Klaus Kinski - the notoriously mad Polish actor / force of nature - once philosophized "One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real." And by that logic, Kinski certainly left us plenty of stuff by which to judge him. "I get venereal disease more often than most people catch colds" is one of my favorite nuggets from his insane and hilariously titled memoir, All I Need is Love, which is as much an autobiography as it is an ode to his feral, devil may care approach to life. Much of what Kinski included in the book was encouraged and then later discredited by filmmaker Werner Herzog, his most famous collaborator and the cinema's greatest myth-maker. But the fact remains that Kinski leapt at the chance to wax poetic about his apathy and indiscretions ("So I've sold myself for another year. I have no idea what I've signed. I have to take on any shit. As I've said, it's all the same to me").
For an actor of his success and esteem it was bizarrely important to him that the public believe he just didn't care - that he only acted in order to survive. His resume supports that claim, as he appeared in more than 160 projects during the 40 or so years in which he considered himself a professional actor, a rate impossible for anyone all that particular about the roles they accept. Of course, odds are if you throw that many darts something is going to stick, but the great irony of Kinski's life is that he's remembered for a handful of indelible performances that were so wild, impassioned, and brimming with primordial energy that it's inconceivable to think he didn't throw every mad ounce of himself into his acting.
You don't have to be much of a psychiatrist to trace the roots of Kinski's survivalist mindset. The details are predictably fuzzy, but it can be said with some degree of certainty that he joined the Polish army upon the outbreak of World War II, and soon thereafter was captured by and conscripted into the German forces. That he went AWOL seems true enough, but that he then spent his days flagging down American planes and begging them to shoot him... well, I can definitely picture that (I think that particular detail apocryphal only because I feel like someone would have been terrified into shooting him).
The hivemind at Wikipedia believes that Kinski's acting career began on stage at a POW camp, and if I were to make a Kinski biopic that's probably the thespian genesis story to which I'd commit - it feels right. He returned home to discover that his beloved family had all fallen victim to the war, and then he devoted himself to the theater with an uncompromising lunacy that resulted in a visit to a psychiatric hospital and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. A diagnosis that was curiously ignored for the rest of his career despite the fact that his behavior supported that sad verdict with increasing grandiosity.
Kinski finally clawed his way in front of a camera in 1948, adopting the ethos that "Making movies is better than cleaning toilets." By 1965 he had already appeared in over 70 films, few of which every had any shot at genuine quality and even fewer of which are fondly remembered (or available) today. He'd say things like "I choose films with the shortest schedule and the most money" and "I sell myself for the highest price. Exactly like a prostitute. There is no difference." And he meant it. But he offered the cinema an inimitable source of uncaged fury, and it was only a matter of time before the likes of David Lean and Sergio Leone recognized within Kinski a quality they couldn't find anywhere else (there are some roles that Cary Grant just can't pull off).
1965 suddenly saw Kinski sharing frames with Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago - he played bit parts in both, but (45 year-old spoiler alert) his sneering Hunchback is gunned down by Lee Van Cleef more deliciously than anyone before or since. Kinski only has a few minutes of screen time and it's all dubbed beyond recognition, but his untamed menace powers through, and Leone's contemporaries were quick to capitalize on this discovery. Kinski soon became a fixture in Spaghetti Westerns, most memorably starring as the unforgiving and aptly named Loco in Sergio Corbucci's nihilist masterpiece, The Great Silence. Genre constraints prevented Kinski from totally succumbing to his savage side, but watching Kinski try to restrain himself as one of cinema's most ruthless bounty hunters is a violently good time, as well as a perfect primer for the unrestrained madness Herzog would soon coax out of him.
Werner Herzog is - in some respects - every bit as mad as Kinski, even if his derangement is tempered by a piercing calm and exaggerated by stories that abide by a truth less factual than ecstatic. Herzog was Kinski's matador, provoking him to a charge and then stepping out of the way. Their first collaboration was 1972's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, for which Herzog lead Kinski deep into the jungles of Peru to recreate the titular conquistador's search for El Dorado, a descent into madness which yielded neither gold nor survivors. Kinski enlisted only because he was enamored with Aguirre's flamboyant ambition, and because Herzog doesn't take no for an answer. At the time Kinski was just coming off of a speaking tour during which he would get on stage and incoherently rant to his audiences about being a modern Christ - his suffering and self-sufficiency were more important to him than ever. But what this self-described "whore" couldn't have realized at the time is that he was about to be the glowering face of what some (Roger Ebert and sometimes myself, included) consider to be the greatest film ever made.
The tall-ish tales from the Herzog / Kinski sets are the stuff of great cinema lore, but the performances they produced are the stuff of great cinema. All five films required Kinski to indulge in his inner chaos, but there's a clarity and conviction to the derangement of his Aguirre that sets it apart. When Kinski's Agurre stares directly into the camera and proclaims himself to be the Wrath of God, you believe him. It's a Brechtian moment that allows for the film to achieve a greater madness and immediacy by disturbing any sense of documentary reality, and it works in part because of how convincingly Kinski sells it. The gaze he shoots the camera transcends what the audience knows of movie-making - it speaks to a higher determination that destroys its context. It's the most authentic moment in a film comprised entirely of authentic moments. And the finale which leaves Aguirre's fate obvious but unfulfilled is fitting in part because Kinski's performance is too alive for a finite ending - to watch him die would feel forced and false.
Herzog would ride that madness through Woyzeck and Nosferatu, but methinks the most compelling of Kinski's post-Aguirre performances would be in 1982 as the eponymous Fitzcarraldo. After spending 3 films cultivating and snake-charming Kinski's rage, in the true-ish story of the Peruvian opera-obsessed rubber magnate Herzog found the ideal character in which to give Kinski some peace. I'd sooner point you towards Les Blank's Burden of Dreams - which documents Fitzcarraldo's ridiculously troubled production - than distill the details for you here, but the film's arc validates a lifetime of mania. The rare satisfaction on Kinski's face during the serene final moments inspires a visceral sense of calm, triumph, and capacity the completeness of which even life is hard-pressed to equal.
Kinski was an actor that operated on the fringes of his extremes - I can't picture what he looked like when sleeping, or if he ever slept at all. His craggy face and hollowed eyes were only fit for certain roles. Kinski was most comfortable as a whore, and I think the thing that bothered him most about his involvement with Herzog is that the filmmaker became his pimp. It was only through Herzog that Kinski could operate to the best of his ability, and despite working with filmmakers as renowned as Leone, Corbucci, and Andrzej Zulawski (The Most Important Thing: Love is my favorite of Kinski's diamonds in the rough), it was predominately his work with Herzog through which he was discussed. He became inextricably linked to another, and it ruined his patchwork narrative of isolation and self-sufficiency. Kinski would retaliate by spending the 1980s by showing up in a curiously high number of the decade's worst films, and his one remaining performance for Herzog - 1987's Cobra Verde - would see Kinski at his most hostile and turbulent (I'm of the opinion that Cobra Verde is the only Herzog / Kinski film that was negatively affected by their dynamic). Few men have cared more for their own apathy, and I think that his decision to pass on playing a villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark was an early symptom of his precious indifference. I can't claim to know what was going on in Kinski's mind or if it was indeed afflicted by a genuine mental illness - all I know is that his few brilliant virtues will be preserved on film long after his depravities have been forgotten.