May 14, 2009

My Best Fiend (2000)

WHEN IT COMES TO longstanding director/actor partnerships, a few pairs of names come to mind. Scorsese and DeNiro. Fincher and Pitt. Kurosawa and Mifune.

But for casual or younger moviegoers, probably one of the lesser known pairings was that of German director Werner Herzog and mercurial actor Klaus Kinski.

Herzog and Kinski made five films together between 1972 and 1987, and each was plagued with Kinski’s outrageous demands, tirades, and threats to walk off the set. (His antics put Christian Bale [NSFW] to shame.)

This love/hate relationship is the basis for Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend, in which he chronicles his (mis)adventures of making movies with Kinski – telling stories about Kinski’s craziness through his own experiences and first-person accounts from a handful of interview subjects.

• From the opening scene of My Best Fiend – archive footage of Kinski lambasting a crowd of people from a stage, then nearly starting a fistfight with a stagehand – we get a taste of his ability to verbally abuse and instigate anyone who he feels deserves his wrath.
• In the course of the film, Herzog visits locations of the films he shot with Kinski, including the mountains and rivers of Peru (Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo) and a town square in the Czech Republic (Woyzeck).

It’s easy to say that My Best Fiend is inherently biased, since Kinski isn’t alive to tell his side of the story (he died in 1991 at age 65). But there’s plenty of video evidence beyond My Best Fiend to indicate that Kinski was a pisser to deal with – not just in moviemaking, but in interviews as well.
• Herzog offers a few behind-the-curtain revelations about him and Kinski: He debunks the myth that he pulled a gun on Kinski on the set of Aguirre; he did help ghostwrite Kinski’s rare, explosive autobiography; and once, he actually planned to firebomb Kinski at his home!
Herzog does show some moments of compassion and unity from Kinski, particularly during the grueling Fitzcarraldo shoot. We see Kinski help bandage an injured cameraman’s hand, and later, as Herzog is about to shoot a dangerous scene on the film’s large (and damaged) boat with a skeleton crew, Kinski tells him: “If you go on board, I’m coming with you. If you sink, I shall sink too.”
• While Herzog may be an acclaimed director, he’s not the most compelling storyteller. His monotone delivery of outrageous stories about Kinski is a bit disjarring.
• Herzog’s interviews are dubbed from German to English, but all foreign-language footage of Kinski (both in film clips and his frenzied outtakes) is not translated. This is a shame if not a crime – it leaves the viewer with Kinski’s rage but not his reasons, however delusional or demented they may have been.
• The long passages of undubbed footage, combined with Herzog’s dreary narration, make My Best Fiend feel a lot longer than its 99 minutes. (I watched it for free at YouTube’s newly launched Movies section; by the last 15 minutes, I was checking email and merely glancing at the film.)

I was hoping for more from My Best Fiend. Actual tirades and fights by Kinski have limited screen time (most are simply recollected by Herzog and his interview subjects). Sorry, but when your film’s poster and box art have an enraged Kinski with a sword to Herzog’s throat, the viewer expects the majority of Kinski’s volatility to be shown, not told.

German, with dubbing.

For an additional taste of Kinski’s on-set insanity, watch this short, funny-because-it-wasn’t-you documentary by director David Schmoeller, “Please Kill Mr. Kinski.” In it, he tells the story of trying to direct Kinski in the 1986 film Crawlspace:

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
I can’t see any kid wanting to watch this film. Even for older kids or teens who study film, watching My Best Fiend will feel like homework.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Depends whether she knows who Herzog and Kinski are. If she’s a fan of their work, she may be willing to sit through the film. Otherwise, there’s no compelling reason for her to do so.

My Best Fiend

* Director: Werner Herzog
* Screenwriter: Werner Herzog
* Stars: Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Claudia Cardinale, Justo González
* MPAA Rating: Unrated

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James (SeattleDad) said...

Have heard of Herzog but not Kinski. Sounds like a grade A ass.

Keith said...

I'm a big fan of both men. I'll have to check this out.

Bob Ignizio said...

I think if you would have watched this on DVD with subtitles you would have rated it higher. That's a shame that the version you watched didn't offer any translation of Kinski's rants.


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