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My Best Fiend

Director Werner Herzog and the late actor Klaus Kinski were like a battling couple who could live neither with nor without each other. In this personal docu, Herzog describes and analyzes their perverse relationship, which embraced everything from intense artistic inspiration to desires to kill each other.

Director Werner Herzog and the late actor Klaus Kinski were like a battling couple who could live neither with nor without each other. In this personal docu, Herzog describes and analyzes their perverse relationship, which embraced everything from intense artistic inspiration to desires to kill each other. Unfortunately, there is insufficient behind-the-scenes footage and material that’s really new here to quite justify the pic’s feature length. But the anecdotes about the actor, who was so temperamental, abusive and uncontrollable that he was often placed in the “mad genius” category, are generally amusing, if repetitive, and buffs with at least a passing interest in the director-actor combo will find this over-relaxed item entertaining, if much less illuminating than Les Blank’s classic docu about the shooting of “Fitzcarraldo,” “Burden of Dreams.” TV sources funded it, and these will rep pic’s primary outlet, although fests and specialized theatrical venues should bite as well.

The two men made five remarkable films together between 1972 and 1987, including “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Nosferatu” and “Fitzcarraldo.”

After presenting footage of Kinski in full rant spouting dubious remarks about Jesus before a large audience, Herzog conducts the viewer on a tour of the Munich apartment which, by chance, the struggling Kinski shared with the 13-year-old Herzog and latter’s family in the mid-’50s. The young actor pulled egomaniacal and destructive stunts even then, so Herzog was in no way unprepared for the self-styled genius’ antics when they began working together years later.

To set the scene for their initial collaboration, Herzog returns to Peru, where the haunting “Aguirre” was shot on an astounding $370,000 budget. In overly leisurely fashion, helmer points out locations where various scenes were filmed while recalling moments when the weather and other factors made him believe that providence would be on his side during the arduous shoot.

His confidence was sorely tested, however; a local actor reveals the scar he still has, a souvenir of Kinski whacking him on the head with a sword, and the familiar story is recalled of how Kinski decided to walk off the shoot well before the finish, a move Herzog had to counter with a threat to kill him.

Subsequent footage of thesp screaming at the production manager of “Fitzcarraldo” and stories of how the native Indians so mistrusted Kinski that they suggested killing him at the end of production are balanced by glowing portraits by co-stars Eva Mattes, from “Woyzeck,” and Claudia Cardinale, from “Fitzcarraldo,” both of whom praise the man for his ultra-professionalism and brilliant work.

Herzog, who is the picture of reason and composure in both archival and new footage, serves up plenty of well-considered theories about Kinski’s character — his simultaneous bravery and timidity, his extremes of violence and tenderness, his ultimate burnout prior to his death in 1991 — and admits to their deep complicity: “We complemented one another. I needed him and he needed me.”

But altogether too much of the docu is devoted to shots of Herzog himself talking directly to the camera or wandering around the sites of past glory, without offering any background or speculation about why Kinski behaved as he did, or why no director other than Herzog ever chose to work with him a second time.

Clips from all of the Herzog-Kinski collaborations amply convey thesp’s talents, and video taken at the Telluride Film Festival shows the pair in mutual-admiration-society mode. Tech quality is excellent for the mostly German-lingo pic.

My Best Fiend

German

  • Production: A Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/Cafe Production Ltd./Zephir Film GmbH co-production for the BBC, in collaboration with WDR, Arte, BR, YLE, with the participation of the Independent Film Channel. (International sales: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion World Sales, Munich.) Produced by Lucki Stipetic. Executive producers, Andre Singer, Christine Ruppert. Directed, narrated by Werner Herzog.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Peter Zeitlinger; editor, Joe Bini; sound (Dolby), Eric Spitzer; assistant director, Herbert Golder. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting), May 17, 1999. Running time: 98 MIN.
  • With: <b>Narrator:</b> Werner Herzog.
  • Music By: