Gaze into the Face of Madness!

The critically acclaimed but notoriously difficult actor Klaus Kinski in a photograph from his early years as a stage and film actor.

I’ve always thought that you had to be a little crazy to be a great actor and Klaus Kinski was more than a little crazy. If you don’t believe me read his purple prose autobiography Kinski Uncut which was also published under the title All I Need is Love in 1988. Or watch Werner Herzog’s 1999 film biography Mein liebster Feind (My Best Fiend-Klaus Kinski) about the German director’s volatile relationship with the actor. Better yet, try to get your hands on Paganini (aka Kinski Paganini), the actor’s only directorial effort and his final film, which was released in 1989. For those with all-region DVD players, you can still find PAL copies of it on Amazon’s German web site in a double disc release from SPV Recordings. If you thought Ken Russell’s film biographies of Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1970) and Liszt (Lisztomania, 1975) were excessively over-the-top and in flamboyant bad taste, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Paganini also features supporting roles for French actor Bernard Blier (Les Miserables, 1958), Dalilia Di Lazzaro (Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, 1973), Eva Grimaldi (Joe D’amoto’s Convent of Sinners, 1986), Marcel Marceau as – big surprise – a pantomine artist and Kinski’s wife Debora Capriolglio in her first lead role.

Kinski imagines his muse as a rock superstar of his era – think Mick Jagger with a violin in the 19th century and the film reflects Kinski’s own fantasies of himself as much as it does his passion for Paganini’s music. But be forewarned: Paganini is so out of control you may not be able to get through it in one sitting. Sensory overload. Watching it in one viewing may result in an epileptic seizure.

Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini (Klaus Kinski) drives the audience crazy with his live performances in the 1989 biopic PAGANINI.

The film is no typical period biography but a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness fever dream that might be the most egotistical and obsessive star vehicle ever made. Or maybe it’s a work of genius and we just aren’t ready for it yet. Werner Herzog would disagree. He refused to direct it after Kinski requested his services. This anecdote emerged during a dinner with Herzog, Atlanta’s High Museum film curator Linda Dubler and friends in 1996 for a revival showing of his Aguirre, Wrath of God. Herzog rolled his eyes at the mention of the biopic, calling it “terrible.” He said that Kinski saw himself as Paganini, irresistible to women and a genius but that he couldn’t even frame a simple shot or tell a coherent story without his ego sabotaging his every creative impulse.

In the 1989 biopic PAGANINI the focus is always on the famous musician and no one else as seen here with Klaus Kinski stealing the scene from his co-star and wife Debora Caprioglio.

He has a point. Kinski is in almost every scene, chewing up the scenery and his co-stars with wild abandon. If you think he looks wild-eyed and possessed by the devil as the legendary violin virtuoso, you need to check out the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of Paganini because that is proof that he really was the wild man he often appeared to be. Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Jess Franco’s Count Dracula with Kinski in a wordless performance as the crazed Reinfield, and the villains from his spaghetti westerns, Edgar Wallace thrillers, and cheap genre horror and sci-fi thrillers: These are all aspects of the off-camera Klaus you’ll see in the Paganini supplements (Please note that only the main feature is offered as an English audio option on the DVD, the extras do not come with any English subtitles or audio options but you hardly need them).

Klaus Kinski directs himself in the over-the-top biopic of the famous Italian violinist PAGANINI (1989).

Better than any reality show, more hilarious than any recent so-called outrageous Hollywood comedy, the Paganini extras are worth their weight in gold for any Kinski addict. He’s certainly more fun to watch than just about any other actor I can think of but I also appreciate the fact that I’m not in the same room with him and can view him from the safety of my living room couch.

Polish actor Klaus Kinski directs and stars in the 1989 biopic PAGANINI, which was the actor’s final screen appearance.

According to Gregory Avery’s excellent overview of Paganini at the Nitrate Online website Kinski turned the movie into a family affair, casting himself as the legendary violin virtuosi of the 19th century, his young wife Debora Caprioglio as Paganini’s wife Antonia, his son Nikolai as the musician’s beloved son Achille, and his daughter Nastassja in a key role, but she walked off the set after three days, never to return (Ever since he divorced her mother and she became an international actress on her own, they had little contact by Nastassja’s choice). There’s a part of me that wants to see a home video circa 1991 with Klaus, Nastassja, her new amour Quincy Jones and their various offspring at a family gathering.  Did it ever happen? Did Rainer Werner Fassbinder ever offer Kinski a job? Why did the actor end up moving to rural Laguinitas, California where he died alone? So many unanswered questions!

A famous photo of Klaus Kinski and his young daughter Natassja.

Avery also states that Paganini was originally intended to be a 12-hour mini-series for Italian television but was edited down for its Cannes Film Festival premiere to 85 minutes (Kinski’s volatile press interview at the festival is one of the double disc extras). The SPV double disc edition includes an 82 minute cut and a 95 minute director’s cut. But enough about Kinski’s universally panned final film as an actor and director.

The German edition of the autobiography KINSKI UNCUT was also known as ALL I NEED IS LOVE.

The Paganini extras are the real attraction here – part intimate home movie, part “mondo” documentary. Among the extras are outtakes from the film, alternative trailer versions, a documentary on the making of the film (made after Kinski’s death), and the one that’s worth the disc investment – the 52-minute featurette Kinski dreht Paganini which is for adults only. It begins with Kinski in costume and makeup instructing an actress how to respond to him as he performs oral sex on her.

World famous violinist Niccolo Paganini (Klaus Kinski) stalks the alleyways of Venice in the 1989 film biography PAGANINI.

You have to empathize with this actress whose body and emotional composure is stripped bare before the camera and various crew members while Kinski demonstrates to her how to move her legs in orgasmic delight. When she doesn’t quite get it, he demonstrates, getting on his back and overplaying her part with fervor. Then more retakes and instruction. Finally, we see him planning his camera shots for the sequence from her point of view so that we’ll be sure to see Paganini on top of her, caught up in a sexual frenzy. As he writhes around on the bed on his back with the Arriflex camera glued to his face, he becomes so caught up in his own creativity that he begins to make grunting, animalistic sounds and this is only in the first five minutes of the featurette. I was already weak from laughter.  

Klaus Kinski directs himself and his wife Debora Caprioglio in a scene from the 1989 biopic PAGANINI.

This featurette goes on to show Kinski micro-managing everyone he comes in contact with on the set from his wife Debora (who was barely 21 at the time but looks 15) to the camera crew to his distinguished co-star Bernard Blier (father of French director Bertrand Blier) to his young son Nikolai. We see Kinski instructing Debora how to express uninhabited, carefree abandon as he pushes her higher and higher on a tree swing. Before one retake, he even licks her hair into place for the shot like a mother cat with a kitten. His devotion to her is more than a little clinging and it’s not surprising that their marriage lasted only two years; they separated shortly after Paganini was finished.   

The cover of the German import double DVD disc set of PAGANINI, released by SPV Recordings.

A combination of the mercurial and the volatile, Kinsi’s intensity is truly amazing to behold and the ranting and raving wasn’t an act. The man is a walking geyser of emotion, spewing it all over the place. Yet the qualities that made him such an extraordinary actor and screen presence don’t work as well when placed in the director’s chair, a position that obviously requires focus, diplomacy and the strategic maneuvring of an army general.

MYA released the original German double disc DVD in a U.S. edition with English subtitles.

Regardless of whether you hate it or love it – it’s hard to imagine any middle ground here – you’ll still want to see Paganini if you’re a Klaus fan. His autobiography Kinski Uncut is also still available from used booksellers on the internet. The current cinema could use a dose of his wildness and seems a much more boring medium without him.

I’m hoping that some U.S. distributor will pick up the rights to Jesus Christ Savior (German title:  Jesus Christus Erloser, a rare 1971 documentary by Peter Geyer of the actor’s notorious one-man show in Berlin and its unpopular reception (The documentary was not released until 2008). Crispin Glover, eat your heart out!

Klaus Kinski directing on the set of PAGANINI (1989).

Other links of interest:

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