Klaus Kinski possessed one of the most striking visages in cinema as well as being one of the most forceful and volatile personalities in the acting profession. The German actor died twenty years ago in 1991 at the age of 65 form a heart attack and according to varied sources made over 150 films starting with 1948’s Morituri and ending in 1989 appropriately enough taking on the lead role in his passion project and sole directorial credit Paganini, a biopic of the famed Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini, a virtuosic performer with whom Kinski, a creative extremist felt a strong kinship with.
Why have I chosen to write about this actor now at this time of year? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired by another article by another writer in case David Thomson, the revered and often perplexing analytical mind behind the compulsively readable Biographical Dictionary of Film. The article in question written way back in 1981 for a now defunct publication entitled The Movie: An Illustrated History of Cinema was an honest overview of Kinski’s career up until that point and triggered my own memories of that haunted face which seemed to peer out of the darkness of my young subconscious as a young film lover in the 1980’s.
That face was familiar to me purely from the lurid, expressive video and poster art which accompanied his films none of which I ever saw or for that matter allowed to see mainly because Kinski rarely if ever made a film accessible to a family audience with his oeuvre at that time littered with disreputable B/C movie titles such as Commando: Leopard, Android, The Soldier, Crawlspace and Venom and his Seventies output consisting of countless Italian and or French Westerns, horror films and erotic dramas.
His iconic work with Werner Herzog I had yet to discover though again Kinski’s profile, so dominant in Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) was familiar to me but prior to my first viewing of that film the man seemed in my imagination with those madman’s eyes a freakish, perverted figure inhabiting a disturbing foreign twilight world of sex and violence and in whose company I did not wish to keep in that darkness; the comforting Spielbergian fantasy realm of Movieland.
That youthful perception of Kinski was somewhat confirmed upon reading his now infamous 1988 autobiography, originally titled All I Need is Love but republished in Ireland and the UK as Kinski Uncut some ten years ago. In this wildly entertaining and possibly semi-fictional tome, Kinski recounts his experiences from the economic hardship of his youth in pre WWII Berlin right through to his success as in demand international film star with a seemingly voracious and indiscriminate appetite for sex, money and love.
Werner Herzog, his main collaborator and in whose acclaimed films Kinski’s reputation and legacy rests to a large extent is painted in the most negative terms imaginable describing the director as ” a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, blackmailing, cowardly, thoroughly dishonest creep.” The book is an unrelenting stream of excoriating self-hatred, sleaze, venomous bile and outrageous egocentrism which I took as the truth true upon my first reading. Or wanted to be the truth based on my youthful impressions of this man and his crazed reputation.
Herzog claims that most of the book was “highly fictitious” and in his illuminating 1999 documentary My Best Fiend which focused on his relationship with Kinski, it is clear that there was a great affection and respect which has been lost amidst the numerous tales of Kinski’s maniacal behaviour, captured in this portrait and to a greater extent in Les Blanks Burden of Dreams which chronicled the making of Herzogs magnificent folly Fitzcarraldo.