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Why Klaus Kinski

Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtaxed.
-- Oliver Wendall Holmes

"So why Klaus Kinski?"

If you're asking yourself (and me) that question, believe me, you won't be the first. And probably not the last either. For quite some time I have wanted to take an issue of ER, divide it up among our staff, and devote it to one single subject, be it a genre, a director, an actor...whatever. In fact, the single subject issue is something I have been toying around with for some time now, and while it won't become the standard for ER, I expect that you'll be seeing more than your share of them in the future. But anyway...I finally decided on Kinski while eating dinner with the Gonster and B one night, and as the following weeks stretched into months, I found myself being questioned on several fronts by many different people. Staff, friends, fellow editors, subscribers and the like started addressing that very question in my direction..."Why Kinski?"

Well, the answer to that question isn't immediately apparent, even to me. There are members of the exploitation film industry whose work I admire and respect more. George Romero, John Waters, Stuart Gordon, Ed O'Ross, and the list goes on. But they've all been done before, with the possible exception of O'Ross, and his day is soon to come. What more can be said about Romero's Zombie Trilogy? Waters himself has written two books, and they pretty well cover his early films, and Gordon is the subject of far too many fan-boy articles already. Argento? No thanks, even I wouldn't be interested in reading another article on the guy, unless it provided some startling new insight into his work...like if it turned out that all of his films were actually directed by Vic Tayback while Dario took the credit.

I know, I know...I'm stalling. "Why Kinski?"

Well, I guess it comes down to one thing more than anything else...I'm in awe of the man. Okay, maybe "awe" isn't exactly the right word, probably "marvel" is more in line with my feelings about Klaus...it has more of a circus sideshow feel to it. Oh, is that laughter I hear in the background? Well, you tell me how to feel about a man who has:

  • made over 120 film appearances.
  • worked with such diverse directors as Billy Wilder, David Lean, Menahem Golan, Jess Franco and Werner Herzog.
  • appeared in Academy Award nominated spectacles like DR. ZHIVAGO as well as dubious epics like JACK THE RIPPER.
  • starred with such names as Clint Eastwood, the recently deceased Lee Van Cleef, William Holden, Christopher Lee, Stewart Granger, Franco Nero, Sybil Danning, and Frankie Avalon.
  • been committed to an insane asylum.
  • petted heavily with his sister.
  • written a book that was pulled by its publisher.
  • spent time in a prisoner of war camp.
  • had, by his own account, at least 162 sexual encounters with actresses, neighbors, whores, schoolgirls, lesbians, Israeli Army colonels, film extras and so on, and so on.
  • I guess my fascination with Kinski began in 1978, which was an incredibly important year in my life. Yes, it was the year my family got cable. This is an important turning event in the life of any young film fan, and I was no exception. Days and nights were spent flicking through the dial, catching the latest on the New York stations, the national cable channels, and most importantly, the local all-movie pay channel.

    KILL OR BE KILLED. THE HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS. ROADHOUSE. PANDEMONIUM. NORTH DALLAS FORTY. SLAPSHOT. The list goes on...it was also the place where I first saw NOSFERATU-PHANTOM DER NACHT, my first Klaus Kinski flick.

    Kinski as NosferatuNow, when I first saw NOSFERATU, it was the poorly-made English version which was filmed at the same time as the German version. I don't know if the actors were bored with the idea of playing the scene out a second time, or if director Werner Herzog felt that they should act each scene in an exaggerated silent film fashion to compensate for the lack of intelligence in American audiences or what, but the English version of this film is one of the most comically awful travesties ever committed to film. Hokey, poorly acted and, worst of all, silly, NOSFERATU made me laugh and laugh "until I could laugh no more."

    A few months later, around Halloween, the local cable company showed the film again, and never passing up the opportunity to witness a car wreck I tuned in. But wait! What is this? The version being shown was not the awful English version, but the original German version with English subtitles. And much to my surprise it was excellent! Mind you, I would not see the original Max Schreck version until a few years later, yet I still consider the Herzog version to be wonderful, if a tad slow at parts.

    And what do you think the highlight of the film was for me? Yes, that lovable maniac himself, Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu. Here, the character's personality and sad plight come through in Kinski's performance...not so in the English version. Here, Kinski's acting ability commands your attention (then again, so do the subtitles) and I began to wonder just who this guy play Nosferatu was.

    Eventually, the next film I would see K2 in was Billy Wilder's BUDDY, BUDDY, an awful attempt at ODD COUPLE-esque chemistry with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau recreating roles from a French farce (aren't they all?). Of meeting Wilder for the first time, Kinski writes, "The shooting of the junk is pompous, gross, hysterical, ridiculous, and boring. 'You'll shoot the serious films with Herzog and the funny ones with me,' Billy said when we met for the first time. But Billy Wilder's so-called funny movies haven't been funny in years, while Werner Herzog's films would be inadvertently funny, if I followed his so-called direction" (pg. 262 of the incredible Kinski auto-bio, All I Need is Love). Despite the insanity running rampant in his brain, Kinski is spot-on here, as BUDDY, BUDDY is a grossly unfunny film. However, when I realized that the same man playing Dr. Zuckerbroot was also Nosferatu, I was amazed. From a bald, pointy-eared vampire to a slick-haired sex clinic head...hey, maybe I'd have to keep an eye out for this guy.

    As time went on and I began seeing more and more films, Kinski would pop up in the oddest places...in a western with Clint Eastwood...in a car with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif at the end of DR. ZHIVAGO...as the son of a Nazi war criminal who crawled through heating ducts to spy on ugly women...as the head of a psychiatric clinic who was boffing a wealthy patient...there seemed to be no end to the man's range. And while the movies he was featured in weren't always the greatest, he had the ability to infuse even the worst of them with a genuinely manic sense.

    I guess Spanish director and fellow misogynist Jess Franco (who directed K2 in several films) summed it up best in response to the question "What do you think about Klaus Kinski" [in SHOCK XPRESS Vol. 3 #1, Summer 1989] when he said:

    "He is very clever, very cultivated, and he knows exactly what he is doing and he does it perfectly. Kinski has an incredibly strong personality. You're watching a film, he enters the frame, and everybody jumps. He's got this power...The only small problem I had with Klaus was when we did EL CONDE DRACULA. He said to me, 'You think you are a modern director, and you bring me into a studio instead of a real asylum.' So I said, 'Listen Klaus, I wanted to do it like that, but I thought they would never release you after...' He burst out laughing, called me a bastard, and the matter was quickly forgotten. We are good friends, and he made some sacrifices on his usual salary to shoot with me. I would like to make other films with him, because with Klaus, you already have half of the film."

    That really sums up the power of Kinski for me, though. He has a spark, an energy that comes across even in dreck like CODENAME: WILDGEESE or HIS NAME WAS KING. I will admit that at times he isn't the world's greatest actor, but remember this...he has made well over 120 films, and I bet he's been good in more than he was bad. Well, maybe I'm stretching it there...

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