The odd partnership between German director Werner Herzog and Polish actor Klaus Kinski is one of the more unknown actor/director duos, but is in my opinion the best, even arguably surpassing the more celebrated collaborations of Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune and Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro. The Herzog/Kinski duo made 5 films together, not including Herzog’s documentary on Kinski, over a 15 year span, all of which are widely acclaimed.
The duo’s off-screen chemistry is just as interesting as their finished films. Kinski was famously considered to be both a genius and an insane ego-maniac, pegged as impossible to work with by most everybody, including Herzog. Right at the start of filming the duo’s first film, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Kinski became notorious for his seemingly random tantrums, one of which resulted in Kinksi firing a gun into one of the crew’s tents, shooting off a crew member’s finger. Later on in the shoot, Kinski decided to suddenly quit, and only returned to the set after Herzog pulled a gun on the actor. Though the duo had an extreme love/hate relationship, Herzog is constantly quoted as saying that it’s not how well they got along, but “what they see on the screen that matters.”
For an example of one of Kinski’s fits, here’s a short clip taken during the filming of the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, which appeared in Herzog’s documentary on Kinski, My Best Friend:
During the filming of Fitzcarraldo, Kinski’s insanity frightened natives to such a level that they actually approached Herzog offering to murder the actor. It’s been said that at multiple points both Herzog and Kinski had planned to kill the other, but somehow always ended up collaborating for another film.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) was the pair’s first film and possibly their best. I strongly believe it’s one of the greatest films ever made, and has been credited as the inspiration for Apocalypse Now as well the work of director Terrence Malick (Badlands; Days of Heaven; The New World; The Thin Red Line). Like in all Herzog/Kinski collaborations, Kinski plays the title character, a man who’s hopelessly obsessed with an unreachable goal, in this case, the search for El Dorado.
Despite an extremely low budget of less than $400,000 (Aguirre was filmed with a stolen camera), Herzog came up with something epic. Unlike any Hollywood film, Herzog and his crew film entirely on location without the use of special effects or stuntmen. The crew climbed mountains, lived in the jungle with the natives, and actually rode the Amazonian river rapids with rafts built by the natives to shoot the film’s river scenes. Though this resulted in obvious production problems (flooding) and quite a few injuries, including snake bites, the authenticity shows.
The pair would next work together on Woyzeck and Nosferatu: The Vampyre (a remake of the 1922 original), both of which were released in ’79. Kinski’s performance as the suspicious soldier in Woyzeck is now considered to be one of the greatest, and the film features that unforgettable slow-motion murder sequence, which has been copied countless times.
Fitzcarraldo, their next film, is about an opera obsessed man (Kinski) trying to transport a steamship over a mountainside to build an opera house in the jungle, and it rivals Aguirre for the duo’s best. Fitzcarraldo took 4 years for Herzog to make, as the original production was cancelled due to the health of Jason Robards, who was originally cast in the lead role. Mick Jagger was also in the original version, but had to pass on the film’s re-shoots to tour with The Rolling Stones. In addition to these problems, the film’s production was marred by plane crashes, Kinski’s ravings, more problems with filming scenes on river rapids, and the actual logistics of hauling a massive steamship over a mountain, again with no kind of special effects.
1987’s Cobra Verde would be the last Herzog/Kinski collaboration, as Kinski would die in 1991. It’s a solid way to end an amazing but baffling partnership.
A box-set was recently released featuring all five films, plus Herzog’s documentary. Kinski has also published an autobiography documenting his relationship with Herzog, but the book is said by many to be an almost complete work of fiction.