Klaus Kinski: Directors Loved to Watch Him Go

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By most accounts, Klaus Kinski was a sonofabitch.

This is a sentiment not forgotten on Scream Factory’s blu-ray release of Crawlspace in December.

'Crawlspace'

‘Crawlspace’

Among the bonus features on the release, is writer/director David Schmoeller’s short film, Please Kill Mr. Kinski, wherein Schmoeller tells of his difficulties working with Kinski on the set of Crawlspace.

Schmoeller recalls a plot to kill Kinski, in a Spalding-Gray-like narrative, that hatched when the plan to fire the madman was rejected by investors because of Kinski’s marquee appeal.

The director went into the project excited about getting the chance to direct Kinski, but once on the set, he quickly learned his excitement was en route to a horrific implosion.

It’s probably best summed up with one quote from Schmoeller.

“On the fifth day, Kinski declared war on me.”

It wasn’t the first time Kinski’s life was allegedly threatened by one or more people on a film crew because of his difficult nature. The history between Kinski and writer/director Werner Herzog is legendary.

Herzog’s film, Fitzcarraldo, features Kinksi as a man obsessed with bringing opera to the jungles of South America by any means necessary. Those means ultimately become hinged upon the nearly impossible task of moving a giant boat over a mountain to access virgin rubber trees and a transport channel to turn them into millions of dollars.

Herzog, a man sometimes accused of being slightly mad in his own right, didn’t screw around with special effects, extravagant amenities for the crew, or shortcuts to make things easy.

No.

Not Herzog.

Herzog insisted on really going balls deep into the jungle, and really employing the natives in the area to facilitate in hauling a real giant boat, up a really steep mountainside.

Having worked with Kinski in three previous films, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Nosferatu The Vampyre, and Woyzeck, he had to know this was a nuclear-powered scenario and his main reactor would likely have a meltdown.

Not only did Herzog threaten to put eight bullets into Kinski’s head if he tried to abandon the project and escape by boat, but even the natives hired to work on the film made Herzog a standing offer to kill him at a moment’s notice.

Herzog and Kinski’s love hate relationship became fodder for books, interviews, and films, for both men for many years. They both loved to stoke the publicity fire with tales of their clashes, but did seemingly explode on one another under working conditions.

Herzog explains their dynamic relationship quite well in his documentary, My Best Friend:

(Clips from the documentary)

It is often said conflict is at the heart of great storytelling. It is the friction that must be smoothed over as characters discover themselves, make realizations, and grow across the story’s arc. In retrospect, one has to wonder if Kinski believed this friction was necessary on the set for actors to access emotions deep enough to be captured by a camera’s cold eye.

Did he create incendiary environments on set just to drag everyone else into a heightened emotional state to enhance the final product, or did he simply do it because he was an egomaniacal jackass who just liked kicking over proverbial sandcastles on the beach?

As someone who wasn’t there who has only heard stories of his antics second, or even third hand, it’s hard to tell. It’s a question that will remain pure speculation now that Kinski fulfilled the wishes of so many of his coworkers throughout his career and finally died.

While directors, interviewers, and others, have countless stories of dealing with Klaus Kinski the man, Klaus Kinsi the actor, the one we see on the screen, is superb.

He allegedly considered himself a genius, who didn’t need the praise of the public, or critics, to keep him focused and motivated about his work. He would like us to believe he did it all for the sake of art.

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We can only presume that to be a facade to keep us from seeing his underlying insecurities, and it is probably his ability to construct such facades that made him the great actor he could be when he so desired.

While Schmoeller spends much of his short documentary about Kinski regarding his experience with him on the set of Crawlspace describing what an intolerable jackass the man was, he couldn’t help but follow it up with praise.

“He really was great to watch,” Schmoeller said.

Had Schmoeller succeeded in getting Kisnki fired, most of us likely wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about Crawlspace. As it stands though, Crawlspace is one of those compellingly creepy films that will likely continue to be re-released every time a new viewing format becomes the industry standard.

For that reason, I say may God have mercy on Kinski’s soul, whether he wants to or not.

Lee Arnold is the cohost of the Acid Pop Cult podcast and sometimes contributor to their website. We bribed him with schwag and actually coerced him to write something for us, and this is what we got. You can hear a discussion about Klaus Kinski and his films with Werner Herzog on Episode 58: Death to All Klaus Kinskis.

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