MY BEST FIEND

Directed by Werner Herzog

Distributed by New Yorker Films

***


By beginning MY BEST FIEND with clips of an astonishingly confrontational one-man performance by Klaus Kinski as Jesus - a magnetic gesture of punk iconoclasm that would have made Iggy Pop or Johnny Rotten proud, although done without music - Herzog makes his intentions loud and clear. This documentary, devoted to his turbulent, on-again/off-again relationship with the late actor, portrays Kinski as the kind of mythic anti-hero -dare I say villain? - that he incarnated so well in the 5 films he made with Herzog. Kinski's venom towards Herzog isn't exactly news, since the first edition of his notoriously scabrous autobiography ALL I NEED IS LOVE got its American publishers' lawyers nervous enough to have it withdrawm from stores a week after publication. (New Yorker Films' press kit helpfully includes relevant excerpts from the book, which has been republished under the name KINSKI UNCUT.) Yet the two men didn't hate each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Herzog includes footage of them joking and getting along well at the Telluride Film Festival and even reveals his hand in devising some of Kinski's more colorful insults towards him in ALL I NEED IS LOVE.

Not surprisingly, MY BEST FIEND depicts another mythical (anti-)hero: Herzog himself. By chronicling Kinski's work, he also constructs a partial autobiography, full of anecdotes about the troubled South American shoots of AGUIRRE and FITZCARRALDO. This personal focus comes across as a little self-serving (although relatively mild compared to the megalomaniacal statements and publicity stunts Herozg was prone to making in the 70s), but he casually admits - in all seriousness, as far as I can tell - to once planning to murder Kinski and gives actresses Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes room to describe the actor as a kind, loving man. This film is hardly an "balanced" portrait of Kinski (or Herzog), but it's complex enough to be a relatively fair one.

Although I've seen Herzog's AGUIRRE and WOYZECK before, the footage of Kinski's performances in these films is a real revelation: his charisma and dark, unhinged intensity are still operating at full strength. By juxtaposing a scene from FITZCARRALDO shot with Jason Robards, Herzog's first choice for the title role, with a stunning take of the same scene featuring Kinski in the part, MY BEST FIEND speaks volumes about why Herozg continued to work with him and why an examination of his life matters as something larger than an excuse for gossip or a study of abnormal psychology.

Even though the American distribution of Herzog's 90s documentaries has been scattershot - Film Forum, which is now showing MY BEST FIEND, brought us LESSONS OF DARKNESS in 1995 and LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY last year, but there are still a few which never played New York - the dividends of his career-long devotion to the form are quite visible. (Apparently, he's given up fiction.) If only his New German Cinema compatriot Wim Wenders could take a lesson from Herzog by continuing in the vein of BUENA VISTA CLUB and restraining himself from pompous features about the Death of Cinema and other pet themes!