Conforming to the maverick stereotype, Klaus Kinski was a true original, writes Paul Fennessy.
The term ‘actor’ can only be applied loosely to the late German star, Klaus Kinski. Considering that he routinely played an obsessive madcap type figure, it will be of little surprise to learn that he often came across this way in real life. From performing a one man Jesus tour (in which he recast Christ as a raving lunatic) to staring down his director’s shotgun, Kinski was the epitome of the eccentric artist.
Ultimately however, it’s his films that he will be remembered for. At his best, Kinski’s penetrating gaze and enigmatic presence captivated audiences, adding an extra layer of intensity to the pictures in which he starred.
The air of desperation with which he imbued his performances was perhaps a direct result of the difficult circumstances in his life that coincided with his initial acting experiences. Having been interned in a British POW camp during the Second World War, he determinedly put on performances for his fellow prisoners night after night.
After his release from prison following the war’s end, Kinski went on to pursue a full time acting career, appearing in several theatrical productions and over 130 films thereafter.Yet regardless of his prolific output, he will forever be inextricably linked with his work on the five films in which he collaborated with legendary director Werner Herzog.
At his best, Kinski’s penetrating gaze and enigmatic presence captivated audiences and added an extra layer of intensity to the pictures in which he starred
The duo’s first and arguably most successful collaboration was Aguirre: Wrath of God, a picture which rivals Apocalypse Now as the best film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness novel.
In Aguirre, Kinski delivers a performance which is every bit as haunting and edgy as Brando’s more famous depiction of Colonel Kurtz in the film’s Hollywood equivalent. Through his perpetually intense expression, he perfectly conveys the inherent madness which causes the movie’s protagonist to lead his crew on a near suicidal mission across the Peruvian jungles in an attempt to retrieve hidden gold. His character’s struggle mirrored the struggles off set. As shooting drew to a close, the relationship between Kinski and Herzog had reportedly become so fractious that the director at one stage pulled a gun on Kinski, in order to prevent him from abandoning the project.
In spite and perhaps partly because of all this adversity, the two emerged from the experience having created one of the masterpieces of European cinema.
In Woyzeck, 1978, his second collaboration with Herzog, Kinski portrayed a soldier who has been conditioned to kill by his commanding officer, becoming completely dehumanized in the process.
Although the film itself was uneven, Kinski retained his ability to astonish audiences with another virtuoso acting display.
This project highlighted the innate understanding between Herzog and Kinski and their unique relationship spawned three more accomplished works- Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. After Kinski’s death in 1991 from a heart attack, Herzog chronicled his experiences working with the actor, in a memorable documentary entitled: My Best Fiend.
In this insightful piece of cinema, Herzog manages to create a more detailed picture of Klaus Kinski’s personality without completely debunking the level of mystique surrounding him. He confirms that their relationship was regularly tempestuous and plaintively states: ‘Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski’. While Herzog’s less than fond recollections of Kinski, along with the bizarre and disturbing behaviour which he seemed privy to, indicate that Kinski was probably not the finest human being that ever lived, his work tells a different story.
Using film as an outlet for all the deficiencies and frustrations of his personal life, he provided cinema goers with a style of acting rarely seen before or since. As a young Kinski once replied to an enthusiastic theatre critic who had commented that his performance was ‘excellent’: ‘I was not excellent! I was not extraordinary! I was monumental! I was epochal!’