Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders all began their film-making in the 60’s, but the films that brought them critical acclaim arrived almost simultaneously in the early 70’s, a trend that film critics took note of as the German New Wave. Since then, Fassbinder has O.D.’d, Wenders has taken the same mediocrity pill that Bertolluci has apparently swallowed, and Herzog is still going strong. Wenders will undoubtedly return to full strength, if only because of his innate vitality, and providing he doesn’t listen to the critics that liked the extremely tepid BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (Did anyone remember his astounding documentaries TOKYO-GA and LIGHTNING OVER WATER?). That Herzog has not wavered is clear in his own recent documentary MY BEST FIEND, an excellent departure to re-examine WOYZECK, since both are hymns to Herzog’s own creative shadow manifest, Klaus Kinzki. It is interesting that Les Blank’s account of the making of Herzog’s FITZCARALDO still did not reveal the depth of Kinski’s demon art, perhaps out of propriety. Since Kinski has passed on, Herzog clearly felt comfortable to show that not only was Kinski difficult to work with, he was a literally madman – one of those performers that astonishes us by being able to function at all while accessing the depths of shamanic heaven/hells. Having just seen MY BEST FIEND when I sat down to review WOYZECK, I had a new appreciation of Kinski. Who are the truly great actors of film? Oliver, Brando, DeNiro, Clift… I’ll let you decide who joins those ranks. Dean? Hopper? Daniel Day Lewis? Kinski, certainly!Follow this link and find out more about the best new heavy metal bands.
WOYZECK is based on an expressionist play by Georg Buchner. It is a 19th Century soldier’s final spiral in madness, and from the opening sequence, Kinski indicates the drop is not far. The first 5 minutes are at once hilarious and horrifying – Kinski-Woyzeck going through military maneuvers – half-monkey, half-wind-up doll – that indicate his last scrap of human dignity is rapidly evaporating. In watching WOYZECK, there is a single take where Kinski enters his dreary abode for a long conversation with his common-law wife. He is a man possessed. The take is extremely long and there is no doubt that he must maintain focus not only as the character, but even to remember his lines. The state he has worked himself into seems at Dionysian opposition to the Apollonian discipline he summons. This is his genius. When he does eventually murder his wife (this is not a surprise, it’s on the cover of the DVD) – there is once more an extremely long take where his wife drops out of the bottom of the frame and we only see Kinski in slow motion plunge the blade over and over. It allows us to watch his process in a shot I can’t recall an equivalent of. He is Charlie Manson incarnate when he begins the take, but it is the realization of his own deed, as his eyes well up with tears, that brings this particular scene into a rare pantheon. I have never seen an actor more clearly and painfully reveal the humanity of the mad man, an astonishingly compassionate performance that touches areas that have not been explored since Peter Lorre’s final monologue before the kangaroo court in M. One can only speculate as to why the Germans have been best at revealing the darkest elements that still remain human, if only by a thread. (Hitler weeps & an angel strokes his ebon hair.) The fact that Herzog may have deliberately chosen to not bloody the knife that plunges into Woyzeck’s wife, or even show her at all as this scene unwinds, makes me wonder if we are meant only to meditate on Woyzeck’s mental state, as if the whole thing could be his fever dream. A film like WOYZECK is built around his brilliance, but it’s Kinski legacy in B movies like New Line’s god-awful CREATURE that show he is acting in a mode that seems a full 100 years ahead of everyone else, where impossibly mediocre lines are given fire. He burned his way into my memory as a teenager when I saw Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE – Van Cleef confronts his twitching hunchback character in a saloon and I remembered him every since, long before I learned his name. At the end of MY BEST FIEND, there is a moment in the Amazon jungles where Kinski plays with a butterfly. It literally won’t leave him alone, as if he were St. Francis. Kinski smiles beatifically. It made me weep, for it seemed that some power of truth and beauty was pumping itself through his body at that moment, dispelling any doubt that art and mysticism can meet, and I believe that this is the focus of Herzog’s main fascination, not merely a meeting of discipline and madness, but the only tangible proof for Herzog that there might be a higher power in the face of such an absurd, suffering universe.