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My Best Fiend (1999) is Werner Herzog’s tribute to the infamous Klaus Kinski, arguably one of the most difficult actors to work with in cinematic history. While Burden of Dreams somewhat downplays Kinski’s antics, My Best Fiend offers an unflinching look at the man through the eyes of someone who saw him as just that: a man.
My Best Fiend begins with Herzog visiting an apartment that he lived in with his siblings and his mother during the 1950s. For several months Kinski also lived in the building, and through an extended sequence Herzog recounts how Kinski locked himself in a bathroom and destroyed it, how he freaked out about shirts not being ironed right, and other outbursts. One would think that these kind of experiences would deter Herzog from working with Kinski in the future, but instead he went on to survive five feature films with him.
This documentary features mostly Herzog recounting what happened during the shooting of their films together. He expresses frustrations and abuses he, too, faced, at one point even admitting to wanting to fire bomb the man’s house. He intercuts his own experiences with those of others who also worked on the films. One extra recalls how Kinski shot bullets into a hut where others were sleeping and shot off a man’s fingertip, and he also recalls how Kinski hit him in the head but the helmet saved him. Throughout the documentary appears footage to show the recollections as they unfold.
These extreme outbursts from Kinski become the core theme that binds many of these interviews. Fueling these outbursts is a megalomania that Herzog describes in this way: “Mosquitoes were not allowed in his jungle, and neither was rain.” Herzog goes into detail about things that happened on the set of Burden of Dreams, for example explaining how the actor needed to be the center of attention at all times, even when a man had sawed off his own foot save his life after a snakebite.
Herzog also attempts to move away from the theatrics in order to show more the human side of Kinski. Two actresses in particular, Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes, recall the actor as more kind, caring, and professional. Mattes in particular recalls how Kinski comforted her when she was upset at the shooting wrapping up.
Scenes from Herzog’s films with Kinski show the actor’s passion and brilliance in his performance. We see a range: He rages in some scenes, while he remains vulnerable in others.
Another way in which Herzog moves away from this fiery character is through the closing shot of the film. In it Kinksi interacts with the butterfly that lands on his face and his fingers, and the actor wordlessly looks at the creature with a sense of calm and wonder.
My Best Fiend offers a deep understanding of Kinski’s brilliance and difficulties along with Herzog’s own frustrations and admiration for him.