Actor, director brought out best, worst in each other

Films in brief

March 17, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Werner Herzog is one of those rare filmmakers for whom the distinction between fact and fiction has remained deliberately, deliciously vague. Whether by staging elaborate productions such as "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo" or filming the ravages of the war in Kuwait, he has sought an elusive, poetic truth.

He continues that search in two absorbing, artfully executed documentaries. One looks at a legendary actor; the other introduces viewers to an unknown American hero. In "My Best Fiend," which opens today for a weeklong run at the Charles Theatre, Herzog reflects on his almost lifelong acquaintance with Klaus Kinski, who appeared in four of his most enduring films and became something of a volatile alter ego for the placid but dominating Herzog.

Herzog introduces viewers to Kinski by visiting the Munich apartment where he first encountered the actor (who rented a room in the same house) when Herzog was just 13. Herzog recalls how Kinski would barricade himself in a bathroom for 48 hours, sending himself into "raging fits." Years later, when Herzog was 28, Kinski appeared in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," the production of which gave the filmmaker direct experience in how mercurial, cruel, charming and, by Herzog's lights, brilliant the actor could be.

The two embarked on a long and often troubled collaboration, during which each plotted to kill the other. During the filming of "Fitzcarraldo," a tribe of South American Indians was so offended by Kinski's arrogance and temper that they offered to kill him for Herzog. (The director's plot to firebomb Kinski's house was foiled only by the actor's faithful dog.) Through it all, Herzog insists, "the only thing that counted is what you see on the screen."

"My Best Fiend" uses Herzog's original film, material shot by Les Blank (his "Burden of Dreams" is a documentary about the making of "Fitzcarraldo") and archival footage of Kinski performing in Europe. It's a vivid document of creative dysfunction, the kind of neurotic relationship between artist and muse that characterizes so many fruitful collaborations. Perhaps no other director could rein in Kinski's preening vanity to create performances of startling truth and power; Herzog certainly hasn't found an actor since who so ably executed his singular vision.

Together, Herzog and Kinski, who died in 1991, created some of the most indelible and beautiful moments ever seen on screen. But watching one of the late actor's many narcissistic outbursts, one can't help but mentally address all those impressionable young filmmakers out there: Kids, please, don't try this at home.

*** 1/2

`Little Dieter' just soars

When "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" was originally released in 1997, it bypassed Baltimore. In honor of Herzog's coming production of "Tannhauser" at the Baltimore Opera, the Charles has rectified that. "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" will begin a four-day run at the theater on Monday, and everyone -- man, woman and child -- is encouraged to attend.

Dieter Dengler grew up during World War II in Germany, where he recalls U.S. airplanes whizzing past his ears. Once a plane came so close he could clearly make out the pilot's face. From that moment on, he says, he needed to fly. Toward that end, he came to the United States as a teen-ager and promptly enlisted in the Air Force, later transferring to the Navy.

On a mission in Vietnam his plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong. "Little Dieter" is the extraordinary story of Dengler's captivity and his escape, narrated by the subject with a good humor that belies the barbarity he witnessed and suffered. From eating snakes to walking barefoot through the jungles of Laos, Dengler recalls it all with disarming good cheer and objectivity. His self-possession wavers only when Herzog films him re-creating his imprisonment.

As is his style, Herzog elaborates on Dengler's story with magnificent music (Bach and Tuvan throat-singers) and terrible, beautiful images of bombs strafing the Vietnamese countryside. He also provides a running commentary on Dengler's spirited narration, explaining at one point that the war hero "hides behind the casual remark that this was the fun part of his life."

Herzog has said that in Dengler he found all the best qualities of the American spirit: independence, courage, spirit of frontier, street wisdom, good humor and a dedication to America "that goes beyond all imagination." Young people especially will be awed and edified by this man's heroism, not only in surviving a hellish experience, but also in dealing with its aftermath with such equanimity.

Herzog has done a splendid job of introducing us to Dieter Dengler, and he's a character everyone should meet.

****

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