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MY BEST FIEND

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog
Director:  Werner Herzog
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.77:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  100 Minutes
Release Date:  August 22, 2000

Film ***

If you aren’t familiar with the infamous love/hate relationship that existed between German wunderkind director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, you may be in for quite a jolt.  My Best Fiend can only be described as a tribute (if you use the term loosely) by Herzog to the late Kinski, who teamed with him on five classic motion pictures.  You may find some of the stories a little too incredible to believe—they seem more the stuff of legends that have suffered enormous exaggeration over the years—yet outside sources have always validated them.  Heck, once you’ve looked into Kinski’s piercing eyes during the opening moments of the film, where he’s playing a rather insane and unconventional version of Jesus, you’re bound to believe this is a man capable of just about any extreme.

My Best Fiend is a good film, especially for those who have an interest in German cinema and the collaborations of Herzog and Kinski:  Aguirre:  The Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampire, Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck, and Cobra Verde (all also available or coming soon to DVD from Anchor Bay).  These pictures are all touched upon, and in some cases, such as Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, Herzog actually journeys back to the harsh Peruvian jungles where the films were made in order to recount his stories.  Herzog was famed for his obsession with authenticity and detail in his pictures:  while most filmmakers would have been happy to construct a viable and easily controlled set to shoot on, he actually put cast and crew through vigorous trials under extreme conditions, including blazing sun, hostile natives, treacherous rivers and jungles complete with wildlife, and so on.  Given Kinski’s legendary temper, Herzog’s obsessive behavior might have been just the perfect foil for it. 

Sadly, only a couple of Kinski’s tirades are caught on film here…though they’re more than enough to convince the viewer of the validity of the stories.  Others are reflected on by Herzog in a quiet, contemplative, and occasionally humorous way.  One such story involves the two living together prior to ever shooting a frame of any film, when Kinski supposedly locked himself in the bathroom for a full day, screaming and cursing and smashing everything to bits.  The porcelain was so crushed, Herzog claims you could have sifted the remains through a tennis racket and nothing would have been left on top!

So the question is asked, naturally, why would these two men continue to work under such adversity?  It’s a good question for this film, because it’s one better asked with a bit of hindsight.  Both men seemed to attribute their partnership to fate—somehow, it was their destiny to work together, and neither man could fight it.  Few could argue with the tangible results of their teamwork:  all five films I mentioned are terrific, and a few of them bona fide classics.

If there’s one aspect this movie fails to touch upon, it’s Herzog’s own contributions to the squabbles.  Yes, Kinski had the violent, uncontrollable temper that could be set off with the slightest provocation, but cinema historians often ascertain that Herzog could be equally as volatile and stubborn.  Here, we see Herzog more like the victim than an equal, even down to the point where he mentions helping Kinski come up with the vile words to describe Herzog in his autobiography to help it sell more copies. 

The film therefore lacks a bit of the punch that Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, shot during the making of Fitzcarraldo, had.  It showed much more of the conflict between the two men, and with more objectivity.  Alas, that title isn’t available on DVD yet.  Still, My Best Fiend is certainly potent enough to capture and keep the viewer’s interest, with a look back at some classic films and a juicy, almost gossip-like quality to the information and stories about how these talented artists both hated and loved each another, suffered under the extreme duress of the other’s presence, and even tried (reportedly) to kill one another, yet through it all, managed to create some of cinema’s most enduring and lasting images.

Video ***

The video quality, as with most documentaries, is not as reference quality as a standard feature film might be, but overall, I find nothing really to complain about.  The widescreen image is anamorphically enhanced, and for the most part, renders perfectly well, with a very natural look captured in part probably by paying less attention to lighting, decoration, and other technical considerations.  The film is straightforward; the look is straightforward.  I noticed no evidence of grain, break-up, shimmer or other distractions that could be attributed to compression, though there are instances of older film clips mixed in with the new, and some of these naturally exhibit a bit more wear, though all are perfectly watchable.

Audio ***

As with the video, I find nothing much to either complain about or praise with this Dolby 2 channel surround mix (for both English and German languages).  I didn’t really notice much discreet used of the rear channels or the subwoofer, but in a film of this nature, they aren’t really missed.  What’s best is that dialogue is very clean and clear, no matter which language you choose, and the dynamic range is fairly good as well, showing itself off mostly during—what else?  Kinski’s tantrums.

Features *

The disc only contains a trailer.  Some of Anchor Bay’s releases of Werner Herzog discs contain a commentary track with the director, but honestly, in this case, it wasn’t needed.  The format of the film is Herzog’s personal reflections and remembrances, so it pretty much plays with all the information you’d expect from a running commentary.

Summary:

My Best Fiend will appeal most to cinema students or fans of the Herzog/Kinski films, but I’d wager very few casual viewers will find the program a bore.  This is a wonderful and personal look into the history of one of cinema’s most volatile-yet-productive pairings, even if it is a bit one-sided from time to time.  It’s certainly too bad that Klaus Kinski is no longer with us—I’d love to see his reaction to this picture!