- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2000

The filmography of the prolific but obscure German director Werner Herzog lists eight projects during the 1990s. The first to surface locally, in an exclusive engagement at the American Film Institute Theater, is "My Best Fiend," a belated exercise in autobiography and professional myth-enhancement that overrates a collaboration with an unruly leading man, the late actor Klaus Kinski.

The "fiend" of the title, Mr. Kinski died in 1991 at the age of 65. Frequent moviegoers might have noticed him in occasional English-language features of the late 1950s and early 1960s, notably "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" and "Dr. Zhivago."

Mr. Herzog cast him as the arguably indispensable lead in five of his portentous, idiosyncratic movies, from "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" in 1972 through "Cobra Verde" in 1987. In each case, Mr. Kinski, perhaps best known as the father of erstwhile starlet Nastassja Kinski, portrayed maniacal, despotic personalities.

This apparent typecasting did more to glorify facetious exaggeration than illuminate human folly or suffering. If Mr. Kinski enjoys enduring fame, it will be as a fuming cult or camp attraction, an inadvertent source of hilarity rather than a conventionally sympathetic, versatile or impressive movie actor.

According to the largely one-sided testimony of "My Best Fiend," Mr. Kinski's bizarre and belligerent traits imposed themselves years before Mr. Herzog, now 57, had filmmaking aspirations.

He visits a house that his widowed mother once occupied with other tenants, including Mr. Kinski, during his early period as an actor in German films and plays during the 1950s. Mr. Herzog remembers that this exceptionally eccentric tenant covered his attic room with leaves and once demolished a bathroom during a 48-hour temper tantrum.

Mr. Herzog's use of such anecdotes proves suspiciously self-serving. Some of the Kinski war stories are a bit stale, particularly if one is familiar with an earlier chronicle, "Burden of Dreams."

Compiled by the American documentary maker Les Blank, this insider's glimpse at independent production used a good deal of behind-the-scenes footage from "Fitzcarraldo," a harebrained but astonishing Herzog spectacle of 1981 that cast Mr. Kinski as a crazed entrepreneur struggling to haul a steamboat across an Amazonian jungle.

"Fiend" revives some of the Kinski rages initially displayed in "Burden," along with the funniest single Herzog rant, a meditation on the malign nature of nature in the raw.

While it's never been difficult to believe that the craggy-faced, glowering Mr. Kinski deserved his notorious reputation as a loose cannon, bully and screamer just waiting to erupt in the face of producers, directors and fellow cast members, Mr. Herzog's fondly unflattering recollections are also vain to a fault.

The subject doesn't get an adequate post-mortem chance to explain or defend himself, although actresses Eva Mattes and Claudia Cardinale (leading ladies in Mr. Kinski's "Nosferatu" and "Fitzcarraldo," respectively) graciously recall him as a pussycat.

Even if Mr. Kinski's malicious or crazed episodes were chronic, it's not all that persuasive or diverting to hear his misbehavior filtered through a colleague as self-absorbed and self-congratulatory as Mr. Herzog. You begin to suspect that Mr. Herzog's prospects have dwindled to embroidering his own quixotic legend as a cinematic visionary.

The director recalls Mr. Kinski describing them as "two megalomaniacs." That assessment seems to be right on the nose. It probably was a blessing when Mr. Herzog had to re-shoot "Fitzcarraldo" with Mr. Kinski after his first choice, Jason Robards, became ill in Peru and returned to the United States under doctor's orders.

By 1980, Mr. Kinski was the only plausible alter ego for Mr. Herzog when contemplating yet another epic about a madman lost in the jungle.

Mr. Herzog speaks of "taming the beast" in Mr. Kinski, alluding to moments when the actor's energy and impulsiveness could be harnessed to produce effective images or scenes.

The director certainly leaves the impression that the beast-tamer is more to be admired. When he is flattering himself and Mr. Kinski, the comparisons get absurdly nuclear. For example, at one point, Mr. Herzog likens them to "critical masses" whose collision "became highly explosive."

Maybe it seemed that way at the time. Because Mr. Herzog had the foresight to activate behind-the-scenes cameras and recorders, curious movie buffs can share some of these intramural dust-ups and recriminations in either "Burden of Dreams" or "My Best Fiend."

Nevertheless, it requires a huge leap of faith to believe that the clashes of Mr. Herzog and Mr. Kinski were clashes of titans, destined to echo down the corridors of movie history.

TITLE: "My Best Fiend"

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter documentary reminiscences include frequent profanity and occasional authentic ranting; some descriptions of violent or ominous episodes)

CREDITS: Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

One-and-a-half out of four stars.

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