Feature Thousand Words

Thousand Words: We merely get in their way: The fierce chemistry of Herzog and Kinski

Herzog & Kinski

When film conversation turns to the greatest filmmaker/actor partnerships common touchstones are Scorsese and De Niro (latterly DiCaprio), Ford and Wayne, Kurosawa and Mifune, Leone and Eastwood, Fellini and Mastroianni or Bergman and Ullmann. Casting a shadow on the conversation is the work of director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski. Their partnership, in this context, is often whispered about if uttered at all for fear that the curses that are said to have plagued their collaborations will be brought back into the light.

In conjunction with their extensive Herzog season, the BFI are releasing two of the pair’s five films on Blu Ray, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and it’s a chance to delve once more into this fractious yet fascinating relationship in all its murky magnificence. Across five films, from the incredible Aguirre to the ill-fated Cobra Verde (1987) these two intense personalities created a body of work that takes audiences to the farthest reaches of the planet, emotional stability and artistic sanity. Theirs was a unique friendship, rivalry and artistic marriage that the documentaries Location Africa (Steff Gruber, 1987) and Herzog’s own Mein Liebster Feind (My Best Fiend, 1999) capture brilliantly. These archive portraits give an insight into what was a ferocious but mostly respectful relationship and adds to the extensive examples of violence and rage that include Herzog plotting to set fire to Kinski’s house with the star inside that have since passed into movie lore.

No director ever harnessed the primal power of Kinski to such great effect as Herzog and certainly not as frequently, whether the two were heading down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, reimagining vampiric German cinema history or dragging a steamship over a hill. For other directors, Klaus Kinski was a potent force but only in small doses. Only Herzog could handle him for more than a cameo-sized amount of time, which says as much about the director’s mental state as it does about the actor’s almost mythical capacity for madness on set and off.

The opening sequence of Aguirre is as breathtaking as cinema can be. A slow, patient and distanced camera observes an entourage of Spanish explorers and vanquishers and their slaves and guides descending across a terrifying jungle landscape. The slaves carry animals and the liberators’ women and traverse ravines, waterfalls and the steepest crevice passes imaginable. The tone, the pace and the scope is set in the opening scene and the rest of the film plays out at the same elegiac pace as if time has stopped for these characters. Weaving his menace throughout the travelling party – cajoling and harrying – and eventually making his way to the front in more ways than one is Kinski’s Aguirre, a man mad with power, lust and ego who eventually seizes control of the mission but not before destroying the health, mind or lives of everyone around him including his young daughter. The physicality of the magnetic Kinski is at odds with the languid movement of the film and the ethereal landscape captured on it. It results in a performance that burns onto the viewer’s consciousness. This burning is aided by frequent glances or penetrating stares by the actor directly down the lens where such is the clear real horror of the filming process that must have been undertaken, we are never sure if it us or the director, or both, that the mad Don Aguirre wishes to make his next victim. As madness descends on the characters there is the palpable sense that the insanity is indistinguishable from that being suffered by cast and crew during production. The tactile, directly involved nature of the filming and the relentless slow pace and relatively wide angled approach – save for some devastating facial close ups – is both artistically jaw-dropping and humanely incorrigible. However, it’s between these constantly undulating lines of morality that the film’s beguiling power resides. At the close of the film, as the scale of the folly and the devastation wrought in pursuit of it become unbearable, the powerful images of a boat suspended in a tree, a ghostly raft overrun by monkeys and Kinski’s hunched, crazed leering defiance flow through the mind like the unstoppable river that carries the expedition towards its inevitable doom.

A five-year (recovery?) period ensued before Kinski and Herzog teamed up again for Nosferatu, the director’s reimagining of Bram Stoker’s legendary novel Dracula and F.W. Murnau’s seminal 1922 take on the book.Herzog has always claimed his interpretation is not a straight remake and in truth it’s a far weirder film than Murnau’s expressionistic fable. It sits somewhere between the novel, Murnau’s film and a surreal dreamscape that is singularly the work of Herzog. The film’s beating heart – pun intended – is Kinski, as a supremely melancholic Count Dracula. Bruno Ganz is Jonathan Harker, dispatched to Transylvania to help the mysterious count secure a home in Wismar, where Harker and his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) reside. Kinski’s performance is once again magnetic, managing to tap into an ocean of sadness that butts up against the insatiable bloodlust that is so famously at the heart of Stoker’s creation. Herzog’s camera again captures Kinski’s supreme physicality and unpredictability and the friction between director and star is electrified in the field between lens and limbs, moving the film beyond adaptation, remake, homage and into something sinister, strange and very sad.

It’s hard contemporarily, given the horrific 2013 evidence of her upbringing brought to light by Kinski’s daughter Pola, to celebrate the work of Klaus Kinski or increasingly it seems to separate deranged performance from dark personality. Separating the art from the artist in instances like this is problematic, but if nothing else the films he made with his best fiend Werner give serious, prolonged exposure to a cinematic artist the type of which, positively or negatively, we will unlikely ever see again.


By Neil Fox

On a cinematic journey sparked by Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, Neil Fox ( is an award-winning screenwriter whose short films, and feature debut ‘Wilderness’ (2017), have played to festival audiences around the globe. He is the co-founder and host of the leading film podcast The Cinematologists, the official podcast partner of the BFI national film seasons. He teaches Film at Falmouth University where he leads the Research & Innovation programme Pedagogy Futures and convenes the Sound/Image Cinema Lab. He lives in Cornwall with his wife, daughter and dog, and also writes for The Quietus, Little White Lies, Beneficial Shock and Directors Notes.

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