Posted by Jeff Stafford on August 23, 2008
Stare into the face of madness if you dare.
I’ve always thought that you had to be a little crazy to be a great actor and Klaus Kinski was more than a little crazy. If you don’t believe me read his purple prose autobiography Kinski Uncut which was also published under the title All I Need is Love in 1988. Or rent Werner Herzog’s 1999 biography Mein liebster Feind (My Best Fiend-Klaus Kinski). Better yet, try to get your hands on KINSKI PAGANINI, the actor’s only directorial effort and his final film; it was released in 1989 (for those with all-region DVD players, you can still find copies of it on Amazon’s German web site at http://www.amazon.de/Kinski-Paganini-2-DVDs-Klaus/dp/B000088T26/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1219447791&sr=8-1). If you thought Ken Russell’s film biographies of Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1970) and Liszt (Lisztomania, 1975) were excessively over-the-top and in flamboyant bad taste, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
Kinski imagines his muse as a rock superstar of his era – think Mick Jagger with a violin in the 19th century and the film reflects Kinski’s own fantasies of himself as much as it does his passion for Paganini’s music. But be forewarned – KINSKI PAGANINI is so out of control you may not be able to get through it in one sitting. Sensory overload. I’m still working my way through it, fearful that watching it in more than one sitting may result in an epileptic seizure.
The film is no typical period biography but a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness fever dream that might be the most egotistical and obsessive star vehicle ever made. Or maybe it’s a work of genius and we just aren’t ready for it yet. Werner Herzog would disagree. He refused to direct it after Kinski asked him to and, at a dinner with him and Atlanta’s High Museum film curator Linda Dubler and friends (circa 1996) for a revival showing of his Aguirre, Wrath of God, he rolled his eyes at the mention of it, calling it “terrible.” He said that Kinski saw himself as Paganini, irresistible to women and a genius – but that he couldn’t even frame a simple shot or tell a coherent story without his ego sabotaging his every creative impulse.
He has a point. Kinski is in almost every scene, chewing up the scenery and his co-stars with wild abandon. But if you think he looks wild-eyed and possessed by the devil as the legendary violin virtuosi, you need to check out the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of KINSKI PAGANINI, because that is proof that he really was the wild man he often appeared to be. Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Jess Franco’s Count Dracula with Kinski in a wordless performance as the crazed Reinfield, and the villains from his spaghetti westerns, Edgar Wallace thrillers, and cheap genre horror and sci-fi thrillers; These are all aspects of the off-camera Klaus you’ll see in the PAGANINI supplements (Please note that only the main feature is offered as an English audio option on the DVD, the extras do not come with any English subtitles or audio options).
Better than any reality show, more hilarious than any recent so-called outrageous Hollywood comedy, the Paganini extras are worth their weight in gold for any Kinski addict. He’s certainly more fun to watch than just about any other actor I can think of but I also appreciate the fact that I’m not in the same room with him and can view him from the safety of my living room couch.
According to Gregory Avery’s excellent overview of KINSKI PAGANINI at http://www.nitrateonline.com/1999/fpaganini.html, Kinski turned the movie into a family affair, casting himself as the legendary violin virtuosi of the 19th century, his young wife Debora Caprioglio as Paganini’s wife Antonia, his son Nikolai as the musician’s beloved son Achille, and his daughter Nastassja in a key role, but she walked off the set after three days, never to return (Ever since he divorced her mother and she became an international actress on her own, they had little contact by Nastassja’s choice). There’s a part of me that wants to see a home video circa 1991 with Klaus, Nastassja, her new amour Quincy Jones and their various offspring at a family gathering. Did it ever happen? Where was PAGANINI filmed? Did Fassbinder ever offer Kinski a job? So many unanswered questions, so many missed opportunities ).
Avery also states that KINSKI PAGANINI was originally intended to be a 12-hour mini-series for Italian television but was edited down for its Cannes Film Festival premiere to 85 minutes (Kinski’s volatile 5-6 press interview at the festival is one of the double disc extras). This edition includes an 82 minute cut and a 95 minute director’s cut. But enough about Kinski’s universally panned final film as an actor AND as a debuting director.
The KINSKI PAGANINI extras are the real attraction here – part intimate home movie, part “mondo” documentary. Among the extras are outtakes from the film, alternative trailer versions, a documentary on the making of the film (made after Kinski’s death), and the one that’s worth the disc investment – the 52 minute featurette “Kinski dreht Paganini” which is for adults only. It begins with Kinski in costume and makeup instructing an actress how to respond to him as he performs oral sex on her. You have to empathize with this actress whose body and emotional composure is stripped bare before the camera and various crew members while Kinski demonstrates to her how to move her legs in orgasmic delight. When she doesn’t quite get it, he demonstrates, getting on his back and overplaying her part with fervor. Then more retakes and instruction. Finally we see him planning his camera shots for the sequence from her point of view so that we’ll be sure to see Paganini on top of her, caught up in a sexual frenzy. As he writhes around on the bed on his back with the Arriflex camera glued to his face, he becomes so caught up in his own creativity that he begins to make grunting, animalistic sounds….and this is only in the first five minutes of the featurette. I was already weak from laughter.
This featurette goes on to show Kinski micro-managing everyone he comes in contact with on the set from his wife Debora (who was barely 21 at the time but looks 15) to the camera crew to his distinguished film co-star Bernard Blier (father of French director Bertrand Blier) to his young son Nikolai. We see Kinski instructing Debora how to express uninhabited, carefree abandon as he pushes her higher and higher on a tree swing. Before one retake, he even licks her hair into place for the shot like a cat with a kitten. His devotion to her is more than a little clinging and it’s not surprising that their marriage lasted only two years; they separated shortly after this film was finished.
A combination of the mercurial and the volatile, Kinsi’s intensity is truly amazing to behold and the ranting and raving wasn’t an act. The man is a walking geyser of emotion, spewing it all over the place. Yet the qualities that made him such an extraordinary actor and screen presence don’t work as well when placed in the director’s chair, a position that obviously requires focus, diplomacy and the strategic maneuvring of a General.
Regardless of whether you hate it or love it – it’s hard to imagine any middle ground here – you’ll still want to see KINSKI PAGANINI if you’re a Klaus fan. For me at least the current cinema could use a dose of his wildness and seems a much more boring medium without him.
If you are interested, you can still visit the official KINSKI PAGANINI DVD release web site – http://www.kinski-paganini.de/frame_en.htm
In addition, Kinski’s autobiography is still available from some sources such as Amazon -http://i.cnn.net/v5cache/TCM/Images/Dynamic/i69/klauseinalley_082220080223.jpg
And now, I need another Kinski fix. I’m hoping that some U.S. distributor will pick up the rights to JESUS CHRIST SAVIOR, a rare 1971 document of the actor’s notorious one-man show and its unpopular, to say the least, reception. Crispin Glover, eat your heart out!
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