The Strange Allure of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski

Despite their lasting animosity, the two titans of New German Cinema produced a provocative and thought-provoking body of work together.
Aguirre The Wrath Of God
New Yorker Films
By  · Published on November 12th, 2018

From John Huston and Humphrey Bogart to Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, cinema has regularly gifted us with fruitful director-actor partnerships. Comprising a dedicated muse and a filmmaker’s collaboration across several films, these duos allow us to observe the pair’s growth as artists over time. These partnerships are often noted for the offscreen friendship between the two parties, as well as their professional and personal admiration for each other, a la Billy Wilder and Jack LemmonNew German Cinema icons Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, meanwhile, constitute one of the most gripping relationships in film — and the most explosive.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, filmmaker Herzog and actor Kinski filmed five astounding movies together. Kinski’s unbridled rage and unpredictable mood swings clashed with Herzog’s abject stubbornness, often resulting in death threats, tantrums, and downright sinister arguments offscreen. Herzog and Kinski’s combative dynamic has generated much intrigue from fans, critics, and filmmakers (including Herzog himself, who chronicled their enmity in the illuminating documentary My Best Fiend). For those uninitiated to Herzog and Kinski’s madness, The Solomon Society provides a fascinating look into the duo’s tumultuous partnership in their own short documentary, which you should watch below.

The Solomon Society’s video essay documentary includes archival footage spanning from the early ’70s to the present, plus film clips and insightful voiceover to immerse us in the lifelong perils of Herzog and Kinski’s relationship. Through an examination of Herzog and Kinski’s collaborated films (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu, the Vampyre, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde), the video explores how the partnership fueled some of the duo’s career zeniths, all the while threatening the men’s respective patience and sanity.

Before Herzog began working with Kinski, he had already fostered a reputation for being one of the most radical and fearless directors in Germany. As seen with Even Dwarfs Started Small, the provocative Herzog found himself drawn to filming in unfamiliar locations and discovered his skill at capturing the chaos and oddities of life. By his seventh film, the enigmatic Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog found Kinski as the perfect madman to elevate his films to new narrative heights. However, as the Solomon Society’s video notes, Herzog was exposed to Kinski’s capricious antics at an early age — the two lived in the same boarding house for three months.

The prolific Kinski was an already established German actor with over 75 acting credits at the genesis of their relationship, though Aguirre nonetheless demonstrates Kinski’s capabilities as an artist. In one of the most memorable film performances ever, Kinski’s physicality — his cold and giant blue eyes, thick lips, and lopsided walk — embodies the unhinged menace central to Aguirre’s character. Kinski appears as though he could explode at any unprompted moment, which is fitting for a film adamant to illustrating human susceptibility to delusion and madness.

In addition to a starving crew and the disappearance of the film’s negatives, Aguirre’s nightmarish production also entailed bitter hostility between Herzog and Kinski, which would endure for four more collaborations across 15 years. The actor and director argued over the portrayal of the titular Aguirre; Herzog desired a more subdued performance, while Kinski wanted to be grandiose and outlandish. As recounted in an extracted interview between Herzog and David Letterman, the actor and director’s mounting toxicity culminated when Herzog threatened to kill Kinski after the actor prepared to quit the film.

Instead of outright firing Kinski, Herzog often nourished the actor’s diva behavior and unwarranted tantrums on set, as they often led to Kinski delivering an intensified, unnerving screen presence. This tactic, while enabling and unhealthy, demonstrates Herzog’s skill at eliciting Kinski’s best, most disturbing performances. Herzog intuitively knew Kinski could epitomize the derangement of Aguirre’s character, and the director tolerated remarkable levels of petulance to bring his desired energy and realism to the screen.

In its exploration of Herzog and Kinski, the video doesn’t merely portray Kinski as the deranged actor and Herzog as the level-headed director. Rather, through the extracted clips, we see how Herzog’s enabling of Kinski and devotion to achieving a grand spectacle in his films brought his crew to the brink of insanity. We see Kinski bully a crew member, while Herzog stands by stoically and refuses to defend his employees. We receive a glimpse into Werzog’s grueling decision to haul a steamboat over a small mountain for the sublime Fitzcarraldo, rather than rely on special effects. In regards to Kinski’s manic and cruel behavior, Herzog remarks, “Normally all the other actors would turn against me — ‘how could you do that to us? To have such a madman on the set?’ And my own crew would turn against me…” in an interview.

While Herzog’s steadfast commitment to his own art may seem idealistic on a surface level, his willingness to repeatedly cast Kinski and force his crew to endure in harsh conditions illuminate the more sinister, morally corrupt streaks to his character. Through the video’s inclusion of Herzog’s “survival of the fittest” approach to filmmaking, we begin the stubbornness and masochism informing Herzog’s decision to employ Kinski as his muse.

Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration consisted of inflated egos, massive contradictions, and undeniably terrific films. While Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are the obvious standouts, even the duo’s lesser efforts are worthwhile. Kinski imbues surprising pathos in his performance as Count Dracula in Nosferatu the Vampyre, wherein Herzog adds moments of his original, fearless, and personal directorial voice while paying homage to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Kinski delivers one of his most fragile performance as a suspicious, psychologically damaged, and hopeless soldier in the lackluster Woyzeck, and the actor’s eccentric performance elevates the incomprehensible plot of his last film with Herzog, Cobra Verde.

While Kinski and Herzog clashed with each other, their thunderous collaboration sparked an insurmountable creativity and a few masterpieces of cinema. The video wonderfully concludes with a poignant interview between the duo; Herzog remarks,

“I know the energy and the so-called insanity [of Kinski]…and I know how to evoke it, how to bring it to life. That’s why he feels safe when we work together because he knows that I can bring his innermost qualities into life in front of the camera.”

Personal upheaval aside, Herzog and Kinski deeply understood each other. It’s not surprising the duo reunited so many times — when they joined forces, they brought out each other’s strengths and helped rehabilitate German cinema along the way.

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