I cannot pretend to be bursting with anticipation at the prospect of “Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog: Insanity and Genius,” a retrospective series spread across the summer months at the Goethe Institute of Washington.
The provocative subtitle tends to obscure the fact that a recap of the Kinski-Herzog collaboration, which extended from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, is bound to be small-scale. This was an association in which bark always surpassed bite, aspiration overshadowed achievement and duration exceeded demand.
The late Klaus Kinski (1926-1991) and Werner Herzog, 60, were associated as leading man and director, respectively, on five fictional features. The first, “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” began the tribute a week ago. The remaining quartet — “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” “Woyzeck,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Cobra Verde” — is being revived on Monday evenings between June 23 and Aug. 11.
The retrospective will be supplemented by a pair of documentary features that sound more promising: “Burden of Dreams,” a chronicle of the turbulent and arduous production history of “Fitzcarraldo,” compiled by American filmmaker Les Blank; and Mr. Herzog’s own behind-the-scenes memoir, “My Best Fiend,” a left-handed salute to Mr. Kinski, possibly prompted by the favorable reaction to “Dreams.” The dates for these selections are July 14 and Aug. 18, respectively.
In addition, the Goethe Institute has installed a photographic exhibit, derived from the inventory of Beat Presser, who was Mr. Herzog’s cinematographer on “Fitzcarraldo,” shot on locations in Peru and Brazil, and “Cobra Verde,” which traveled to Ghana, Brazil and Colombia.
Mr. Blank, a documentary humorist whose subjects have ranged from jazz to cajun cooking to gap-toothed women, will attend the showing of “Dreams” and field questions from the audience. Since he also is a distinctive and venerable independent filmmaker, with a more appealing body of work to his credit than many more successful contemporaries, the appearance will be worthwhile for its own sake. If Mr. Blank can also clarify Kinskian insanity and Herzogian genius, or vice versa, so much the better.
Is this particular convergence of obsessive personalities and combustible egos worth its own summer-long retrospective? One gets a sense from this German tandem of neo-Wagnerian pretenders jockeying for supremacy with each other. The Herzog inventory looks pretty skimpy in Wagnerian terms. There was a certain reckless grandeur about Mr. Herzog’s desire to stage historical epics about crazed explorers in remote parts of the world, but nothing he visualized approached Wagnerian musical grandeur or authority.
The most impressive aspects of both “Aguirre” and “Fitzcarraldo” are the Peruvian jungle settings. It takes a whopping benefit of the doubt to overlook Mr. Herzog’s inability to give his lengthy scenarios a coherent dramatic shape, but he does succeed in surrounding the performers with ominous portents, evoking a search for El Dorado in the 16th century in “Aguirre” and an overland trek with a steamship in the late 19th century in “Fitzcarraldo.”
The lack of narrative variety and stamina makes the films more compelling in scattered sequences than they are as finished sagas. Mr. Herzog never entirely succeeded in creating an eloquent role for Mr. Kinski. In both “Nosferatu” and “Woyzeck” he was borrowing from famous prototypes.
The collaborators became notorious for pitching fits at each other during the expeditions in rugged terrain. Mr. Kinski at Mr. Herzog’s throat, literally, is one of the highlights of “Burden of Dreams.” In many respects Mr. Herzog, who spent an impoverished youth in Munich, has more in common with an earlier generation of explorer-filmmakers — the teams of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, later famous for “King Kong,” or Martin and Osa Johnson. He never evolved into a studio-savvy fictional specialist who could also orchestrate a normal range of emotion.
Mr. Kinski, a native of Danzig and 16 years older than Mr. Herzog, was an explosive presence who could authenticate the demonic and tyrannical aspects of a Herzog protagonist, usually a madman by definition. But he was also an actor without nuance. Drafted into the Wehrmacht at age 18, Mr. Kinski ended up in a British prisoner-of-war camp at the close of World War II. He began acting in German films in 1948 and made appearances in a number of English-language films shot in Europe: “Decision Before Dawn,” “A Time to Love and a Time to Die,” “The Counterfeit Traitor,” “Dr. Zhivago,” “The Little Drummer Girl.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Kinski’s daughter, Nastassja, the product of a failed marriage, had a far more promising run at international stardom in the early 1980s than her father ever did. It’s difficult to believe that the Kinski-Herzog collaboration will loom large in retrospect outside the orbit of art-house admirers who enjoy its sheer perversity more than anything else.
The retrospective seems a bit of a joke when compared with last summer’s American Film Institute extravaganza, “Kurosawa & Mifune: Together Again.” That tribute consisted of 12 of the 16 movies director Akira Kurosawa made with his pre-eminent leading man, Toshiro Mifune. It’s a stretch placing “Aguirre” or “Fitzcarraldo” in the same league with “Rashomon,” “The Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo” or “Red Beard.”
Moreover, any Kurosawa-Mifune retrospective has to be a Takashi Shimura retrospective as well, since he was the alternate Kurosawa protagonist during the late 1940s and the 1950s. Who’s another notable screen actor associated with Werner Herzog? Nobody that I can recollect.
If the five Kinski-Herzog movies merit a retrospective, the Swedish Embassy might want to get cracking on a new Ingmar Bergman retrospective. He’ll be 85 next month and began working in the Swedish film industry almost 60 years ago. The actors and actresses he was instrumental in showcasing include Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Maybe it’s also time for the Italians to remind us of Federico Fellini’s collaborations with Giulietta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni.
The French Embassy hosted a Jean Gabin retrospective earlier in the year. The recent revival of “La Belle et la Bete” called attention to the Jean Marais-Jean Cocteau partnership. It might be satisfying to revisit the movies Yves Montand made with Costa-Gavras (“The Sleeping Car Murders,” “Z,” “The Confession,” “State of Siege”) and Claude Sautet (“Cesar and Rosalie,” “Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others,” “Garcon!”).
Why stop there? Just think of the possibilities: Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith, Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg and Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, John Wayne and John Ford, Alec Guinness and David Lean, Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards, and Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese — not to mention Molly Ringwald and John Hughes.
There’s no end to the tandem scenarios in a medium as collaborative as the movies. The duos don’t even have to match a reported lunatic with a reported genius to be worthwhile. So on second thought, thanks for the notion, Goethe Institute.
SERIES: “Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog: Insanity and Genius”
CONTENT: Film retrospective of six Herzog features (five fictional and one documentary) made between 1972 and 1999, augmented by one American-made documentary feature and a photographic exhibit
WHERE: Goethe Institute of Washington, 812 Seventh St. NW
WHEN: Film screenings on selected Mondays at 6:30 p.m. in June, July and August
ADMISSION: $5 for the general public; $3 for Friends of the Institute, seniors and students with valid IDs