This article was last modified on August 9, 2016.


The Erratic Klaus Kinski: A Book Review

“One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real.” – Klaus Kinski

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Klaus Kinski is one of those actors who captures the audience’s attention. Sometimes because of his acting, but more often because of his distinct, intense look and the gaze of his eyes. For years he was known to be notoriously violent and temperamental on movie sets, something he never denied and even embraced in his highly fictionalized autobiography. Unfortunately, after his death, the world found out he was much more than just violent — he was a sexual predator who targeted even his own children. This behavior is, of course, unacceptable, and unable to forgive. While it is hard to separate the man himself from his performances, author Matthew Edwards attempts to do just that with “Klaus Kinski, Beast of Cinema”, out now from McFarland.

Edwards divides the book into three sections. The bulk of the text is a series of essays on Kinski’s performances; much is said about his work with Werner Herzog (a collaboration that gave both of them their best films). We also dive into spaghetti westerns, Euro-trash, exploitation, and his later career in low budget horror and science fiction. Part two features all new essays, primarily from 2015, with actors, directors and other professionals who worked with Kinski. This provides fresh material for researchers and biographers, and often a candid look at the man. With many of the interviewees retired and Kinski deceased, there is no reason to be polite.

The third section is a collection of new reviews on films from Kinski’s career. What makes this section so special is that the biggest films of his career are skipped (because they are covered elsewhere in the text and widely known), and we get plenty of thoughts on his lesser-known roles. The author is to be commended for his thorough coverage; while reading the book I actively attempted to track down as many films as I could. Despite my exhaustive search, Edwards has managed to find several more that — near as I can tell — have never even had a proper home video release.

For this review, I will attempt to reconstruct Kinski’s career chronologically, incorporating Edwards’ text. Keep in mind the focus is on Kinski’s acting. His personal life is largely overlooked, and there is virtually no coverage of his earliest years in Nazi Germany living in poverty. Edwards does relay the anecdote that Kinski claims he stole to survive, and was surrounded by cockroaches. Tragically, while Kinski was forced to served in the Nazi Army, his parents were both killed during Allied attacks. From his earliest days, he was a tragic figure, and by 1951 was committed to a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Padraic Killeen’s essay on “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) is a prime example of why this book is so great. Although it presents itself as an analysis of Klaus Kinski’s role in the film, that is merely a jumping off point. We are also treated to a comparison between the film and novel, and other surrounding themes. Many of the essays are like this, using Kinski as a target, but then providing us the complete dartboard. We end up learning as much about various films as we do about the actor himself, which I see as a strong selling point.

Killeen’s thorough analysis does shed light on the role of Kinski, however. For those not familiar with the novel, we learn that the film’s script greatly simplified the role of the anarchist on the train, making him something “grotesque” to be dismissed. Kinski somehow takes the script — and without changing the lines — injects a level of humanity and rationality back into the character. His first and last “Hollywood” role has him giving 200%. Killeen believes “Kinski played anarchic characters so well because, at heart, and in a certain, very precise sense, he was himself an anarchist.” This is undoubtedly correct. Through Kinski, the “mad” anarchist becomes “a broken, infuriated, and disconsolate idealist — a much more humane figure.”

Wading Through Spaghetti in the 60s and 70s

Kinski did many forgettable films in many European countries, but one of the more memorable was “Count Dracula” (1970) as directed by Jess Franco and written by Harry Alan Towers. Tyson Wils writes of how Kinski excelled at acting with as little dialogue as possible. This was one thing that made him an ideal Renfield — he could express himself with actions and screams, no words necessary. (His nutty outbursts also made him a natural.) Wils uses his essay also to shut down a rumor perpetuated by Towers — that Kinski only appeared in the movie because he was ticked into believing it wouldn’t be a vampire movie. This is ridiculous on its face, and if true would really call into question why Kinski would later play Nosferatu (twice).

The year before, Kinski appeared in “Marquis de Sade’s Justine” (1969), another Franco-Towers film. Wils makes an interesting observation, connecting Sade to Kinski. Wils suggests that Kinski’s autobiography — full of profanity and obscenity — was perhaps not unlike the manic writing of Sade in such filthy writings as “120 Days of Sodom”. Both also could be seen as precursors to “he Aristocrats”. Was Kinski inspired by Sade when writing? Perhaps. (Interestingly, although playing Sade in the Franco film, the only “dialogue” is in Kinski’s head, and was added later by someone else.)

Roberto Cavallini brings a great essay on Kinski’s journey through exploitation and B-movies before being saved by Werner Herzog. He notes that “Kinski re-invents himself as himself in nearly all exploitation films, erasing and confounding any character’s presence with his own signature.” Indeed, each new character becomes Kinski just as much as he becomes that character. Cavallini also very correctly says Kinski is “the only reason certain films haven’t been forgotten or consigned to the cinematic abyss.” Though he was referring to exploitation, this is also very true of the spaghetti western — some, such as “The Ruthless Four”, would probably have no following whatsoever if not for his appearance.

Lance Duerfahrd notes that Kinski appeared in seven spaghetti westerns in 1973 alone. Although his autobiography is full of lies, he was clearly being honest when he commented, “Westerns. One after another. They get shittier and shittier, and the so-called directors get lousier and lousier.” The use of dubbing only makes things worse — voices that sound “effeminate” or have a “southern drawl” come out of the man.

“The Hand That Feeds the Dead” (1974) may be one of the lowest points in his Italian career. Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns strongly suggests that much of the film was compiled with footage from another film (“Lovers of the Monster”) and that in at least one scene Kinski is wearing a surgical mask because the actor underneath is not even Kinski at all! Given Kinski’s outbursts and the Italian tendency to cut corners, this seems all too plausible.

With Herzog, 1972-1981

“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) is said to be Herzog’s “first international breakthrough” in the words of Paul Cronin. This is undoubtedly true, and most would agree it was also the first big starring role for Kinski. Interestingly, there seems to be no hesitation in saying Herzog brought out the best performance from Kinski, but less recognized is how Kinski provided Herzog with his best actor. Herzog, though widely celebrated, is mostly remembered for his collaborations with Kinski. This can’t be merely a coincidence.

Unfortunately, the first essay in Edwards’ book is from Joana Moura, who looks at the work of Herzog through the psychology of Sigmund Freud. This might scare some readers off, because whatever one thinks of Freud, it seems a stretch to apply his theories to movies if that was never the director’s intent. Moura sees the work of Herzog as part of Germany’s “masculinity crisis”. She believes that following the loss of Adolf Hitler, Germany was looking for a strong father figure and Herzog therefore made his films about strong men. Personally, this sounds like rubbish to me, but your mileage may vary.

Moura does offer other insights, such as commenting on Kinski’s battles with Herzog, noting that Kinski wanted “Aguirre” to start with a close-up, and Herzog wanted a wide shot. Something so simple easily escalates when it’s Kinski’s prerogative “to be the center of attention at all times”. Moura also offers an interesting opinion, that Nosferatu is “the most sensitive of all the protagonists in the Herzog-Kinski collaboration.” An odd remark ,but probably true — in comparison to genocidal explorers, a blood-sucking vampire does come across as the most sympathetic.

Patricia Castello Branco focuses on “Aguirre”, specifically with how “Kinski incorporates Edmund Burke’s physiological sublime.” Now, that sort of jargon may not be much better than the Freudian language, but it at least makes more sense to look at a film’s aesthetics than a film’s psychology. His “performance is based on bodily expressions, gestures, movements … almost like a silent film.” We are told to observe his “spider walk” and “spiral movement”. This observation is astute. Perhaps because he had spent so much time on foreign (Italian) film sets, he learned to express himself with his body rather than his voice. Regardless, the Kinski “look” is his strong point, and it only makes sense to extend that from his face to his whole body.

In Matthew Edwards’ interview with actor Peter Berling, we find out just how important to Herzog’s success that Kinski was. For “Fitzcarraldo”, Kinski was never intended to star, but after the original actor dropped out, he could only get financing if Kinski was attached. Although neither wanted to work with the other, their grudging agreement saved both of their careers. Berling says, “The role was perfectly tailored on his sinewy body.” (Berling further tells how Kinski overshadowed Herzog on their final project, “Cobra Verde”. Kinski allegedly directed his own scenes and forced out the cinematographer behind Herzog’s back!)

David Williams chooses “Nosferatu” as his subject matter, echoing Moura when he says the vampire is “the actor’s most surprisingly sympathetic role.” Williams also brings up the Nazi era, but rather than argue for some masculinity problem, he rightly notes that Weimar cinema was Germany’s golden age, and the Nazi regime killed the film industry. By remaking a Murnau film, Herzog is connecting the golden era to a new, silver age. The history in between can be overlooked (at least as far as the film business is concerned).

Kinski as Nosferatu is just the right sort of casting. As noted above, he acts physically as though in a silent film. This gives him the chance to appear in a remake of one of the best. And Williams notes that Kinski is “present” in a way Max Schreck was not. This is very true. Schreck was just a specter, but Kinski adds that human quality to the beast. He thirsts not (just) for blood, but for love… the one thing he can no longer have. “Nosferatu” may be the pinnacle of Kinski’s career — it is the one film that combines his horror (and other genre) fan base with his artistic fan base. It may be the one title where his whole range of fans will agree.

The Song of Roland (1978)

Axel Andersson takes on “The Song of Roland” (1978), and really digs into Kinski’s acting method. We are told his acting is “inspired by expressionism” and he makes himself “object of the gaze”. I confess I have not seen “Roland”, so cannot really comment on that directly. But Andersson unknowingly bolsters the arguments of the other writers. When we think “expressionism”, we generally mean 1920s German expressionism. So, Andersson is saying that Kinski derives his inspiration from the silent era — as others have pointed out, and which makes sense for his use of his face, body and becoming an “object” rather than a subject. And by saying expressionism rather than simply silent film, we are reminded again that Kinski played Nosferatu, a character who was born in the era of German expressionism. This was no doubt an intentional nod.

After Herzog: The B-Movies of the 1980s

Special attention is given to “Schizoid” (1980), as there are interviews with both director David Paulsen and actress Flo Lawrence. Matthew Edwards makes the case that Kinski’s behavior grew worse in the 1980s, particularly the way he treated women. Whether it was worse or not, both Paulsen and Lawrence confirm that he was far more handsy on the set of “Schizoid” than he should have been.

An interview with production designer William DeSeta regarding “The Soldier” (1982) offers something of an apology for Kinski. DeSeta opines, “The film business is full of nutcases… you’re ass deep in them.” He does acknowledge that Kinski attacked producer Boyce Harman’s girlfriend in a limo, but seems to more or less laugh it off.

Benjamin van Loon looks at Kinski’s roles in “Creature” (1985), “Android” (1982) and “Timestalkers” (1987). Interestingly, he compares these role choices with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (whose work I studied front to back in college). Personally, I think van Loon is relying on a very superficial reading and greatly misunderstands Nietzsche’s idea of “genius” and the “explosive material” of great men. (His reference is a “Nietzsche reader”, meaning the passages were taken out of their wider context.) While Nietzsche was often writing of art, and therefore an actor would be within his focus, putting Kinski up as a genius in the Nietzschean sense is quite a stretch. By sheer coincidence, van Loon does happen to find a line where Kinski says, “What we do for love is beyond good and evil.” This is most likely a reference to Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” (another greatly misunderstood book).

Actor Barry Hickey speaks about his time on “Revenge of the Stolen Stars” (1986) and how Kinski spent his nights trying to break into the hotel room of Joycelyne Lew, an actress and makeup artist. Hickey had to stay in Lew’s room in order to fight him off. Unfortunately, we don’t hear this story from Lew’s point of view, but it gives you an idea just how far Kinski was willing to go. (With almost every set having similar stories, it’s a shock that he wasn’t killed or arrested at some point.)

“Crawlspace” (1986) is a notorious film for horror fans, and is the focus of Tonya Howe’s essay. She tries to identify a “Kinski swerve”, but never really defines it very well or explains why “Crawlspace” is the film where he swerved. Despite this fundamental flaw of the essay, she goes to great lengths explaining the film’s background, and how essential Kinski really was to the picture. He did his own costuming, for example, and when he signed on the character was radically shifted from a Vietnam veteran to a remnant of Nazi Germany (something much closer to home). Even the name — Karl Gunther — is not far from his real name.

The Final Film: Paganini (1989)

Matthew Edwards, the book’s editor, takes it upon himself to write the final essay… and he chose as his subject, appropriately enough, Kinski’s final film: “Paganini” (1989). Edwards starts with a grand summary: “Kinski, an actor famed for being mad, volatile, seething, sleazy, hateful, yet at the same time, an extraordinary genius, brings all this baggage into his final film, making it a truly unique cinematic experience.”

Kinski had wanted to make a Paganini film for decades, and saw himself as the reincarnation of the great musician — both the good and bad aspects. There is no better end to Kinski’s career than the passion project he always wanted, and his only time in the director’s chair. This is not to say it is his best film — far from it — but it is nice to know he was able to achieve his dream. Edwards’ essay suggests there were many hurdles to overcome, some brought on by Kinski himself — rejecting Cannon Films’ offers if they couldn’t give him creative freedom, for example.

Edwards, to his credit, is critical of the film despite being an admirer. He honestly remarks, “While the film had the makings of a masterpiece, the completed work instead succumbs to that of a cinematic oddity that, despite its highpoints, remains a grand failure.” He recognizes that either through Kinski’s own devices, or someone’s awful editing, the film ended up a plotless mess with gratuitous sex scenes. Edwards wisely points out that a film can be sexual without being exploitation — he cites “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976). But Kinski’s film never reaches that level of art. (And, personally, I disagree with the majority on “Senses” and think the film would have been improved by omitting the explicit sex. But that’s just me.)

Long story short, Matthew Edwards has written and compiled an excellent book. On the surface, it is a thorough analysis of Klaus Kinski, the man and the actor. But beyond that, it covers every aspect of film over the last fifty years — from the western, to horror, to arthouse… and even insight into David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago”. Any serious student of film is bound to learn something here.

To order a copy of “Klaus Kinski, Beast of Cinema”, you can go to your local book store or Amazon, or you can order from the publisher directly. McFarland can be found at www.mcfarlandpub.com or you can reach the order line at (800)253-2187.

Also try another article under Film Industry
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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