'Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior' is a record of one very long 1971 night the actor performs his Lordly monologue before 5,000 hippie Berliners.

Vintage Kinski Uncorked at YBCA

Dennis Harvey June 17, 2011

Mention the name “Klaus Kinski” to any reasonably knowledgeable film buff, and you will see a face light up. Kinski was crazy cool—and while coolness is a matter of opinion, few would argue that the late international star was certifiably crazy. For proof, you can check out his autobiography All I Need Is Love, a berserk chronicle of endless fornication and outrageous opinions that—regardless of its purportedly large degree of fabrication—vividly testifies to a personality of extraordinary charisma, anger and psychological imbalance. The book was so inflammatory that Kinski's famous daughter Nastassja filed a libel suit against the father she'd (doubtless luckily) seen little of.

Another strong portrait was offered in My Best Fiend, a 1999 documentary in which Werner Herzog bemusedly reviews his long history with the actor whom he raised (via films like Aguirre the Wrath of God, Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo) from a treadmill of countless European genre films to global arthouse regard. Yet the mercurial Kinski remained an impossible collaborator, to the point where on one typically exotic shoot local tribesman made a friendly offer to kill his incessantly tantrum-prone actor, just to help the mild-mannered director out. (Since the shoot was only halfway done, Herzog declined.)

Amongst myriad clips from Herzog-Kinski flicks, Fiend also sported several excerpts from an early 1970s documentary that recorded Klaus on a live “concert” tour in which he played the Son of God as a radical agitative genius who preferred being “massacred” to continuing to live amidst humanity's infinite corruption. In other words, he played J.C. as Klaus Kinski's idea of himself.

For reasons unknown (though one might guess its subject kept it suppressed) the complete film of that event went unreleased until it began playing festivals in 2008. Now Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior (actually translated on-screen Jesus Christ Savior: An Evening with Klaus Kinski) has landed at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for two shows (7:30 on Thursday, June 16, 2:00 pm on Sunday, June 19) sure to be packed with Kinski lovers and ambulance chasers—if indeed one can distinguish between the two.

“Directed” by Peter Geyer—who was five years old when it was shot, but as the son of Kinski's estate executor, was entrusted with assembling the original footage decades later—this is a record of one very long 1971 night in which guess-who attempted to perform his Lordly monologue before 5,000 hippie Berliners.

It would be another year before the actor made his first Herzog film, the brilliant Aguirre, but he was already a familiar and notorious figure. That was not just for his distinctive appearance—blond hair, an almost grotesquely high forehead, wild eyes, at once beautiful and ugly—and tremendous charisma, but his indiscriminate work in mostly trashy European genre flicks (sample titles include Lover of the Monster, Bang! Bang! You're Dead!, Psycho-Circus and The Pleasure Girls) and well-known tendency to act like a raving lunatic off-screen. Ergo, this audience was here to laugh at the freak, a la Charlie Sheen. Given Kinski's apparent complete lack of humor, least of all about himself, things were bound to get ugly.

Which they do, immediately. Longhaired and clownishly dressed in Carnaby Street duds, Kinski from the get-go has to deal with hecklers who shout, “I want my 16 marks back!” and ridicule a rich actor's identification with the infinitely charitable Christ. (He publicly bragged he simply chose movies that offered “the shortest schedule and the most money.” He also served several jail stints for never paying his taxes.) Enraged, he stomps offstage, then returns and, in tears, commences the monologue all over again to more respectful response, though this too dissolves into chaos when an audience member (the second such) comes onstage demanding to speak. And so it goes, until just a handful of people are left to hear him recite the entire piece at 2:00 a.m.

This is a man who is capable of screaming, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” with all the malicious fury of Hitler ranting about Filthy Jews. (Never a stranger to outrageous statements, Kinski once said he could have read Hitler's speeches a lot better than Der Führer himself did.) He is, of course, riveting. When not whipped into a frenzy by hostile ticketbuyers, he occasionally demonstrates the incredible intensity of focus that made him a deft, scene-stealing presence in those screen assignments he took seriously. (They include not just the Herzog films but the rare worthy A-list project he took roles in, like Dr. Zhivago and The Little Drummer Girl.)

Jesus Christ Savior is not just an indelible record of a unique personality, it's also a capsule of its moment in time. Few nations became as thoroughly immersed in the 1960s-bred counterculture and political radicalism as Germany, whose then-recent chapter of murderous fascism—and the polite post-war social denial that ensued—gave the next generation plenty to rebel against. Kinski's “Jesus” is an angry prophet railing against the Vietnam War and police brutality. Yet Kinski the loose cannon also invites scorn in an era where any event was considered a forum for open debate. Ergo his audience felt themselves perfectly within their rights calling him out as a fascist, bullshitter, and psychopath. All of which was kinda true—still, one can understand an artist's frustration at being constantly interrupted.

It probably requires some foreknowledge about Kinski to fully grok this document. But be warned: Once you get a taste, you'll probably turn addict. As someone who's happily endured numerous gray-market dupes of obscure spaghetti westerns and Euro horrors just because they've got some Klaus in ’em. The films are often crap, but he has seldom disappointed.

For the truly dedicated, there is no greater reward than 1989's Kinski Paganini, his only feature as director (and writer-editor), in which he plays the real-life “devil violinist” genius. Suffice it to say the star's producers sued him for creating a “pornographic” hash (“When Paganini plays, my body responds with an orgasm,” one conquest says here) and that it's as deliriously revealing a delusional self-portrait as All I Need Is Love. (Which might more aptly have been titled All I Need Is To F---.) It's a demented, ludicrous, hypnotic, singular film, a mirror of its creator's psyche.

It was also the last film he made, after (by some counts) 200 or so less-personal projects. In 1991 Kinski was found dead from a heart attack in his Marin County home. It somehow makes perfect sense that a Bay Area film community which naturally worshipped him—largely for his work with sometime local resident Herzog—was less shocked by the death than the fact that he'd been living just across the Golden Gate Bridge. Who knew?

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