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A fiendish friend

Posted at 3:31 PM on November 27, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Of all the great cinematic collaborations the working relationship between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski was one of the strangest.

Herzog once told Kinski he'd pump eight bullets into his head after the notoriously petulant star announced he was quitting and leaving "Fitzcarraldo" which they were shooting in a remote area in the Amazonian rain forest. He later actively planned to firebomb Kinski's house.

A few years after Kinski died in 1991, Herzog made what is ultimately a tribute to Kinski called "My Best Fiend." It's a fascinating film, which became part of our Thanksgiving. It's well worth watching even if you are not a Herzog fan.

It's a portrait of two extremists, what Herzog calls "the perfect combination of the mad people."

On the one hand you have Kinski: an ego-maniac known for his towering rages which could blow up at a moments notice. However he was a natural actor who could produce performances which sear into an audiences memory, whether it be as a failed conquistador swarmed by monkeys in "Aguirre, Wrath of God," a rivitingly repulsive Dracula in "Nosferatu," or the opera obsessed entrepreneur in "Fitzcarraldo."

On the other hand there is the outwardly normal seeming Herzog, who is a mass of obsessions and ideas, some which are expressed through his films, others through the way he lives his life, such as his habit of spontaneously deciding to walk long distances, or jump out of high windows.

If you believe Herzog, he and Kinski both loved and hated each other. He tells a story of sitting down with Kinski to come up with a list of damning negatives which Kinski could use to describe him. Kinski thought it would spice up sales if he used them in his autobiography, and Herzog was glad to oblige.

Here's an example from Klaus Kinski: Uncut "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, blackmailing, cowardly, thoroughly dishonest creep. His so-called 'talent' consists of nothing but tormenting helpless creatures and, if necessary, torturing them to death or simply murdering them. ... Every scene, every angle, every shot is determined by me. ... I can at least partly save the movie from being wrecked by Herzog's bungling," he wrote.

In "My Best Fiend" Herzog uses extracts and outtakes from his films with Kinski to provide an explanation, or at least an effort at explaining why they liked working together, and why it worked despite the underlying threat of homicidal violence.

It may not be a successful explanation, but it's very good cinema.

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