. With happiness instead of insanity.

Cobra Verde (1987)

Of their five collaborations, Cobra Verde is perhaps the strangest. I'm not sure there's any other way to describe a film which finds Kinski, at one point, leading an army of spear carrying women. The titular character is a slave trader in Ghana who, like so many characters in Kinski/Herzog films, has ambitions that surpass the limits of sanity. The film is not really on the same level as their best work together, which may be a result of their professional relationship hitting the breaking point during the film's making, but if there's one thing you can say about all the Herzog/Kinski collaborations, it's that they're never boring. This is a flawed film, to be sure, and not the strongest note that they could have ended on, but the film has its own unique virtues.

My Best Fiend (1999)

Kinski died in 1991, but Cobra Verde wouldn't be the final word on his partnership with Herzog. My Best Fiend is Herzog's documentary about the actor, in which the director meditates on their volatile working and personal relationship. The documentary is an absolutely fascinating piece of work perfectly befitting this rich, bizarre, and boundary pushing collaboration.

Next Time: Lee & Washington

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