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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Werner Herzog remembers his favorite leading man—and the living hell of working with him

Illustration for article titled Werner Herzog remembers his favorite leading man—and the living hell of working with him
Screenshot: My Best Fiend

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds hitting Apple TV+, we’re highlighting some of the iconic director’s best documentaries.


My Best Fiend (1999)

It’s been nearly 30 years since Klaus Kinski died (of a heart attack, at age 65), and his reputation as a gifted maniac has to some degree likewise been interred. While memories fade, however, the scars still linger for Werner Herzog, who made five movies starring Kinski and one documentary, back in 1999, that chronicles their turbulent collaboration. My Best Fiend makes no attempt whatsoever to tell the actor’s complete story—if you weren’t already aware that Nastassja Kinski is his daughter, for example, you won’t learn it from this film, and there’s no mention whatsoever of the sexual-abuse accusations made by another daughter, Pola (which didn’t go public until 2013). It’s mostly just Herzog, in his now-familiar cadence, talking directly to the camera, and occasionally to others, about what sheer hell it was working with Kinski, and how invaluable the man’s uncontrollable outbursts were to such classics as Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The dynamic, as described, is very much “can’t live with him, can’t live without him,” even if Herzog has had no choice but to do the latter for most of his career.

For those who are ignorant of Kinski’s offscreen antics, here’s a comparison that might help: Imagine Christian Bale’s notorious rant on the set of Terminator Salvation, but repeatedly and often going on for hours. Herzog—not a man prone to exaggeration; after being shot, he airily dismissed the incident, saying he hadn’t been hit by a “significant bullet”—relates numerous anecdotes in which Kinski loses his shit over nothing of consequence, theorizing that he simply couldn’t tolerate not being the center of attention. Some of these verbal assaults were captured on film (Herzog incorporates footage from Burden Of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo), and they’re at once hilarious and disturbing. At the same time, though, Herzog explains how he strove to channel that manic energy into a distilled form that would serve his movies’ grandiose, quixotic protagonists. A lot of My Best Fiend plays like the highlights from several director’s commentary tracks, as we watch scenes while listening to Herzog recall the details of their creation, down to the way that Kinski would deliberately, carefully loom into the frame for dramatic effect.

To make the film more visually interesting, Herzog frequently travels to far-flung locations where he and Kinski had worked together, employing their present-tense beauty and serenity as counterpoint to the insanity he describes. He talks to some of Kinski’s fellow actors, from unknowns (one of whom shows off an actual scar that Kinski gave him during the Aguirre shoot, by striking him on his helmet with a sword) to Claudia Cardinale (who plays Kinski’s girlfriend in Fitzcarraldo and, uniquely, has nothing but praise for him, saying he was never anything but kind to her). The tone throughout is one of affection mixed with exasperation—enough time had passed since Kinski’s death, even then, that Herzog was able to laugh about what he swears was his genuine plan to murder Kinski at one point. Honestly, it’s hard to know how seriously to take some of these stories, even given that we see Kinski go nuts with our own eyes; the actor’s 1988 autobiography insults Herzog in flamboyantly vile language, but Herzog confesses (or claims, anyway) that he actually helped Kinski come up with many of those phrases, in order to boost sales. On some level, the two men needed each other, and it’s probably not a coincidence that while Herzog’s critical and commercial success has continued, he has focused mostly on documentaries since Kinski passed away. Well, and has cast Christian Bale.

Availability: My Best Fiend is available for digital rental or purchase from Amazon and YouTube.