Ford and Wayne, Hitchcock and Stewart, Truffaut and Léaud, Scorsese and De Niro: these are just a few of film history’s most beloved collaborations between a director and an actor who never threatened to murder one another. If we remove that qualifier, however, the list lengthens to include the work of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, Herzog directed Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde — to the extent, in any case, that the volatile Kinski was directable at all. The clip above captures just one of his explosions, this one on the set of Fitzcarraldo.
“By some rare chance, I was not the brunt of it this time,” Herzog says over the footage, which comes from his documentary on Kinski, My Best Fiend. “I didn’t bother to interfere because Kinski, compared with his other outbreaks, seemed rather mild.” But the star’s ravings proved “a real problem for the Indians, who solved their conflicts in a totally different manner.”
For the production had recruited a number of native locals, operating as it was in the Peruvian jungle for maximum realism. (Its story of an aspiring rubber baron dragging a steamship over a hill also necessitated, at Herzog’s insistence, dragging a real steamship over a real hill.) At one point a chief offered to kill Kinski, but Herzog had to turn him down. There was a movie to finish, and he’d already shot almost half of it once, with Jason Robards in the title role, but when Robards came down with dysentery he was forced to re-cast and re-shoot.
A normal filmmaker would perhaps hesitate to introduce a notoriously erratic actor into an already difficult production — but then, Herzog is hardly a normal filmmaker. He was also one of the few directors who could work with Kinski, the two having known each other since they lived in the same boarding house as teenagers. (In My Best Fiend, Herzog remembers the young Kinski locking himself in the bathroom for two days and tearing it apart.) While shooting Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog had employed an unorthodox technique to put an end to Kinski’s meltdowns: pulling out a gun. “You will have eight bullets through your head, and the last one is going to be for me,” he later recalled telling Kinski in an interview with Terry Gross. “So the bastard somehow realized that this was not a joke anymore.” All such director-actor collaborations hinge on the former knowing how to get the best performance out of the latter — by any mean necessary.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.