When did Klaus Kinski first burst upon the international film world? The evidence points to his portrayal of the obsessive Spanish expedition leader Don Lope de Aguirre in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God in 1973. He followed that with other critically praised performances in Andrzej Zulawski’s The Most Important Thing: Love (1975), Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Woyzeck (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and even appeared in mainstream commercial fare like Billy Wilder’s Buddy, Buddy (1981) and George Roy Hill’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984). But most of Kinski’s early work from 1955’s Morituri (in an uncredited bit part) up to the ‘70s were supporting roles; some were breakout parts such as 1955’s costume drama Ludwig II: Glanz und Ende wines Konigs (he was nominated for best supporting actor in the German Film Awards) or superior genre efforts like Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western The Great Silence (1968). Still, leading roles were a rarity for Kinski but one of the early exceptions was Der Rote Rausch (1962), directed by Wolfgang Schleif.
Part psychological drama, part thriller, the title Der Rote Rausch is roughly translated as “Red Rage” and the film is a solid showcase for Kinski’s mesmerizing screen presence and an early indication of how he would soon be typecast often in villainous, menacing or psycho roles due to his striking but unconventional facial features. At this point he had already appeared as suspicious characters in five Edgar Wallace thrillers made in Germany in the popular crime genre known as Krimi (an obvious influence on the later Italian giallo thrillers). But Der Rote Rausch takes a much more sympathetic approach to Kinski’s obviously unstable protagonist and unfolds like a dress rehearsal for more serious later work like Herzog’s Woyzeck where he plays a simple working class man who is dehumanized by the military and the medical establishment.
Under the opening credits, Kinski as Josef Stief, a mental patient, escapes from a psychiatric hospital for the insane. He flees into the countryside and is eventually seen scurrying through the marshland where he collapses from sheer exhaustion. A group of field workers on their lunch break come to his rescue, including Katrin (Brigitte Grothum), whose father owns a large working farm. Katrin at first calls out the name Martin, mistaking him for her missing husband who disappeared five years earlier. But this new arrival is clearly a stranger who tells the farmers he too is named “Martin.” Martin is given refuge and work on the family farm. It is assumed he is a refugee fleeing persecution of some kind from somewhere over the German border. Martin’s assimilation into this small, tight-knit community is tentative at best. Despite his skills as a mechanic, he mostly remains a strange and uncommunicative outsider with his co-workers. Only Katrin and her young daughter Hanni (Christine Ratej) take an immediate liking to Martin which eventually creates complications for everyone, especially Karl (Sieghardt Rupp); he has been pressuring Katrin to marry him but his true motives may be suspect.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Der Rote Rausch is how Martin’s real background and identity is slowly revealed through the character’s paranoid actions and behavior. His main concern is being identified in the local news as the escaped-mental-patient-at-large and lives in fear of being captured and sent back to his cell. A great deal of suspense is generated in the first half of the film as Martin escapes detection time and time again through his own craftiness or pure coincidence. All we really know about him comes from a brief scene with two asylum doctors after his escape where they surmise he may or may not be dangerous if left alone in the company of an attractive woman.
When the truth is revealed, Der Rote Rausch builds toward a tragic and borderline hysterical climax that is as reactionary as the angry villagers chasing down the Frankenstein monster with torches. [Spoiler alert] It turns out that Martin aka Josef Stief has murdered four women. The first victim became the catalyst for his homicidal behavior after she rejected Martin as a lover; she was wearing a pearl necklace and that became the trigger for the subsequent murders (the victims all wore one). That kind of cod psychology seems antiquated even by 1962 standards but Der Rote Rausch seems to come from an earlier era in terms of providing a positive and therapeutic approach to mental illness. The little we do see of conditions at the asylum (mostly through Martin’s feverish memories or delusions) show him confined to a bare room with a narrow opening in the doorway for monitoring by guards. And his abject terror of the place suggests a lot worse. Electric shock? Ice water immersions? Sadistic treatment by the staff? There is no evidence of any progressive therapy for his mental state at all.
The final scene in Der Rote Rausch seems to confirm that the asylum is the only logical place for someone like Martin. Yet the fact remains that the first half of the film develops him as a sympathetic and potentially productive person, only to demonize him as an incurable psychopath. Because of this, Der Rote Rausch is ultimately unsuccessful as either a psychological drama or a thriller. However, there are some compensations and the film is certainly not dull. The bleak, wintry landscape of the German countryside is an appropriately remote setting for the tragic events that unfold (cinematography by Walter Bartsch) and the brooding mood is enhanced by Hans-Martin Majewski’s atmospheric score. Brigitte Grothum makes an appealing heroine who is more earth mother than a realistic romantic partner for Martin but Marina Petrova as Anna, the local barmaid and femme fatale, easily steals her scenes as a man-hungry vixen who almost meets a well-deserved fate in a key scene with Martin.
More importantly, Der Rote Rausch confirms Kinski’s early promise as a fascinating and unpredictable actor, one who can project vulnerability and naivety one minute and pure menace the next. The scene where he entertains young Hanni with a puppet show in the barn is a radical departure from his usual scene-chewing persona in genre films like Crawlspace (1986) and highly amusing in contrast.
At the same time, the scenes toward the end when he visits the city to buy a gift for the child and has a complete mental collapse after being identified next to his wanted poster conveys a sense of real tragedy that seems to belong to a different movie. No matter what he does, Kinski commands the screen almost effortlessly and Der Rote Rausch is well worth seeing for any Klaus devotee.
Currently Der Rote Rausch is not available on DVD in the U.S. from a licensed distributor. You might be able to find a German import of it but you will probably need an all-region DVD player to view it. European Trash Cinema offers a better than average DVD-R of the film that looks like it came from a commercial-free television broadcast with English subtitles in the lower frame.