For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about one of the strangest actor/director partnerships in the history of the cinema. There have been many famous ones, such as Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, and Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher; but the strangest of all was between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.
I say “strangest” because Kinski was that most unusual combination: A brilliant actor and a raving maniac. According to his friend and mentor Werner Herzog, Kinski was a complete egomaniac. When he felt that attention was being diverted away from him, Kinski went off the rails. He would start screaming with his eyes at the maximum bug-eyed setting, with his face at times two inches away from whomever he was directing his rant, During the filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982), the chief of the Amazonian Indians in the cast asked Herzog’s permission to kill him. This story is recounted in Herzog’s book about the making of the film, The Conquest of the Useless.
And yet, there have been few actors quite as outstanding and natural as Kinski. He knew how to make an impression onscreen. At times he could be loving and tender, as he was with Claudia Cardinale in Fitzcarraldo and Eva Mattes in Woyzeck (1979).At worst, he was a disruptive force that could destroy a film production and leave it a gutted ruin.
Why, considering this reputation, did Herzog decided to make five films with Kinski? These films were Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972); Nosferatu the Vampire (1979); Woyzeck (1979); Fitzcarraldo (1982); and Cobra Verde (1987). Three or four of these would be considered in any list of Herzog’s best films—and Kinski’s, as well!
After Kinski died of a heart attack in 1991, Herzog directed a documentary about his contentious, and yet rewarding relationship, with the actor which he called My Best Fiend (1999). To see an excerpt from this documentary, click here.
And now we come to the strangest part of the story. The bug-eyed demon, Klaus Kinski, was the father of one of the most beautiful actresses who ever lived, Nastassja Kinski. The daughter did not have an easy relationship with her father:
“He was no father. 99 percent of the time I was terrified of him. He was so unpredictable that the family lived in constant terror.” When asked what she would say to him now, if she had the chance, she replied: “I would do anything to put him behind bars for life. I am glad he is no longer alive.”
She managed to escape being sexually abused by Kinski, but just barely.
I find it surpassingly odd that someone so out of it as Klaus Kinski could work successfully with a director like Herzog and give birth to a woman with such unearthly beauty as Nastassja.