Most reviews of Herzog/Kinski films tend to focus on the explosive relationship between the two men. The irresistable force meets the immovable object: the frenzied outbursts of Kinski confront the monomaniacal resolve of Herzog. Indeed, it is impossible not to be sucked into this underlying drama: the conflicts, the threats, the murderous plots; in short, the blood-spattered narrative that makes its influence felt in every film the two made together. Essential viewing for anyone interested in this is Herzog’s great documentary Meine Liebster Feind, also included in the DVD boxset. Much has been written about Kinski’s madness. To take a representative example: there was the time when, annoyed by the loud carousing of the extras on the set of Aguirre, Kinski took his Winchester and fired several shots into their tent, shooting off the tip of the middle finger of one of the actors. Herzog himself, although by his own account ‘clinically sane’, was not to be outdone by the antics of Kinski: during the same shoot, he threatened to murder his leading man if he attempted to break his contract – knowing Kinski was notorious for doing just that. On the commentary track, Herzog is at pains to set the record straight on this incident, rubbishing Kinski’s own account of the confrontation: he was, he claims, not wielding his rifle at the time; he merely informed Kinski, clearly and calmly, that if he attempted to leave, he would take eight bullets to the back of his head before he got round the next bend in the river; the ninth would be for Herzog himself. Herzog’s laconic conclusion: ‘I didn’t have to say any more: he knew I was deadly serious’.
Focusing on such stories tends to divert attention away from the films themselves; but at the same time, one cannot fully appreciate the film as a whole without knowing about its production history. This is certainly the case with films like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, in which the boundaries between art and life dissolve: the hardships undergone by the sixteenth-century conquistadors in Aguirre seem to be a pale imitation of the ordeal faced by the director, crew and actors themselves. This is real guerrilla filmmaking: when one of the rafts gets caught in a potentially fatal current, Herzog uses it as a plot device; when the director needs to elicit a performance of quiet intensity out of Kinski, he deliberately provokes him into a two-hour tantrum before shooting, in order to catch him in the right mood. As for Fitzcarraldo: well, it’s difficult not to see the main character’s insane endeavour – to hoist a ship over a mountain in an effort to bring an opera-house to the Peruvian jungle – as a metaphor for Herzog’s own driven-ness, his commitment to art above all else. Such a reading is appropriate: the sense of joy the viewer feels when the impossible is achieved, when the ship slides precariously into the unreachable river, is beautifully deflated when the ship drifts over the rapids and back to square one. Nothing concrete has been achieved: all that remains is the glory of the act itself, the irrational. unaccountable, sublime act, a testament to the human spirit.
Next up: Woyzeck: the best of the Herzog/Kinski films?