Devoured by demons

Klaus Kinski played the messianic monster, consumed by an epic lust and a taste for violence. His screen roles were pretty weird, too.

Topics:

Devoured by demons

I had a friend who had a friend who dated Klaus Kinski for a while, toward the end of his life. She had a common name, something like Amanda.

Amanda would hide from Klaus, periodically, at my friend’s house. He would call. “AHMAHNDA,” his voice would moan, spookily, on the other end of the phone.

“She’s not here,” my friend would say, as Amanda cringed in silence.

“Vhere is AHMAHNDA?! I vant AMAHNDA,” he would demand insanely, as if this normal young woman was the only thing stopping him from plummeting into the infernal chasm.

He’d fuck you on a pile of corpses but he’d never shake your hand, because of the germs. If ego is what makes men miserable, then he was surely one of the most miserable men of all time. There is a line in Nicholas Roeg’s “Performance” where Anita Pallenberg is referring to Mick Jagger’s character, a has-been. She says of him, “He lost his demon.” Klaus never lost his — he appeared to just keep collecting them. They devoured him and took a heavy toll on anyone close to him.

“I am like a wild animal born in captivity, in a zoo. But where a beast would have claws, I have talent,” Kinski said, and his talent mauled many. But, like any great beast, his bright, untamed power was awe-inspiring.

In 1926 in Sopot, Poland, Niskolaus Gunther Nakszynki was born to a wretchedly poor family; young Klaus habitually stole food. When times got too rough, his mother would send him to a nightmarish children’s home. During World War II, at age 16, he was drafted into the German army and spent 16 months in a British POW camp.

Perhaps due to these early deprivations, money shot through his hands as he indulged every whim like each day was his last — so he constantly needed more. He made over 250 films during his career, and turned down over 1,000 with such notable directors as Fellini, Visconti and Pasolini because they weren’t paying enough, electing instead to make movies with such colorful titles as “The Strange Tale of Minnesota Stinky,” “Naughty Cheerleader,” “The Creature With the Blue Hand” and my favorite, “Rendezvous With Dishonor.”



His autobiography, “Kinski Uncut” (a title that famously refers to his uncircumcised unit), while an international bestseller, was derided for being absurdly raunchy — Klaus takes it upon himself to graphically describe dozens of vaginas of his acquaintance. Content notwithstanding, he writes gorgeously and grippingly, with the blazing language of a decadent poet, and always provides fascinating views on situations that he screwed up through his pathological behaviors. “Uncut” is, for all its smut and overindulgence, one of the most compelling autobiographies ever written, and it should be required reading for anyone considering being an actor.

Werner Herzog called it “a work of fiction,” but he could hardly be counted on to give an unbiased opinion — much of the book is a wildly hateful character assassination of Herzog. Regardless of whether or not all the facts were based in reality, the book is precious because Kinski is so scorchingly honest about his impressionistic interpretation of his life — his confessions, his innermost torments, and how his oversize feelings color-saturated his world.

After the war, Kinski lived on the streets and did theater in Berlin. He was a self-taught actor of merciless discipline. He was a self-taught actor who exercised merciless disciplines on himself; Herzog describes him climbing into a closet and doing strenuous vocal exercises for 10 hours in a row. Kinski began doing films in 1948; by the mid-’60s, he was a recognizable star in America because of “Dr. Zhivago” (1965) and “For a Few Dollars More” (1965).

From “Kinski Uncut”:

“What they teach in the acting schools is incredible, hair-raising crap. The Actor’s Studio in America is supposed to be the worst. There the students learn how to be natural — that is, they flop around, pick their noses, scratch their balls. This bullshit is known as ‘method acting.’ How can you ‘teach’ someone to be an actor? How can you teach someone how and what to feel and how to express it? How can someone teach me how to laugh or cry? … What poverty and hunger are? What hate and love are? … No, I don’t want to waste my time with these arrogant morons.”

His first great triumph was his solo performance as the woman in Cocteau’s “La Voix Humane.” He never had much respect for acting and often said he’d have “rather been a whore” and sold his body instead of his feelings.

“At a performance everything works out on its own. I’ve solved the mystery: You have to submit silently. Open up, let go. Let anything penetrate you, even the most painful things. Endure. Bear up. That’s the magic key! The text comes by itself, and its meaning shakes the soul … You mustn’t let scar tissue form on your wounds; you have to keep ripping them open in order to turn your insides into a marvelous instrument that is capable of anything. All this has its price. I become so sensitive I can’t live under normal conditions. That’s why the hours between performances are the worst.”

To relieve his offstage anguish, he was a bona fide, compulsive sex fiend, an addict of the most depraved water. He describes becoming sexually involved with a female doctor, her mother and her sister simultaneously during his “Voix Humane” stint. After ingesting some pills that were “the wrong ones,” the enraged doctor admitted Klaus to the hospital as an attempted suicide; he ended up in a straitjacket in Berlin’s infamous Wittenau insane asylum.

“My headache gets so unbearable … the pains get worse and worse. With every shriek from a fellow sufferer … With every punch from the fists of these slavedrivers. With every dull blow that hits a Jesus Christ. With every gagged and weeping mouth. … I pray to God. Yes! I pray to God to increase my pains, make them worse and worse! We’ll see whether my head bursts. That was how Jesus must have prayed in Gethsemane: ‘My God, if you want me to endure all this, then give me the strength!’ He gives me the strength. I do not go crazy. I visualize Idea, a linocut by Frans Masereel: A man in prison is illuminated by the idea of freedom coming to his dungeon as a naked woman and squeezing her breasts through the bars so that he may drink and gain strength.”

He must have visualized this salvation through the better part of his life, if his autobiography is to be at all trusted — lust was his main vice and pleasure. At the beginning of the book, he describes being a small child with his mother:

“I inhale her arousing smell … my lips graze her hot belly and her small, impudent tits until my mouth is on hers.”

Later in the book he discusses an adolescent sexual encounter with his sister. Later still, he hints at an incestuous event with daughter Nastassja, who was so aghast she sued him for libel.

“Why am I a whore? I need love! Nonstop! And I want to give love because I have so much of it. No one understands that the sole purpose of my whoring is to spend myself totally!”

Love, for Kinski, was generally a torrid, ill-fated, short-lived and violent affair:

“Anuschka and I fly to Munich and rent a villa in Nymphenburg. Every morning I ride the trolley to rehearsals. At night, we fuck and have fist-fights. Anuschka slices her wrists with a razor in the middle of the street. I bandage her hands with the handkerchief and take her home, where we fuck and fight again.”

Kinski dragged a beautiful girl from behind the counter of the glove shop where she worked. “Tell your mother you’re with your future husband,” he told her to say, that evening.

They were married; a short time later, Nastassja was born, named for the love interest in Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot.” Unable to be faithful to his innocent, devoted wife, whom he calls “Biggi,” for even short stretches of time, Kinski abandoned her and Nastassja, preferring to indulge in a series of short, intense affairs and one-night stands in park bushes. Nastassja felt this abandonment deeply. (A profoundly beautiful, haunted woman, she has sought affairs with older men her entire life: She lived with Roman Polanski at 17 while filming “Tess.” She married her manager, 17 years her senior; later, she married Quincy Jones.)

In 1971, Kinski did his most hubris-soaked stage tour: Jesus, playing to huge rock concert arenas in Germany. This was a free-form interpretation of Jesus, with Kinski jabbering into a microphone at top volume, wearing a floral shirt and tight, cock-hugging pants. The audience had come mainly to witness Kinski exploding into violent fits of rage; people would bait him and heckle him from the audience, and Kinski would turn purple with fury, storm offstage, storm back onstage, scream at the audience to fuck off, hurl mike stands, challenge hecklers to fistfights.

“I’ve come to tell the most exciting story in the history of mankind: the life of Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about the Jesus in those horrible gaudy pictures … with the jaundice-yellow skin — whom a crazy society has turned into the biggest whore of all time … I don’t mean the Jesus whose moldy kiss frightens little girls out of horny dreams before their First Communion and makes them die of shame and disgust when they foam in the latrines…”

Foam in the latrines?

“I’m talking about the adventurer, the freest, most fearless, most modern of all men, the one who preferred being massacred to rotting with the others.”

Audience members would scream at Kinski that he wasn’t Christlike at all, because Christ wasn’t violent, Christ wouldn’t tell people to shut up…

“Yeah, I’ve got violence in me, but no negative violence…”

No negative violence?

“My violence is the violence of the free man who refuses to knuckle under. Creation is violent.”

In any case, creation was violent for Kinski and anyone who tried to create alongside him. When he began shooting the first film of his legendary collaboration with Werner Herzog, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” Kinski had just cut short this Jesus tour, welshing on several theatrical contracts. He arrived in the Peruvian jungle, in Herzog’s words, “as a derided, misunderstood Jesus … it was difficult to talk to him because he would answer like Jesus.”

Herzog has plenty of extra footage of Kinski being wildly abusive to everyone on the set. Kinski is said to have abused the Indian extras, hitting them in their helmets with his sword and shooting bullets into their hut.

While Herzog paints an unflattering picture of Kinski as a screeching, tyrannical coward, he always paid some level of lip service to his star’s phenomenal talent:

“People like Brando are just kindergarten compared to Kinski. He is totally mad and unpredictable. You can see something raging in this man. We liked each other, we hated each other and we respected each other, even though we hatched serious plots to murder each other.”

Kinski, at least in his autobiography, did not seem to ever appreciate Herzog, at all:

“[Herzog] just keeps talking and talking and talking … His speech is clumsy, with a toadlike indolence, long-winded, pedantic, choppy. The words tumble from his mouth in sentence fragments, which he holds back as much as possible, as if they were earning interest. It takes forever and a day for him to push out a clump of hardened brain-snot. Then he writhes in painful ecstasy, as if he had sugar on his rotten teeth … Even if his throat were cut and his head were chopped off, speech balloons would still dangle from his mouth like gases emitted by internal decay…”

And later, when reporting on Herzog’s infamously cavalier attitude toward the physical safety of his cast and crew:

“Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep. His so-called ‘talent’ consists of nothing but tormenting helpless creatures and, if necessary, torturing them to death or simply murdering them. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything except his wretched career as a so-called filmmaker … For his movies, he hires retards and amateurs who he can push around (and allegedly hypnotize!), and he pays them starvation wages or zilch. He also uses freaks and cripples of every conceivable size and shape, merely to look interesting. He doesn’t have the foggiest inkling of how to make movies.”

Herzog, according to Kinski, bullied and abused the natives, extras and other actors, not to mention animals and the landscape. Kinski describes Herzog sending a llama down the Pongo rapids on a raft and the crew watching in anguish as the terrified animal got sucked into a whirlpool and died.

“I shriek into his face that I want to see him croak like that llama he executed … The most venomous serpent should bite him and make his brain explode! … No! The huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his balls, penetrate his asshole and eat his guts!”

If Kinski’s demands weren’t met during his tantrums, he was famous for breaking contracts. At one point, before the end of shooting “Aguirre,” he threatened to walk off the set. Herzog seriously threatened Kinski’s life, saying that if he took off, he’d get his rifle and put “eight bullets in his head … the ninth one would be mine.”

For some reason, Kinski returned to the set, and, for the rest of the shoot, behaved professionally. I believe that he understood the desperate point to which he had driven Herzog, and it moved him to compassion: He “recognized” this extreme distress.

It is remarkable, given the absurdly incendiary relationship of these two men, that one of them didn’t end up floating facedown in the Urubamba river.

The only woman for whom Kinski ever seems to have developed a profound attachment was Minhoï, a moody Vietnamese orphan he married in 1972.

“It takes Minhoï’s Asian soul a long time to adjust to the dreadful extremes in my character. On the one hand, I’m irritable, I fly off the handle too easily, I react too quickly. My French is bad, but I’m impatient if Minhoï doesn’t understand me right away, and these misunderstandings, behind which I suspect the most subtle schemes, poison my mind and my soul. I’m desperate. I have a low frustration tolerance, and my outbursts are unlimited. On the other hand, I’m considerate to the point of self-sacrifice, and my love is so immense that it terrifies Minhoï.”

Kinski describes having been so insanely jealous that Minhoï was forced to give up all her friends — she burned her phone book in front of him, to soothe him. At one point, he made her go to the bathroom with the door open so she would never leave his sight.

Minhoï and Klaus both became obsessed by the idea of their unborn son, and how he might transform their frayed inner lives and tumultuous relationship. Kinski, the man whom no woman or director could tame, imbued the baby with visions of whacked-out Germano-nature-culto-mystical eugenic über-powers:

“I count the hours, the days, the minutes, until the birth of my son, like a convict carving the days, the hours, the minutes, and seconds into the walls of his cell. My son will be my redeemer. His love will liberate me from the chains of torment … Just as a fettered but growing tree smashes the iron rings that threaten to grow into its bark and flesh, as they do into my soul, my son is my strength, pushing to the outside from my innermost depths.”

Suffice it to say, Kinski wasn’t exactly cut out for a healthy parental narcissistic cathexis — “The Drama of the Gifted Child” has no better poster boy than poor Nanhoï Kinski, who had the extra misfortune of being a startlingly beautiful child, which must have seemed a physical confirmation for Klaus that his unsupportable sentiments were warranted. After Minhoï inevitably left him and Kinski was unable to see Nanhoï every day, he stalked them, refusing to believe his wife had finally escaped the gravitational vortex of his love.

Then, after a laundry list of schlocky Italian films that nobody has ever heard of, Kinski returned to Herzog in 1979, when they did a back-to-back shooting of “Nosferatu” and “Woyzeck.”

“Nosferatu” is essentially Herzog’s love letter to the silent film images of the great F.W. Murnau. Isabelle Adjani is made up to look like a silent horror film star, shock-wide blue eyes surrounded by black powder, on a paper-white face, her long, kinky black hair falling about her shoulders, crucifix pulsing against her white neck. Kinski shaved his head for the role of the ultimate Goth ghoul, which had a morbid effect on his already fragile state of mind:

“I feel exposed, vulnerable, defenseless. Not just physically (my bare head becomes as hypersensitive as an open wound) but chiefly in my emotions and my nerves. I feel as if I have no scalp, as if my protective envelope has been removed and my soul can’t live without it. As if my soul had been flayed.”

At this time, 1979, Minhoï was insisting on a divorce. She and 3-year old Nanhoï accompanied Kinski to Holland for the filming of “Nosferatu” so that he could see his son in the evenings. Kinski transformed into the loveless, shriveled bat incapable of dying, who sucks the life force out of the humans in his sphere, infecting them with his miserable disease.

“The absence of love is the most abject pain,” Nosferatu whimpers, with tears in his sunken eyes.

Kinski recognizes that the true terror of Nosferatu lies in his weakness, his slavery to his perverse condition. Kinski’s vampire whines and shuffles and writhes, sickly and listless, until his appetites get the better of him and drive him into sudden fits of violently predatory, carnal, pathetic bloodsucking. It’s the gentle neighborhood junkie who nods at you politely for two months and suddenly, with thick greasy sweat and trembling hands, puts an ice pick to your neck and apologizes as he takes your wallet.

It is not difficult to imagine some part of Kinski over-identifying with this monster. The burden of the role fell to Minhoï and especially baby Nanhoï, Kinski’s “redeemer,” to whom Klaus clung for comfort from his own insanity during this shooting period, with a devouring, airless embrace. Kinski loved Minhoï and Nanhoï “too much,” Nanhoï was quoted as saying, later. No human could stand in this gale force of desperate, consuming love and remain standing; it is a testimony to the prevailing serenity of Minhoï that Nanhoï didn’t turn out to be a Dad’s Ego Casualty like Christian Brando. (Nanhoï, now 27, has acted in a handful of films and, judging from the photographs on his minimal Web site, is now an apparently healthy, handsome European man, living a low-key life.)

There was no break: Shooting for “Woyzeck” began immediately. Minhoï and Nanhoï flew back to Paris, so there was, essentially, nobody around to save Klaus from himself.

“Woyzeck,” in the famous play by Georg Büchner, is a powerless man driven by jealous rage to stab and kill his adulterous wife. Kinski always had a premonition that that script would destroy him, psychically. He turned the script down the first time it was presented to him — the second time, he seemed to feel it was fated to him:

“I’ve totally forgotten that ten years ago I refused to play Woyzeck onstage because it’s suicide, and I tossed the script into a garbage can. I don’t know why I’ve said yes this time. It’s all destiny, no doubt. It’s not me who decides, it’s my destiny that agrees or rejects for me. A greater power.”

It was the fastest, most professional shoot of his career: 16 days. Most of the scenes were filmed in a single take, without a cut, including the climax.

Woyzeck is bullied, he is harassed, he is ridiculed. Finally, he is driven into such a state, the veins stand out in his head — his head seems on the verge of exploding. His eyes are gone.

When Woyzeck stabs his wife, and looks up from his work, Kinski’s face makes the most horrific expression I have ever seen on an actor — frozen, gutted, insanely doomed to the darkest freefall of terror. It reminded me of Tatsuya Nakadai in Kurosawa’s “Ran” when, banished from his castle by his own son, the king has a mental breakdown and is left to wander in the earthly equivalent of hell, muttering in the grasslands like a weeping ghost.

Nakadai had Kabuki makeup; pure grief alone transforms Kinski’s skull into the shape of pain. Kinski did the scene in one monumental take. It cost him dearly.

You cry for Woyzeck because you see he is utterly lost — profoundly, eternally ruined and devastated. Since the actor does not remotely spare himself — he has sacrificed himself to the text — it is clear that Kinski, too, is ruined. He has gone to that place of absolute, irredeemable wretchedness, and because of its abysmal depth, he is permanently savaged by his own emotional recklessness, bravado, ineluctable fate — whatever it was. It is the most awful, heartbreaking scene I have ever witnessed on film — you watch Kinski let go of the rope, the high end of which is happiness.

There is an emotional bend around which you cannot go if you want to continue to be reasonably sane. Sanity excludes intimacy with the feelings that motivate slaying, unless you are a morally retarded sociopath, which Klaus, for all his defects, was not. He surrendered himself to a state that was the opposite of Christ, his idol, and was unable afterward to fully retrieve himself. It was, just as Kinski had predicted, suicide. He should never have done it. It is widely held by those who knew him, and Kinski himself, that he never recovered from “Woyzeck.”

But what was the ultimate result? If you are the viewer of this film, Kinski’s portrayal shocks your feelings out of the vault of intellectualizing or passive observing. He forces you to feel with him, to align yourself with your buried emotions. He outs your sensitivity. Is this not something Christ-like? It is, for my money. Kinski is the pure cure for the 21st-century disease — the numbness unto droning.

Two years later, when Jason Robards fell ill and was disallowed by his doctors from returning to Peru, Kinski filled in and rejoined Herzog in the jungle, for what many believe was the best film either of them ever had a hand in.

“Fitzcarraldo” (1982) has many similarities to “Aguirre”; once again, the Herzog crew is floating along the river in the Amazon jungle. Once again, Kinski is the wildly ambitious, unrealistic visionary who takes advantage of the fact that the “bare-assed” natives have a myth involving a white God arriving on a boat. Again, Kinski plays a man driven by weird personal passions — this time, it’s Italian opera. Kinski is almost playing against type: He’s softer than we’ve ever seen him before. Affectionate, charming, civilized — driven, but reasonable.

“That slope may look insignificant, but it’s gonna be our destiny,” says Fitzcarraldo, his eyes like spinning globes. It was a prophetic line — the difficulties encountered by Herzog Filmproduktion on this film are legendary, and pulling a steamboat over the mountain was no less an ordeal for the film crew than it was for the characters. There were casualties. Animals. Indians. Numerous prehistoric trees with roots 15 feet across; trees that it should be punishable by maiming to cut down.

Knowing how hazardous and impossibly awful the whole project was, the film, despite its brilliance, is almost unwatchable. One gets the overwhelming, creepy sensation that Herzog thought these people and their lands were expendable, because of his flaming Will to Power.

But it’s so undeniably, mind-blowingly awesome to see a steamboat creaking up a mountainside; such a soul-grabbing visual metaphor, that ultimately the hardships and perils of the shoot really only make the whole film more powerful. Disgusting, because it was all for the vanity of one German dirtbag of a filmmaker, but powerful.

Herzog claims that the Machiguengas and Campas Indians offered to kill Kinski for him; he thanked them but politely declined. The Indians, claims Herzog, weren’t afraid of Kinski — they were afraid of him, because he was so quiet. It is impossible not to hear the pride in Herzog’s voice, telling this.

In “Fitzcarraldo,” Kinski’s instincts to be the Greatest Actor in the World are unimpeded, but his personal dysfunctions are beginning to show through the weave of his unassailable craft.

There is a ridiculous shot wherein Kinski, wearing a thin pair of linen pants pulled up nearly to his nipples, stretches in such a way that his entire johnson is fully visible in outline, hanging outrageously to one side of his crotch. This could not have been unintentional —- this was Hello, ladies. Note the helmet of my manhood and fulsome testes and rejoice. This is the first hint of Kinski’s weirdness leaking out into his roles — it was to come out more and more.

Kinski’s reputation for being impossible preceded him, at this point, and he didn’t get many job offers, so had to act in abject crap like David Schmoeller’s 1986 film “Crawlspace.” This movie is so bad it is actually marketed as a horror double-feature alongside Schmoeller’s other plodding shitsucker, “The Attic,” starring the late Carrie Snodgress.

In “Crawlspace,” Kinski, who plays a deranged Nazi landlord named Dr. Karl Gunther, coats a bullet with blood, loads it into a .44 Magnum and holds it to his head. Even in a half-assed movie, Kinski doesn’t do anything halfway. “Now I kill because I’m addicted to killing. It’s the only way I can feel alive.”

Kinski said this, like his lines in “Nosferatu,” with a tired whine: It is an admittance that he identifies with these characters. You hear, in his voice, that Kinski is infinitely sick of himself. This was his burden: He had to live with Klaus Kinski every day, a person that he and virtually everyone else in his life found intolerable.

“I am my own judge, jury, and executioner,” Dr. Gunther shrieks, walking around in his basement in an SS uniform. “Heil Gunther!”

Kinski puts on a crazy smile and wobbling eyes when he says this line. It’s a fuck you to the idiocy of the script, and it’s so funny, it’s actually scary. Back in Europe, Kinski reports walking by a store window and being stopped in his tracks by an old photograph of a wild-looking man playing the violin. Kinski ran into the store to ask about the photo and learned that it was a picture of Paganini. This was a great shock to Kinski’s soul. “I know that I was Paganini,” he wrote.

Kinski became obsessed by Paganini. He wrote a script, for himself to star in, and asked Herzog to direct it — Herzog refused, saying the script was unusable. Kinski ended up directing the film, “Paganini,” himself.

Since Kinski thought he was the reincarnation of Paganini, ostensibly, the film is a paean to himself.

Clearly, Kinski had no prevailing architectural vision for the piece — it’s mainly sections of Paganini’s life that he relates to: standing in the footlights, sawing away at his violin with his teeth clenched in fury like he just bit the head off a chipmunk.

Paganini, another insatiable sex fiend, ruts horribly with “13-year-old” girls who let out blood-curdling screams like they’re being impaled up to the neck: “AAAAhhhhh!!! Aauughh!! Fuck me again! Please! I’m begging you!You must! Aaaaauugh!!” The screaming sounds like rape or murder until you realize, from the subtitles, that they’re supposed to be experiencing an uncontainable delirium of pleasure. It is positively brutal.

Young Nicholai Kinski, aka Nanhoï, also stars in the film, as the composer’s beloved son. Paganini kisses, slobbers, clutches and moons over his son. Kinski seems to be barely controlling himself from eating Nikolai’s head when they are embracing; as a director, he makes his son gaze at him wistfully and throw intense tantrums to demonstrate his excruciating love for his father — the love that Kinski would have demanded in order to feel loved at all, since his emotional volume-knob was broken.

The female love interest was a beautiful 20-year-old named Deborah Kinski, who I read later was not Klaus’ grandchild (thank God), but a new young lady who looked alarmingly like a younger version of Nastassja. This young woman, the extremely large-breasted Deborah Caprioglio, was 62-year-old Klaus’ new wife. The marriage lasted two years.

While Kinski is, as usual, altogether perfect in his absolute being of Paganini, the film is grotesque, aimless, embarrassing, art-house softcore. The production company brought a lawsuit against Kinski, on the grounds that the film was “close to porn.”

After “Paganini,” Kinski shot his final collaboration with Herzog, “Cobra Verde” (1987), adapted from Bruce Chatwin’s novel “Viceroy of Ouida.” Herzog commented that the collaboration was particularly difficult since Kinski was still convinced that he was Paganini.

“Cobra Verde,” a Brazilian bandit, is sent by a wealthy sugar-cane industrialist (whose three daughters he has impregnated) to Elmina, West Africa, to attempt to revivify the slave trade. Kinski gets to show just how bonkers he really is in these scenes, poncing about in bare feet, baring his teeth, and screeching like a boar. You believe his savagery — he goes into beet-red, apoplectic fugue states, particularly during a scene in which he is training African women to fight — you can feel Kinski trying to impregnate the crowd with the murderous lather he’s in.

“Cobra Verde” is sweeping, epic, savage and beautiful — an incredible story, stunningly filmed. When Herzog has 500 topless, painted Amazons running in spear battle like a swarm of wasps, or when hundreds of Africans line a quarter mile of coastline to signal with white flags, it’s impossible not to compare him to Kurosawa.

For me, the most awful scene in “Cobra Verde” is a scene when “the nuns’ choir” performs, and Kinski’s bad craziness seeps to the fore. The choir is a magical troupe of naked young African women with beads around their necks, singing the most purely joyful, delicious, sassy songs. The featured singer is exquisite, a little Josephine Baker, smiling, flirting, rolling her eyes. It is a moment where the viewer is purely hypnotized by the delight onscreen … and here comes Kinski. He stomps right into the circle where the girls are singing, violating their little sacred performance zone. His arms folded, he thrusts out his crotch toward the singer. He sidles over to another singer and fondles her breast. The girl is clearly shocked, and frightened. But they keep singing. Kinski swaggers into the front of the scene, directly in front of the singer, blocking her from the camera. His jealousy of these beautiful little girls is nauseating and gives one the sick feeling that Kinski would stand on a baby if it were more full-center in the frame than he was.

Herzog says he refused to ever work with Kinski again, after this film. “He brought with him into my film an unpleasant climate, something offensive, something that was alien to me.”

Directors loved to slash Kinski after he was dead. What did they expect from a man whose enormous emotions were his living? Not to mention their living? Reasonable, super-professional, kiss-ass behavior? Did they not understand that conventional behavior and unconventionally acute feelings do not coexist?

The talentless David “Crawlspace” Schmoeller got his last licks in with a short film entitled “Please Kill Mr. Kinski.” In it, Schmoeller cleverly recounts his difficulties with the late actor and suggests that he saved Kinski’s life by not letting the producer kill him for the insurance money.

“Please …<I<please kill Mr. Kinski,” members of the crew would beg Schmoeller during the shooting, because of Klaus’s daily shit fits.

I was hoping Schmoeller had captured a real ass-out Klaus-tantrum on the DVD; it merely contains footage of an interview with a mildly irate Kinski on why he dislikes directors in general: “These guys want to tell you how to die. I say, Oh, have you died? No? Well, Go die, and come back and tell me how it was!”) Actually, Kinski, for all his awful behavior, is the sole redeeming element of Schmoeller’s otherwise worthless, puerile, prurient film. Schmoeller should crawl to put calla lilies on Kinski’s grave daily for lifting him from what would otherwise have been a “film career” confined to a couple of dusty video-transfers on his mom’s bookshelf.

Herzog had the advantage when Klaus died first — he was able to have the last word in their lifelong argument with the documentary “My Best Fiend.” Herzog derides Kinski for pretending to be a “natural man” when his main concerns (according to Herzog) were his Yves Saint Laurent camouflage fatigues and petty, screaming gripes about the temperature of his coffee in the morning. Herzog saw their different feelings toward the jungle as evidence of the gulf between them: Kinski felt the jungle in all of its elements was “erotic,” whereas Herzog stated that the nature of the jungle was “obscenity, vile and base … fornication and asphyxiation … misery … the birds don’t sing, they just screech in pain … there is some sort of harmony: the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”

What was the truth? They were both ridiculous, flaming egomaniacs of only slightly different stripes — Kinski’s ugliness was flailing, external; a flash fire that burned itself, and himself, out. Herzog’s rage was of the passive-aggressive, festering sort, and therefore more dangerous. Herzog boasts of having actually attempted to firebomb Kinski’s house: “This was only prevented by the vigilance of [Kinski's] Alsatian shepherd.”

Herzog was an inverted sociopath; Kinski threw loud vocal fits, repressing nothing. Who was more sick? Werner Herzog was the visual version of Kinski’s extremity. Kinski exploited hearts; Herzog exploited landscapes and native peoples.

During one interview, in one of the few moments between shoots when Herzog and Kinski were enjoying each other’s company, Kinski very sweetly and sincerely calls Herzog a genius. Herzog points to his star. “I can see through him like I can see through water in the sink, and I know what is in there …. [I know] how to evoke it and bring it to life.” It is lovely to see them mutually acknowledge their importance to each other, even if only once.

Three years after shooting “Cobra Verde,” in 1991, Kinski died in his sleep of a massive heart attack at age 65.

At the end of “Paganini,” the consumption-riddled virtuoso fiddles himself to death, burning his life out with his frenzied, demonic playing, coughing blood onto his violin as his son weeps in terror.

“When he died I had a moment of grief that lasted about five minutes. It was very intense, then never again. Not because I forced myself, but I think it was because he caused us too much pain,” Nastassja Kinski remarked in an interview.

“He had spent himself. He burnt himself away like a comet,” Herzog said.

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

– Jack Kerouac

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>