My Best Fiend

This annotation previously appeared in Senses of Cinema, no. 19,  2002, and Issue 41, 2006.

My Best Fiend (1999 Germany 98 mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod. Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion Exec Prod: Christine Ruppert, Andre Singer Prod: Lucki Stipetic Dir: Werner Herzog Phot: Peter Zeitlinger Ed: Joe Bini Mus: Popol Vuh

With: Claudia Cardinale, Werner Herzog, Mick Jagger, Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes, Jason Robards.

By some collision of fate, Klaus Kinski, the subject of My Best Fiend, lived briefly in the Munich boarding house where a 13 year-old Werner Herzog shared a room with his mother and two brothers. The teenager could never have guessed that the young actor whose antics included locking himself in the bathroom to smash tub and toilet to a consistency that could be “sifted through a tennis racket” would one day star in films that he himself would direct. In My Best Fiend, Herzog retraces Kinski’s path through the remodelled boarding home for the edification of its present-day, politely appalled occupants. The impecunious actor who knocked a door off its hinges because his collars weren’t pressed right by a landlady he could not pay was also a disciplined autodidact, Herzog assures them, locking himself in a closet for ten-hour stretches to practice vocal exercises. To the promise of a good notice for a small part in a play that he appeared in Kinski threw hot food in the face of the well-intentioned critic and shrieked, “I was not excellent. I was not extraordinary. I was monumental. I was epochal.”

Herzog revisits the sites of Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) on the Amazon tributaries of Peru and recalls the bombastic egocentrism that made Kinski the biggest problem with production besides the budgets. Kinski arrived on the locale of Aguirre fresh from a “Jesus tour,” arena appearances in which he played a raving saviour quoting great tracts of bilious gospel. He so identified with the role he continued to live in it as a derided, misunderstood Jesus, though what Herzog needed was a ruthless 16th century Spanish conquistador.

To the set Kinski brought rages of “unimaginable proportions” prompted by any irritant – the food, mosquitoes, rain, or noise. When he forget his lines he would look for a victim to rage at who may have grinned or whispered at just the wrong time. One night the extras were cavorting and tippling after a long shoot, Kinski became so enraged he took a Winchester and fired three bullets into the tent of 45 men. By some fluke no one was killed, but he did shoot the fingertip off of one merrymaker. Any emergency on the set would marginalize Kinski – take him out of the spotlight – and prompt a rave.

But Herzog would exploit Kinski’s propensity for mania. For Aguirre he would provoke Kinski to a rage and then shoot – the aftermath of Kinski’s frenzy was the ideal histrionic medium for “Aguirre’s madness.” The rages prompted the Campas Indian extras in Fitzcarrraldo to offer to kill Kinski. Herzog exploited their sentiment in a scene in which the Campas chief and his followers surround Fitzcarraldo and crew while they eat in the galley of their grounded steamboat. The chief harangues Fitzcarraldo/Kinski in a discomforting riot act veiled in his own language. Exploitation runs from film set to story since Fitzcarraldo also exploits the Indian myth of a white god who will deliver them from pain and death to enlist their labour in towing his steamship over a mountain.

The wrath of Kinski stormed upon a blameless Herzog, innocent of everything but his venture, though it might bear considering that Aguirre opens at 15,000 feet in the Andean mountains on a slick vertical descent and the rest of the shoot is spent on Indian-made rafts cutting through solid jungle via the turbulent, opaque Urubambu River. And Fitzcarraldo does not simulate its task – an Amazonian steamboat was heaved up one side of a mountain and down to the river on the other, clearing jungle-density growth from its path. The 300-ton steamboat, cast and crew aboard, does flop on its side in the fierce rapids and rams into a rock face that bends its keel like a sardine can. All the while Herzog kept the camera rolling. Clearing a swathe of rainforest up the mountain face, a tree-cutter was bitten by a deadly chuchupe snake. With serum twenty minutes away and two minutes to cardiac arrest, he cut off his foot to contain the venom. Working for Herzog was a dangerous profession.

What may be admirable in an exposé like My Best Fiend is that it shows the undertakings to be as dangerous as they were Herculean. In fact, the film improbably risks identification with Kinski over Herzog. Kinski was not good in an emergency, but he wasn’t complaining about a bad manicure. Five people flying to the remote location were critically injured when the plane crashed, a sixth paralyzed. An engineer quit the hauling project citing a seventy percent chance of catastrophe. The first Fitzcarraldo, Jason Robards, Jr., became so ill in Peru he had to be evacuated and was not permitted to return on doctor’s orders. A border war was pending with Ecuador that threatened Indian claims to the territory. Armies and oil companies were difficult to fight with bows and arrows but a film crew might make an easy target…. It took over four years to complete shooting from the first day of pre-production. Kinski’s tirades seem understandable when the catalogue of hazards and difficulties and the atmosphere of risk and angst are taken into account.

So why did Herzog work with his “fiend” on five feature films? He claims they complemented each other, though Kinski could not admit it. They understood one another without words “almost like animals.” Kinski wrote “terrible things” about Herzog in his autobiography, but Herzog assisted him in coming up with vile expletives for their bond. Kinski may have been dangerous on the set, but Herzog admits to his own plan to firebomb Kinski in his house, prevented only by a vigilant watchdog. Herzog describes their closeness as such that they almost changed roles, and vouches for a human warmth in Kinski, who died at his home outside San Francisco in 1991, having spent himself “like a comet.”

In the rise and fall of the Amazon, Herzog saw a metaphor for their ups and downs, but more apt was Herzog’s relationship to the tropical jungle that he found to be “ferocious” with a “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” He didn’t hate the jungle though, but admired it. In fact, he loved it against his better judgment.

To Kinski, Herzog offered films of that epic quality he aimed for back in Munich. In the grudge match between the two, it might be significant that the raves that so frightened the Indians had a tandem quality: they were not afraid of Kinski as much as Herzog because he was so quiet. It may be true after all: you’re your own best fiend.