Madness Contained: Werner Herzog’s Return to the ‘scene of the crime’

By Brad Prager

aguirre-wrath-of-god-werner-herzog.jpgAguirre: The Wrath of God, 1972

Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend (1999) begins with footage of a young Klaus Kinski engaging in a larger than life concert as part of his “Jesus Tour”. In an over-the-top performance, Kinski explains to the crowd that he is not the Jesus of their parents, but is instead the new Jesus, filled with anger and intolerance. Although this footage is not excerpted from one of Herzog’s earlier films, it certainly could have been. Kinski behaves outrageously and excessively, confronting members of the audience and snarling at them. We know, however, that Herzog has affection for this type of lunacy. Not only he has he repeatedly said as much, but he has also taken an interest in other, similarly larger-than-life characters including, for example, Timothy Treadwell, the naturalist at the center of Grizzly Man, and Gene Scott, the televangelist featured in God’s Angry Man. There is a madness in such figures that appeals to Herzog insofar as it is a rejection of bourgeois norms.

That Kinski put his finger squarely in the eye of the bourgeois is an impression we get most strongly in the film’s early sequences, ones in which we are taken into a house in Munich where Herzog happened to have resided with Kinski when the director was only thirteen years old. We see that the boarding house has now been turned into the home of a genteel couple, the Baron and Baroness von der Recke. Looking into the camera, Herzog tells stories about Kinski’s ravings. He narrates how Kinski would lock himself in the bathroom for hours and even days on end, smashing the fixtures to bits. Herzog says: “In his fits of maniacal fury he smashed everything to smithereens, the bathtub, the toilet bowl, everything. You could sift it through a tennis racket.” While presenting us with an image of his refined hosts, Herzog offers an example of some of Kinski’s most inappropriate behaviour. We hear the actor reading lines about a stew of dog shit and foul bath water mixed with monkey’s piss. Herzog allows Kinski’s voice to hover above the images, as if forcing his intrusion into this bourgeois home. While Kinski rants about animal fluids, the camera pans across the von der Reckes’ well stocked kitchen and polished cookware.

Kinski’s ravings continue as we watch Herzog travel to the Urubamba valley where the two had once filmed Aguirre, Wrath of God. Herzog, it seems, has charged himself with the task of mining his memories in order to find out what Kinski meant to him. He is pursuing an answer to the question of whether Kinski was more than just explosive behaviour and desperate attempts to prove that he could outsize the screen. In the interest of exploring his own past, Herzog returns to what might be described as the scene of the crime. Aguirre was the first collaboration between the two, and Herzog revisits the Urubamba valley with the intention of retracing their steps. This is not the only occasion on which he has gone back to South America to revisit a site of emotional intensity. This return to Peru may well have been contemporaneous with his work on Wings of Hope, a film released in that same year in which he took Juliane Köpcke, a woman who had survived a plane crash in the Peruvian jungle, back to the scene of the accident, and encouraged her to walk with him along the same river she walked following the tragedy that took her parents from her. Between these two films there is most certainly a parallel. The idea of bringing someone back to a difficult scene and reliving it in the interest of attaining cinematic truths informs Herzog’s own actions. Both films are about retracing the past and retelling a story. Here, however, Herzog and his own memory are the objects of his camera’s scrutiny.

fitzcarraldo-werner-herzog.jpgFitzcarraldo, 1982

Returning to the scene is significant because this film is really about how one comes to terms with a loss. My Best Fiend deals with Herzog’s loss of Kinski, or his attempt to properly mourn the actor who died eight years earlier. Arguably, the film attends to what happens when one begins to process the loss of a loved one. As psychoanalysis would express it, losses such as these are difficult because we cannot accept that the part of those persons close to us that existed outside and independent of us is gone. Herzog has said that when Kinski died, “the fact did not enter [his] heart until months later”. He adds, “I needed to let time pass and I knew time would have the mysterious power to change perspective, and because of that the film has humour and warmth” [1] Seen in psychoanalytic terms – terms to which Herzog himself is generally indifferent – unassimilated losses are transformed into melancholy, and for that reason it is important to find ways to work such losses through. According to Freud’s famous study Mourning and Melancholia, something within us comes to stand for or represent a lost loved one, and when a loss is not dealt with we reject that part of us in anger and finally turn our inwardly directed anger into a form of depression.

Herzog’s friendship with Kinski was clearly a meaningful bond. The two were frequently described as doppelgänger of one another, and he has portrayed the relationship as being similar to that which exists between identical twins. Whether as twin, double, friend or fiend, Kinski was obviously a part of Herzog, which puts a more sentimental spin on one of the most moving moments of My Best Fiend, when Herzog follows the question Kinski asked aloud at the very end of Aguirre (“who is with me?”) with the sound of his own voice responding, “I was with him.” Although Herzog includes in this film a good deal of footage depicting how difficult Kinski could be, especially footage from the production of Fitzcarraldo, My Best Fiend is much more about taking possession of the memory of Kinski in a generous way. It is about how a filmmaker can, through film, go about redrawing the memory of someone “dear” to them, as the film’s German title (Mein liebster Feind or “My Dearest Fiend”) expresses it.

In some ways My Best Fiend is not only about re-narrating the past, or telling the story in a way that allows Herzog to come to terms with the loss, it is also about how such a goal is achieved cinematically. Because so much of their relationship took place on film, coming to terms with its end may be best done on film as well. In this regard, a telling sequence comes when Herzog looks back at one of Kinski’s earliest film roles, his part in Children, Mother, and the General (1955), and has us watch with him Kinski’s performance of a scene in which he wakes up, lifts his head and opens his eyes. Herzog edits the sequence into his film three times in a row. He had first viewed the scene at age fifteen, and though he offers no interpretation of his specific fascination with it, he says: “the way [Kinski] wakes up will forever stay in my memory. This one moment impressed me so profoundly that later it was a decisive moment in my professional life.” He adds, “strange how memory can magnify something like that. The following scene, in which he orders Maximilian Schell to be shot, seems much more impressive to me today.”

aguirre-wrath-of-god-werner-herzog-2.jpgAguirre: The Wrath of God, 1972

The repetition of the single moment is of course reminiscent of other repetitions in Herzog’s work, such as the lines that are spoken again and again by the two policemen in Last Words, or the reiterated image of a plane landing at the very start of Fata Morgana. Such repetition leads nowhere and can be said to serve as a temporal analogue to Herzog’s ever-appearing circular pans. This particular scene is still more significant when the film is viewed from the perspective of how one comes to terms with loss. Herzog repeats the memory again and again: It may be evidence of a failed attempt to move on, to get past certain memories, or it may be instead seen as an inability to recapture a vanished connection, one that keeps slipping away.

As he has done elsewhere, Herzog here recounts the story of the final frames of Aguirre, a sequence he is said to have directed from behind a loaded rifle. He gets to tell it his way, and although we may already know the “truth” – that Herzog was unarmed, that he merely threatened to shoot Kinski, and that the tale was mostly exaggerated by the press – the story in this context serves the function of drawing him closer to Kinski or of publicly closing a wound. Telling the story his own way is part of re-narrating the relationship, though one should also point out that it gives the director the last word in their tempestuous relationship. Along these lines, he provides the film with a poetic ending of the type found in The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner and in other films, one that is meant to remind us that the work is not a “document”, but that it is ultimately subjective and poetic. We see footage of Kinski playing with a butterfly, apparently quite gently, and Herzog says: “This is the way I’d like to keep him in my memory.” Not only does the director have the last word, but he also presents us with a portrait of Kinski as a tamed beast. The actor was typically wild, and like the characters Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, his passions could hardly conform to the constraints of reality. This ending, however, implies that those passions could indeed be contained, both in memory and on the screen.


[1] Citation from p.285,  Herzog on Herzog, ed. Paul Cronin (Faber and Faber: London, 2002).

Extract from The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth by Brad Prager, published by Wallflower Press.

Brad Prager is an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He teaches in the Department of German and Russian Studies and in the Program in Film Studies. He is the author of Aesthetic Vision and German Romanticism: Writing Images (Camden House, 2007) as well as numerous scholarly articles on literature and film.