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With: Werner Herzog, Claudia Cardinale, Eva Mattes, Beat Presser, Guillermo Rios, Andres Vicente, Justo Gonzalez, Benino Moreno Placido
Written by: Werner Herzog
Directed by: Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: German, English with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 05/17/1999

My Best Fiend (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Wrath of Kinski

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Actor Klaus Kinski certainly is a worthy subject for a documentary. Few other actors have been so egotistical and maniacal. His story could make a great and rich documentary exploring the inner psyche of the extreme artist and what makes him tick. But, entertaining as it is, My Best Fiend isn't really that movie. And the reason is simple. Director Werner Herzog is at the same time too close to his subject and too far away from him to be objective.

Herzog made five movies with the extraordinary Kinski; Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979), Woyzeck (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1988). And, for perspective, Kinski can also be seen in Douglas Sirk's A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957), David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965), Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965), and Billy Wilder's Buddy Buddy (1981), as well as many horror and exploitation movies (many by the Spanish horror director Jesus Franco).

My Best Fiend begins by showing Kinski on stage, playing Jesus giving a lecture. He rants and berates the audience. Herzog follows that up by taking us to some of the locations for the five films and telling stories to the camera. (Annoyingly, the movie is dubbed much like those newscasts where you can still hear the original language underneath, but the English track is much louder. Fortunately, Herzog's English is very good and he dubs himself.)

Many of the stories are the same, focusing on Kinski's temper tantrums and fits of rage. There's even some footage of him ranting, most of it courtesy of Les Blank and his brilliant documentary of the filming of Fitzcarraldo, called Burden of Dreams (1982).

Herzog, who is very smart, tries his best to paint a picture of his friend. He psychoanalyzes him and calls him half coward, half maniac. He says that once he had to threaten Kinski with a rifle to get him to act and reveals that together they made up stories for Kinski's autobiography about how much he hated Herzog. In the end, Herzog comes up with some strange metaphors for Kinski's behavior, calling him a "soul trying to fly away" accompanied by an image of Kinski sitting in a boat with his raincoat flapping all around him like wings. The last scene shows a joyful Kinski gently communing with a butterfly.

I think the main problem with My Best Fiend is that Herzog and Kinski were a team. They played off of each other and complimented each other. The other problem is that this Herzog is no longer the mad, foolish Herzog that would dare to drag a boat over a mountain to make Fitzcarraldo.

Kinski, Herzog, and their countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder stretched the foundations of film with a kind of mini German New Wave in the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Fassbinder and Kinski literally died for their art, driving themselves to the end. Herzog saw what was coming and pulled back just in time. Since his last film with Kinski, he has made weird little documentaries, like Lessons of Darkness (1991) and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), no less brilliant than his early films, but without the same fire. As this kinder, gentler Herzog looks back on the days of madness, he seems to be slightly disconnected, as if not entirely ready to truly face up to them. (Or perhaps it's the awkward, disjointed dubbing that made me feel that.)

Nonetheless, I enjoyed My Best Fiend. Herzog's and Kinski's collaboration was one of the strongest in cinema, and the movie does justice to that energy, showing us all kinds of good clips from all five movies but focusing mostly on Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, the two most difficult shoots. At one point, Herzog says that it doesn't matter what went on behind the scenes. All that matters is what you can see on the screen today. So true.

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