Of all the actor-director friendships in cinema history, perhaps none is more storied and tumultuous than the one between acclaimed New German Cinema director Werner Herzog and his muse/enemy actor Klaus Kinski. The pair truly define what it means to be best frenemies, as exemplified by these absolutely insane Herzog and Kinski stories.
Despite their combative relationship, which included death threats and fisticuffs, the pair worked together on five films over 15 years. Those films include four masterpieces: Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979), Woyzeck (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Their final project, Cobra Verde (1987), was the duo's only big screen miss.
All of the crazy Klaus Kinski stories that have been told throughout the years make a fair case for him being the most insanely inhospitable actor in the history of cinema, a man known for unwarranted violent fits of rage and petulant behavior. Herzog, on the other hand, is known for calmness, artistic integrity, and passion for filmmaking. But don’t think Herzog is innocent. He's the kind of director who asks his cast and crew to literally risk their lives for a shoot, taking them into uncharted jungles, where he turns filmmaking into a game of survival. Herzog pushed Kinksi’s buttons to get the performances he wanted from the actor. Sometimes that button pushing led to near fatal consequences.
Despite the pair’s polar-opposite personalities, or maybe even because of them, Herzog and Kinski worked together to create amazing art. Read all the wild Werner Herzog tales below and discover one of German cinema's most tempestuous friendships.
Herzog's Plot To Murder Kinski Was Stopped By The Actor's Dog
In My Best Fiend, a documentary about his relationship with Kinski, Herzog confessed he plotted to murder the actor. He may have gotten away it were it not for Kinski's dog. The murderous drama (nearly) unfolded on the set of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982).
Herzog's plan was simple: set fire to Kinski's house. Luckily, Kinski's dog attacked Herzog before he could fire up the deadly blaze. What pushed Herzog to such extremes? He explained his rocky relationship with Kinski during an interview after the premiere of Fiend at the Cannes Film Festival.
"We had a great love, a great bond, but both of us planned to murder each other. Klaus was one of the greatest actors of the century, but he was also a monster and a great pestilence. Every single day I had to think of new ways of domesticating the beast," Herzog said.
Herzog Threatened To Shoot Kinksi And Himself When The Actor Tried To Walk Way From Aguirre
The difficulty of filming 1972 West German epic Aguirre, the Wrath of God is the stuff of cinema legend. The movie is about an insane soldier (Kinksi, of course) in search of gold. Kinski got so angry one day on set that, in a blind rage, he picked up a gun and fired off three shots, one of which blew off the top joint of an extra's finger. He then asserted he was finished with the movie. But there was no way in hell Herzog would let the star of his film walk away in the middle of production.
The director picked up a gun himself (where did all these loaded guns come from?) and declared he would shoot Kinski and himself if the actor tried to leave set. It worked; Kinski completed the film. Roger Ebert later wrote the films was, "one of the great haunting visions of the cinema."
If you think Herzog wouldn't have followed through on his threat, think again. He confirmed he wasn't fooling around in the DVD commentary for Aguirre, "I would have shot him, there was no doubt and the bastard understood it was not a joke. I just out-gutted him and was more determined than he was. After that he behaved for like ten days."
Kinski Dreamed Up Terrible Tortures He Wished Upon Herzog, Including Fire Ants Pissing In His EyesPhoto: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
Klaus Kinski is well aware the best work of his esteemed filmography (more than 140 films) bloomed under Herzog's direction. That doesn't mean Kinski doesn't wish the worst, most insanely inhuman tortures on the director. In his autobiography All I Need Is Love Kinski wrote:
"Big red ants should piss in his eyes, eat his balls, penetrate his assh*le and eat his guts. He should get the plague. Syphilis. Malaria. Yellow fever. Leprosy. In vain. The more I wish the most horrible of deaths on him and treat him like the scum of the earth he is, the less I can get rid of him."
Peruvian Indians Offered To Kill Kinski For Herzog
Herzog and Kinski's fourth adventure together, Fitzcarraldo (1982), is about a crazed Irishman (Kinski) who's obsessed with building an opera house in the jungles of Peru. Perhaps no film in the history of cinema had a more treacherous shoot. The problems surrounding the multi-year production were legendary enough they warranted their very own documentary, Burden of Dreams (1982).
As one can imagine, Kinski exacerbated set tensions. He fought the crew, berating them over insignificant details. Herzog claimed the actor's behavior grew so egregious natives (the director hired hundreds of Peruvian Indians to work on the film) approached Herzog asking if they could murder Kinski for the director. “They said: ‘Shall we kill him for you?’ And I said: ‘No, for God’s sake! I still need him for shooting. Leave him to me!'”
Herzog later added he regretted (jokingly?) the lost opportunity to have Kinski killed.