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Without a doubt the most intense and perhaps insane actor ever to grace the silver screen, Klaus Kinski tapped into his dark inner reaches to deliver a number of spellbinding performances that often bordered on psychosis. With a deep furrowed brow overhanging large malefic eyes that heightened his manic intensity while betraying no inner vulnerability, Kinski had a long, notorious career that both fed on and was complicated by his monumental ego. Though he appeared in over 250 films, the five he made with German compatriot, director Werner Herzog, were the stuff of filmmaking legend. Their combative and codependent collaboration started with "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), and resumed years later with "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979), "Woyzeck" (1979) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982). All throughout their partnership, both concurrently despised and needed one another, creating an artistic energy neither matched with any other collaborator. Their long-running partnership, which also was a stormy friendship, generated the best work either made in their careers - though often at great emotional, psychological and even physical harm - and ended 15 years after it began with "Cobra Verde" (1987), their least...
Without a doubt the most intense and perhaps insane actor ever to grace the silver screen, Klaus Kinski tapped into his dark inner reaches to deliver a number of spellbinding performances that often bordered on psychosis. With a deep furrowed brow overhanging large malefic eyes that heightened his manic intensity while betraying no inner vulnerability, Kinski had a long, notorious career that both fed on and was complicated by his monumental ego. Though he appeared in over 250 films, the five he made with German compatriot, director Werner Herzog, were the stuff of filmmaking legend. Their combative and codependent collaboration started with "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), and resumed years later with "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979), "Woyzeck" (1979) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982). All throughout their partnership, both concurrently despised and needed one another, creating an artistic energy neither matched with any other collaborator. Their long-running partnership, which also was a stormy friendship, generated the best work either made in their careers - though often at great emotional, psychological and even physical harm - and ended 15 years after it began with "Cobra Verde" (1987), their least accomplished effort. Though together for only a fraction of their creative outputs, it was impossible to talk of either one without mentioning the other. For Kinski, the collaboration with Herzog proved fruitful artistically, but damaging and soul-wrecking in private.
Kinski was born on Oct. 18, 1926 in Danzig, Poland, then a free city before the Nazis invaded in 1939. His father, Bruno, was a pharmacist and failed opera singer, and mother, Susanne, was a nurse and a pastor's daughter. The family moved to Berlin in 1931 during the depression where they became nationalized Germans. Kinski later claimed in his autobiography that he grew up poor, washing corpses for a living and scrounging for bread - a tale some have disputed as a reinvention to boost his mad poet-actor persona, but many accepted as gospel. When he was 16, Kinski was conscripted into the German army during World War II, but while in Holland on a training exercise he deserted his unit and was captured by the British. It was while in a British POW camp that Kinski began performing on stage for his fellow prisoners of war. After being captive for over a year, Kinski was released in 1946 and was allowed to return to Germany, where kicked around Berlin doing theater and living in the streets.
With no formal training, Kinski set out to become an actor and joined a number of theater companies, many of which were unable to handle the already difficult-to-control actor. In 1950, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia, which hindered his career and led to a pair of suicide attempts. Prior to that, however he did make his film debut in the World War II drama "Morituri" (1948), playing a Danish prisoner in a concentration camp. Soon after he made his first English-language movie, "Decision Before Dawn" (1951), and had a walk-on role as an overeager Nazi defector. By the mid-1950s, Kinski had found regular work as a bit actor, appearing in numerous films of American and European origin. It was around this time that he moved into a small Munich boarding house where a 13-year-old Werner Herzog was living with his mother. As described later by Herzog - Kinski claimed to not remember him as a boy - the actor lived in a tiny room down the hall that was strangely filled knee-high in dried leaves. Kinski allegedly would lock himself in his room ranting and raving for hours, sometimes to practice his acting method. In one frightening rampage, Kinski locked himself in the bathroom next to Herzog's room for 48 hours and smashed everything to a fine dust - a clear sign of the insanity Herzog would deal with decades later.
Kinski gave a notable performance as a Gestapo lieutenant in another World War II drama, "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" (1958). He became a regular face by the late 1950s, though he was often typecast as a thug or madman, as he was in "The Dead Eyes of London" (1960), "The Inn on the River" (1962) and "The Door with Seven Locks" (1962) proved. Meanwhile, his reputation for polluting sets with unfettered ranting and his penchant for walking off mid-shoot were becoming legendary. Of the films he did complete, only few offered him a chance to display his enormous breadth of talent. After a small part in the American-made wartime spy thriller, "The Counterfeit Traitor" (1962), Kinski finally scored his chance to truly act - at least for five minutes of screen time - in David Lean's epic romance, "Doctor Zhivago" (1965). Kinski gained wider exposure from his short time in the Academy Award-winning film and soon appeared in Sergio Leone's "For A Few Dollars More" (1966), playing a hunchback whose neck is used to light a match by an aging bounty hunter (Lee Van Cleef) working with the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood).
Kinski's mystique grew with each new film while his continual work allowed him an extravagant lifestyle despite his relative obscurity. In fact, by the time he was married and living in Rome with second wife Ruth Brigitte Tocki and daughter Nastassja, who later became infamous in Hollywood in her own right, Kinski owned several luxury cars - and crashed a few - while eating food off of solid gold plates. Naturally, his choice in films depended more on the paycheck than the challenge of the role, as evidenced by the likes of "Our Man in Marrakesh" (1966), "The Bloody Dead" (1967) and "Five for Hell" (1967). He did, however, give a wildly sadistic performance as an outlaw who finds pleasure in killing the innocent poor in Sergio Corbucci's populist-minded spaghetti Western, "The Great Silence" (1968). Kinski returned to starring roles in lesser fare like "If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death" (1968), "Grand Slam" (1968) and "Count Dracula" (1969) and rounded out the decade with such schlock as "Puzzle of Horrors" (1969), "I'll Dig Your Grave" (1969) and "A Barrel Full of Dollars" (1970), all of which only confirmed his desire for a quick payout.
In the early 1970s, right before he began working with Herzog, Kinski went on what was dubbed the "Jesus Tour," a one-man show that played in large stadiums and arenas in which he took the stage proclaiming himself to be a new Jesus - albeit one that was a mad, ranting lunatic. The show was notorious throughout Germany, selling out to curiosity seekers interested in watching Kinski burst into frothing rage. At one performance, an audience member came onstage and refuted Kinski's portrayal, claiming that Jesus would never tell anyone to "shut up." Kinski snatched the microphone away, pushed the man aside while calling him names and stormed away from the jeering crowd. Kinski eventually stopped the tour, causing him to break several contracts. It was around this time that Herzog approached Kinski to star in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972). Despite the small paycheck due to Herzog's total budget of little more than $350,000, Kinski agreed.
Shot deep in the jungles of Peru, "Aguirre" was an historical epic about a doomed voyage taken by Spanish conquistadors in search of the mythical city of El Dorado and the filming of which became cinematic legend. The manic Kinski was a natural to play the ambitious and greedy Aguirre, who takes command of the expedition even unto to the death. Of course, Kinski was his typically abusive self behind the scenes, going off on wild tangents for untold numbers of reasons; Herzog later claimed Kinski ranted just to be the center of attention. One night while trying to sleep, Kinski heard a group of extras drinking and playing cards nearby, and fired three shots from his rifle into their tent. Luckily no one was killed, though one extra lost the tip of his finger. In another instance, Kinski committed another violent outburst while shooting a fight scene with several extras. In a mad rage, he swung his sword, hitting one of the actors in the head with brutal force. The actor was fortunate enough to have been wearing a helmet. Instead of killing him, which the blow likely would have done, Kinski only ripped open a two-inch gash.
But the most infamous incident involved Herzog himself, when Kinski threatened to walk off and began loading his belongings onto a raft with the intention of leaving for good. Aware that Kinski was notorious for never coming back, Herzog threatened the actor with his own rifle and assured him that he had enough bullets for both of them. From then on, Kinski behaved and gave one of the best performances of his career, which was highlighted by the final scene where Aguirre floats on a raft populated by the festering bodies of his crew and dozens of screeching tree monkeys. Kinski's silent performance of a man driven to insanity by greed has remained one of the most tortured and penetrating ever recorded on film. After "Aguirre," Kinski went back to the typical schlock he participated in prior to working with Herzog, playing a sadistic bounty hunter who tortures his victims and skins them alive in "My Name Is Shanghai Joe" (1972), a grotesque doctor who thinks he's gotten away with murder in "Death Smiles on a Murderer" (1972) and an industrialist who develops a drug that halts the aging process in "Lifespan" (1976).
Between his exemplary work with Herzog and the dreadful movies he made for a paycheck, it seemed as though Kinski was charting a course along two divergent career paths. After playing the titular "Jack the Ripper" (1976), he appeared in the soft core erotica "Madame Claude" (1977), before starring in forgettable movies like "The Liberator" (1977) and "The Night of the Assassin" (1977). Nothing was worthy of the talent on display in "Aguirre" until he once again resumed working with Herzog on "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979), a stylistic remake of the famed 1922 silent film where the director concurrently shot both German- and English-language versions. In a change of pace, Kinski kicked up little fuss during this particular production, and again delivered for Herzog another top notch performance. Right on the heels of "Nosferatu," actor and director went to work on "Woyzeck" (1979), a bizarre period drama in which Kinski played a soldier-turned-killing machine whose last spark of humanity is extinguished when he murders his true love (Eva Mattes). After these two sterling performances, Kinski slipped back to low-brow movies like the cheap psychological thriller "Schizoid" (1980) and another soft core sex movie "Fruits of Passion" (1981).
Kinski once again rejoined fellow conspirator Werner Herzog for "Fitzcarraldo" (1982), their most accomplished work outside of "Aguirre." Once again deftly tapping into his manic persona, Kinski played an obsessive impresario whose unflinching desire to bring an opera house into the deepest jungles of South America prompts him to maneuver a 300-ton steamship over several mountains - a feat Herzog performed for real without special effects, much to the mounting frustration of his overworked crew. Initially Herzog had filmed about 40 percent of the movie with Jason Robards in the lead, but the actor fell ill and forced the director to recast the role. Eventually, he settled on Kinski, who regressed to his former ways, and began lashing out at the cast and crew at will. One incident where Kinski endlessly ranted at production manager Walter Saxer over the quality of the food was captured on film and included in "My Best Fiend" (1999), Herzog's documentary chronicling their turbulent relationship. At one point, Kinski's repeated ranting had gotten so out of hand that the tribal chief of the native South American extras offered in all seriousness to kill the actor - a proposition Herzog declined because he needed Kinski to finish the movie. Despite the on-set troubles, Kinski delivered one of the best performances in Herzog's most ambitious film - both their obsessive personalities, usually in sharp conflict, fused perfectly together to create a masterful film.
Unfortunately, Kinski would never achieve such artistic heights again, even though he did collaborate one last time with Herzog later in the decade. The actor went back to making movies that were far below his talent level in exchange for a quick paycheck. Such forgettable films like "Codename: Wildgeese" (1984), "Creature" (1985), the dreadful "Crawlspace" (1986) and the spaghetti Western "Rough Justice" (1987), in which he played a licentious gunslinger, littered his résumé. Occasionally he landing supporting roles in average movies like "The Little Drummer Girl" (1984) and "Timestalkers" (1987), but he was unable or unwilling to challenge himself. Meanwhile, he made his fifth and final movie with Herzog, "Cobra Verde" (1987), playing a 19th century Brazilian sent to West Africa to round up slaves, only to help the natives overthrow a mad king and take the reigns of power himself. The least well-received of the duo's collaborations, "Cobra Verde" nonetheless ranked higher than a vast majority of Kinski's work outside his efforts with Herzog.
Kinski went on to publish his autobiography, All I Need is Love (1988), in which he gladly portrayed himself as growing up in poverty and later becoming endlessly obsessed with sex. German actress Marlene Dietrich threatened to sue for libel, undoubtedly over Kinski's description of their well-known liaison, while his own neglected daughter, Nastassja Kinski, also threatened her own suit, which she quickly withdrew without explanation. For his part, Herzog later commented that Kinski's claims were largely fictitious and set about correcting some of the record with his documentary, "My Best Fiend," which showed a more dimensional Kinski - one who was self-effacing and personable, as well as raving mad. Kinski resumed his acting career by reprising the centuries-old vampire for the Italian-made horror film, "Nosferatu a Venezia" (1988), and made his one and only film as a director, "Paganini" (1988), a near-pornographic biography of the notorious 18th century composer, Niccolo Paganini, that once again drew a lawsuit from producers and ended Kinski's acting career; he would never again appear before or behind a camera again. Three years later, on Nov. 23, 1991, Kinski's fast living finally caught up and he died from a heart attack at 65 years old, thus ending one of the most storied lives and careers film has ever known. For all the mania he displayed on screen and off, there was no doubt that Kinski delivered some of cinema's most intensely mesmerizing performances.
By Shawn Dwyer
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"There are great contradictions in the man, between violence and sensitivity, liberty and domination. You can see it in the eyes...which are as blue as hyacinths. And you can judge it from the lavishly wide, sensual mouth...a mouth to suck the sleep out of Sleeping Beauty or to tear at raw meat."--David Thomson in AMERICAN FILM (quoted in Film Dope, Volume 30)
"Paradoxically, the amount of junk he has played in seems only to add to his prestige, fostering a myth of the true artist who maintains his talent and integrity even when mired in dung. But in looking around this slum of a filmography which, like most slums, does have a few redeeming areas, one is struck by the contrast between Kinski's defiantly mercenary justifications ('I told them never mind sending me the script, just send me the cheque.') and the actual performances he gave. Far from suggesting indifference, they indicate the oppoosite, a frantic desire that the audience be watching no one on the screen but him...even when he's only on the periphery of a scene, Kinski is usally steigering away, glowering and sucking his fingers. This is not a disinterested performer."--Bob Baker (Film Dope, Volume 30)
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