‘My Best Fiend’ is a curiosity in many respects, not least because its translated English title (a one-letter-short corruption of “my best friend”) is wittier and far more effective than the German ‘Mein Leibster Feind’ (purpose of comparison: “feind”/“freunde” … not quite the same, is it?).
It’s a curiosity because I don’t know of any other director (though please feel free to correct me on this) making a film about his alter ego. My imagination takes over at this point. Kurosawa on Mifune: ‘My Best Samurai’. Losey on Bogarde: ‘My Best Repressed Englishman’. Scorsese on de Niro: ‘My Best Italian-American Before I Chucked Him For Leo’ …
Sorry, I digress. How you perceive ‘My Best Fiend’ depends on your definition of a documentary. Should it be an exercise in objectivity? If so, ‘My Best Fiend’ can be disallowed, purely because of Herzog’s relationship with his subject. (By this definition, Michael Moore’s entire output can also be excluded … they’re polemics, not documentaries. But, like ‘My Best Fiend’, they’re also good: provocative, compelling, always interesting to watch.)
In Herzog’s defence, he made the film almost a decade after Kinski’s death. No knee-jerk reaction or quick cash in. Also, he allows for the fact that Kinski can’t, by dint of mortality, have his say by allowing Eva Mattes and Claudia Cardinale (KK’s co-stars on ‘Woyzeck’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’ respectively) to have theirs: both women attest to Kinski’s chivalrous, gentlemanly side. Mattes, particularly, pays attention to Kinski’s brilliance as an actor (the accompanying clip from ‘Woyzeck’ proves her point in fine style). The final scene, archive footage of Kinski, a childish grin on his face, watching a butterfly flit along his hand then alight on his ear, allows the audience to take away from the film a human, likeable Kinski, rather than the ranting egomaniac depicted in so many other scenes.
Herzog recounting KK’s threatened walk-off during the filming of ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ – Herzog tells him, very quietly and calmly, that he has a rifle and before Kinski reaches the next bend in the river, there’ll be eight bullets in him (“and the ninth will be for me”).
Kinski having a stand-up row (that quickly degenerates into the spectacle of a grown man determinedly throwing his toys out of the pram) with a producer on ‘Fitzcarraldo’. Herzog comes out of this scene just as badly, hovering in the background instead of bringing his errant star into line. The unfortunate producer, it must however be said, throws it back at Kinski in fine style … I’d love to stand the man a pint for his utter refusal to take Kinski’s shit.
Footage of Kinski’s controversial ‘Jesus’ tour, a one-man theatrical revue where he cast himself, in contemporary dress and language, as the abused and suffering Christ … only to abuse his audience vehemently for heckling.
There can be no doubt that Kinski was a victim of his own ego. Yet, for all that he recounts their clashes with avuncular calmness, there’s more than a hint of ego to Herzog’s centrality to ‘My Best Fiend’. At times, it seems less about Kinski than Herzog himself.
My partner, very much a newcomer to Herzog’s cinema and with only the sketchiest notion of who Kinski was, watched ‘My Best Fiend’ and offered the comment: “It’s like they both needed each other. Not surprising, really: they’re as mad as each other.”