My Best Fiend

(Werner Herzog, 1999) Many consider Herzog to be the greatest documentary filmmaker working today. Not only does he routinely bring content and message, but his technical mastery leaves my other beloved documentarians (McElwee, Varda, Broomfield, Morris and even Wiseman) in the dust, and his spellbinding voice-overs are narcotic. Herzog’s best-known doc in the US, Grizzly Man, is also one of his weakest; he’s made much taller giants like Little Dieter Needs To Fly, The White Diamond and Lessons of Darkness. But I chose My Best Fiend for Pajiba’s “Anti-Blockbuster Documentary Festival” because of what it achieves as a story: it’s a biography and an autobiography, a love-letter to Klaus Kinski and an invective against him, a paean to extreme filmmaking, and a study of the hubris of two men who brought out the best in each other creatively. My Best Fiend doesn’t boast the breathtaking aerial camerawork of Lessons or Diamond; the breathtaking here is in footage of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, which Herzog splices in between languorous recollections of his relationship with Kinski, one of the finest actors this planet’s ever seen when his mania could be contained and redirected into the shot (skeptics need only look as far as his performance in Nosferatu to be silenced once and for all).

Herzog often works with the unstable or disenfranchised (see Stroszek, Grizzly Man, or even Dieter), and while some may call this exploitative, it also makes sense given his own megalomania and his longstanding madness/genius motif. Crazy nurtures crazy and generates outstanding results, especially in My Best Fiend, which mythologizes Kinski and reminds us that neither he nor Herzog can be taken at face value. Herzog is a story-weaver and places the grain of salt frankly in your palm as he takes you through the history of his and Kinski’s working relationship. Kinski’s Jesus Tour is in there, as well as anecdotes about his pulverizing bathroom porcelain during 48-hour rants, but it’s the final image of an aging Kinski sporting with a butterfly that sticks in our minds.  –Ranylt Richidlis

(Originally published as part of Pajiba’s Guide to What’s Good for You series, on May 1, 2008.)

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