German pioneer Werner Herzog is widely recognised as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, known for his masterful creations such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Stroszek among several others which are equally brilliant. At the centre of many of Herzog’s cinematic investigations was the prolific actor Klaus Kinski, a supremely talented artist whose performance in Aguirre has immortalised his place in cinema.
Over the course of their respective careers, Herzog and Kinski collaborated on multiple projects like Nosferatu the Vampyre, Woyzeck and Fitzcarraldo which are enjoyed by audiences to this day. However, their personal relationship was extremely turbulent and such a dynamic coupling often resulted in very volatile situations.
Although Kinski never teamed up with Herzog after the 1987 film Cobra Verde, they had noteworthy disagreements from the time of Aguirre. The film stars Kinski in an epic historical drama that launches a powerful investigation of ambition and the fallacy of man through the legend of El Dorado. Despite the fact that the film is a definitive masterpiece of New German Cinema, the stories about the production are less than ideal.
While talking about his altercations with his star Klaus Kinski, Herzog said: “He packed all his things into a speedboat and he was just about to leave. Of course, that would destroy the entire film, and I told him that I had, somehow, made up my mind months ago what would be the borderline of what could be acceptable and not. And, of course, the film, in my opinion, was at more value than his or my private feelings and disgust or whatever.”
Made on a shoestring budget, one-third of the entirety of the funds was used to pay Kinski’s fees. But the star’s demands did not stop there. Threatening to disrupt the entire production by leaving the South American rainforests where filming took place, Kinski would have jeopardised everything. Thankfully, Herzog stepped in to drive some sense into the actor’s head.
The filmmaker revealed what he had told Kinski in order to get him to stay: “I said to him, if you leave the set now, you will reach the bend – the next bend of the river and I will shoot you – will have eight bullets through your head, and the last one is going to be for me. So the bastard somehow realised that this was not a joke anymore.”
He added, “It wouldn’t have taken me one second to deliberate. And he sensed that. And he screamed for help. He screamed for the crew to help him – assist him against this madman – and he meant me. He screamed for police. But, of course, the next police station was 450 miles away. Result was that he was very docile during the last 11 days of shooting, and we finished the film.”
Researchers have discovered medical records that indicate Kinski had been diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder after he had tried to strangle a woman. In 2013, Kinski’s own daughter Pola came forward with a heartbreaking memoir in which she revealed how her father had sexually abused her on multiple occasions. Looking back at the events, it is clear that Kinski was a mentally disturbed individual who hid behind the acting personas he donned for one role after another.