It is highly unlikely that any cinephile or demanding moviegoer would not eventually come across the works of director Werner Herzog, especially his five collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski. My first encounter with Kinski was in my early teens when I spotted Vestron Video’s VHS release of Jess Franco’s Jack the Ripper (1976) at my local rental shop; and I would argue that once you see him, you never forget him. His magnetism, intensity (when the character permits), and sharp features are simply that impressive, even when the film is not. The next time I saw him in a leading role (in the late ’90s) I knew who he was, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) remains the Herzog/Kinski I revisit most (albeit, I often get a craving to watch scenes from Cobra Verde (1987).
Upon nearly wearing out the images found in the Herzog and Kinski titles, due to repeated viewings, my film teacher and old friend turned me onto several other lesser-known Kinski performances (at least, in the U.S.). Amongst those, the two which continue to stand out the most to my liking have both been recently made accessible to American audiences; these are Andrzej Zulawski’s L’important C’est D’aimer (The Important Thing is to Love) (1975) and Klaus Kinski’s directorial debut Paganini (1989), a.k.a. Kinski Paganini. While it is tragic that the latter turned out to be his last film, Kinski bowed out in a manner befitting his self-portrait to the public: unchained in his performance and obsessions, and personally edited by the man himself in a print provided by Kinski’s estate, which accompanies the producers’ truncated theatrical version on Mya Communication’s two-disc DVD set.
Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was a tall, dark and sickly Italian composer and showman that may have been the greatest violinist who ever lived. Other musicians and artists, along with the public, would swarm with great interest to his concerts and try to figure out his tricks; one of which was to break a string, or sometimes three, in the middle of the composition and continue making incredible music. His techniques would invoke many superstitious listeners to believe that the Devil had granted him such skills, and knowing such nonsense would draw more curiosity and audiences, he did nothing to dispel their notions. Consequently, this, along with his socially unaccepted lifestyle of womanizing and gambling, would later delay permission by the Roman Catholic Church to grant him a proper burial for up to four years after his death.
While Klaus Kinski’s sensationalized and embellished autobiography would make it seem that he had much in common with his subject matter’s adult life, and which lead him to write in a lot of himself into the part, the book remains an unreliable source for fact-finding; and a definitive biography in the English language is long overdue (even if it’s a translation of one of the currently available in the German language). Nevertheless, when Kinski failed to convince Werner Herzog to direct the biopic for him, he decided to do it himself. And being familiar with Herzog’s stylized direction, I, for one, am glad that Kinski had the experience of standing behind the camera and realizing his own vision; as both versions of the film unquestionably contain sights, sounds, and an energy that could only have been conceived by its creator.
Kinski as Paganini (voice-over): I am neither young nor handsome. I’m sick and ugly. But when women hear the voice of my violin, they do not hesitate to betray their husbands with me.
The images found on both versions of Paganini—although, much more so in Kinski’s cut—are discharged in a stream-of-consciousness style, consisting of the violinist’s music, memories, desires, fears, and sexual escapades braided with multi-narrative moments and voice-overs belonging to both admirers and condemners. It moves refreshingly unlike the popular standard biographical film; or non-biographical film, for that matter. However there are discrepancies between the two available cuts, now provided by Mya, and each has its own advantage.
Kinski’s preferred cut, which he himself described as “versione originale“, consists of fourteen additional minutes, which includes condemnation and (often justified) allegations by religious leaders, gratuitous and excessive episodes (some bordering pornography), and an eight and a half-minute opening, principally consisting of a priest (Bernard Blier as Pater Caffarelli) sent to visit Paganini to convince him to repent for his sinful life while on his sickbed; it’s a scene grossly condensed and misappropriately placed later on (just over one hour) into the story told in the theatrical version.
Following this scene is where the diffused and sometimes clunky theatrical cut abruptly begins; namely, in an opera house, during one of Paganini’s performances. The venue is packed with adoring fans, especially young women. And here we meet and are granted access to the thoughts of one of his female admirers, who travels alone to attend his concerts. Although she refers to him physically in unflattering terms, he highly arouses her—along with most of the other ladies in his audience—because of what he makes; and she remains lusting for him, along the journey back home.
Like Kinski’s autobiography, his self-edited version is more raw, vulgar, and exploitative, as well as more meditative; there are moments that give the impression of riding a near death experience. Regardless of whether it suits its audience tastes, Kinski’s cut of Paganini is filled to the brim with passion. Having said that, what the producers’ tamer theatrical version offers, which Kinski’s, in its present state, sadly cannot, is a higher quality in sound and picture.
And with Director of Photography Pier Luigi Santi’s beautiful use of natural lighting, the interior scenes suffer the most in Kinski’s original.
Despite his love for his wife, Antonia Bianchi (performed by his real-life spouse, Deborah Caprioglio) and his loving and affectionate relationship with his son, Achille (played by Kinski’s only son, Nikolai Kinski), there is no getting around the discomforting theme of Paganini’s obsession with young, sometimes adolescent women. And whatever Kinski doesn’t show or have Paganini act upon, he clearly insinuates.
While none of the actresses which Kinski (as Paganini) lays with are really minors, their characters range from thirteen and up. One of them is based upon Paganini’s sixteen-year-old mistress, Charlotte Watson; in the film, she is a not-very-convincing thirteen-year-old named Carol (performed by Beba Balteano). Another historical figure is Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte (Eva Grimaldi).
In the director’s cut, some of the sexual content becomes so excessively graphic that the scenes, which are interwoven with religious heads speaking ill of him, become (perhaps) intentionally comical.
But the film is not limited to Paganini’s (nor Kinski’s) vices nor weaknesses, which contribute more laughs to the film than mere titillation. The bond between father and son is strong, as it was in real life. As portrayed by both Klaus and Nikolai, Achille was the centre of Niccolò’s world. And Paganini came to be more dependent upon his son, as he became more physically weak (he suffered from various illness throughout his life).
Other documented moments showcasing Paganini’s goodwill and humanity include his finding a poor, young boy playing a violin on the streets of Vienna. Touched by the sad-looking youngster, he quietly takes his violin and plays it, which immediately draws a crowd. Afterward, Paganini collects alms with his hat and gives it to the boy, then wishes them all a good evening. The real Paganini would often give benefit concerts for the poor, and was very generous with aspiring musicians and to those who wished to hear him. In Kinski’s Paganini, information about his own financial worries (and bad diet) are relayed partially through the voice-overs, which streams along with the music (provided by the great Salvatore Accardo).
Despite the director’s intended cut’s faults—some of the poor dubbing distracts while at other times it appears to blend in with the music and passing voices—its redeemable features include a cinematic biographical journey unlike any other, due to a visually arresting Klaus Kinski, operating in front of, as well as behind the camera.
Although I’m glad to have replaced my VHS copy of the film, I can’t help but feel disappointed with Mya’s release. One can’t fault them for the deteriorated copy of Kinski’s cut. But the lack of subtitles, especially on over fifty minutes worth of priceless behind-the-scenes footage, as well as on the brief Cannes Press Conference, shows a lack of consideration to its customers. Therefore, it is difficult to recommend purchasing this edition anywhere near its present retail price. However, the film itself definitely has its rewards for the adventurous moviegoer.
Now, what I’d really like to see from Kinski’s filmography is a good, subtitled copy of Frank Cassenti’s La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) (1978), along with Augusto Caminito’s Il Grandi Cacciatori (1988), a.k.a. White Hunter.
DVD Specifications (Disc 1):
Theatrical Version Runtime: 1:23:53 / Audio: English (stereo), French (stereo), Italian (stereo) / Subtitles: None / Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 (4:3) / Chapters: 12
Disc 1 Extra Features
Runtime: 50:45 / Audio: Italian, French, German, English / Subtitles: None
Cannes Press Conference
Runtime: 5:04 / Audio: French / Subtitles: None
DVD Specifications (Disc 2):
Director’s Cut Runtime: 1:38:13 / Audio: English (stereo) / Subtitles: None / Aspect Ratio (listed as): 1.33:1 (4:3) / Chapters: 12
Disc 2 Extra Features
Deleted and Extended Scenes
Runtime: 50:45 / Audio: Music only / Chapters: 7
Runtime: 2:01 / Audio: English
- Du dumme Sau! – a very enjoyable Kinski blog.
- Jesus Christus Erlöser (Jesus Christ Savior) (2008) – a 1971 theatrical performance reconstructed by Kinski biographer Peter Geyer (with English subtitles). It’s available to view in either nine parts (in 480p) or in one (in 360p). 85 minutes.
- Kinski in Italy (2010) – a three-part Italian documentary (with English subtitles). Unfortunately, the last third is presently unavailable. 30 minutes.
- Kinski-Paganini.de contains passages from the film’s 1989 press book, as well as an impressive photo gallery.
- Nosferatu in Venice (1988) – a theatrical trailer. Kinski directed a few scenes of this picture. It was his second-to-last film appearance. 2 minutes.
- Please Kill Mr. Kinski (1999) by David Schmoeller (director of Crawlspace (1986). Over 8½ minutes.
- David Dubal, The Essential Canon of Classical Music, North Point Press, 2001.
- Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, W. W. Norton & Company, 1970 (Third Edition, 1997).
- Stephen Samuel Stratton, Nicolo Paganini: His Life and Work, “The Strad” Office, 1907.
- Alan Walker, Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847, Cornell University Press, 1983 (Revised Edition 1987).