Klaus Kinski’s Paganini and Mya’s DVD

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.

Kinski’s writing and directorial credits on both the theatrical version (left) and his “versione originale” (right). Note the absence of an editor’s credit on the theatrical cut.

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.

Actress Dalila Di Lazzaro as Paganini admirer Helene von Feuerbach. Besides the drastic difference in clarity and brightness on the theatrical print (left), notice the cropping on both the top and right-hand side of the director’s cut (right).

And with Director of Photography Pier Luigi Santi’s beautiful use of natural lighting, the interior scenes suffer the most in Kinski’s original.

Here is a further example of what is lost when viewing some of the interior sequences on the director’s cut (right).

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.

Here, Paganini seduces the young Angiolina Cavanna (actress Tosca D’Aquino, left) and toys with the viewer, as to her playmates’ interests in him. These stills are taken from the theatrical print.

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).

From the theatrical print: Paganini strolls through Venice (left), where he is spotted by his wife Antonia Bianchi (Deborah Caprioglio as Debora Kinski, right).

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.

Achille (Nikolai Kinski, left) watches his father give his final performance (right).

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

  • Backstage
    Runtime: 50:45 / Audio: Italian, French, German, English / Subtitles: None
  • Cannes Press Conference
    Runtime: 5:04  / Audio: French / Subtitles: None

“What? No subtitles? Shhh…”

Behind the scenes, you can hear how loud that old Arriflex camera can get.

“My hubby’s so bad,” I can only imagine her saying.

The “vampire with the violin” changes his threads to take the wife out for a bite.

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
  • Photo Gallery
    Runtime: 8:29
  • Original Trailer
    Runtime: 2:01 / Audio: English

Additional Links:

Biographical References:

Dirty Little Billy and Sony’s DVD

Shortly after the theatrical release of True Grit, the Coen Brothers were approached by Entertainment Weekly and asked to name their favorite Westerns. Disregarding whether some of the titles were mentioned jokingly as favorites, I decided to seek out the two I had never seen before: Greaser’s Palace (1972) and ‘Doc’ (1971).

I sometimes like to browse through both the positive and negative customer reviews on Amazon.com, mostly to look for differences, as well as similarities, in tastes. And occasionally the reviewer will recommend other interesting items or titles. This was the case when browsing through what Dr. James Gardner (of California) had to say about the DVD of Doc. His referral of Dirty Little Billy (1972) as “the ultimate revisionist Western” intrigued me, as did the film poster. And so, a few days after I watched Stacy Keach, Faye Dunaway, and Harris Yulin in Doc—which wasn’t bad at all—I had my first viewing of studio magnate Jack Warner’s last independent production; having obtained a poor, but watchable, TV-recorded copy.

Now, thanks to Sony Pictures’ Screen Classics by Request, it’s officially available on DVD. And it’s very unlikely that the film has ever looked or sounded better.

Dirty Little Billy is a tale of how an inept New York teen brought out west transforms into a menacing outlaw. The chemistry between the characters, the balance of humor and drama, and how the story is told, causes my “little grey cells” to dance with ideas. It doesn’t matter that this is fiction inspired by Billy the Kid’s life, or that there aren’t any admirable figures. This is finely crafted entertainment with a scenario that could be set nearly anywhere in the proceeding centuries, presenting the banding of society’s misfits and how each one is molded. This film will be of interest not only to American and Spaghetti Western fans, but to both cinephiles and movie watchers in general.

The first image is of the fresh mud that welcomes the McCarty family to the fourth-rate town of Coffyville, Kansas. The soft wet earth feels as if it’s always been there, though the family has just arrived a day after one of Coffyville’s “famous sun showers.” Young Billy, his mother Catherine, and his stepfather Henry are quickly sold a dusty, run-down farmhouse harboring a goat and two chickens.

Their sales agent is Ben Antrim (an amusing performance by Charles Aidman). Supposedly, he has people coming here from all parts of the country to “work themselves to the bone, so that he can get rich.” During a town meeting (featuring Gary Busey), Antrim passes along a rumor regarding an epidemic in a nearby town, which will “hopefully” force out its inhabitants and have them move into theirs. The rise in size of Coffyville’s population would thereby qualify them as a “third class city,” which would allow them to elect a mayor, a council, and a professional peace officer.

The McCartys. Billy (Michael J. Pollard), Henry (William Sage), and Catherine (Dran Hamilton).

Henry McCarty (William Sage) is a hard-working Irish immigrant wanting to cultivate his own land, while Catherine (Dran Hamilton) wants her son to follow his lead and adapt to a new routine. Billy’s mother seems to have always been too soft on him, while his stepfather is too hard. Having “bellyached on the train, all the way out here,” Billy just wants to be back in New York. The little “bum” hates farming.

Henry’s growing intolerance for Billy’s uselessness to him boils over one night, and he threatens him into running away. Billy doesn’t need much persuasion to leave, as he really just wants to get back east. But having no money, he can’t go very far. “Just walking” through town, Billy gets caught in a cross-fire between Antrim’s inexperienced lawmen (Ed and Len) and the town’s residing menace. Goldie (Richard Evans)  is a saloon dwelling, card gambling degenerate who sometimes violently demands for the prostitution of his girlfriend (Berle) to help financially support them. Both his nonconformist stance against Antrim and the fear he generates around town appeals to Billy, who does what he can to gain his respect and mentorship.

A great deal of the story is spent in that little saloon, which also shelters drunkard Charlie Nile and a bartender nicknamed Jawbone. Moving along with just the right pace, the story spends an appropriate amount of time with the characters; showing us what makes them tick. Among the most memorable sequences is a card game that goes all wrong; leading to wild gunfire, and concluding with a bloody knife fight between Berle and a woman named Lou. (Rosary Nix—wherever you are—you rock!)

“Double or nothing.” Stormy (Scott Walker) and his girl Lou (Rosary Nix).

Michael J. Pollard’s eccentric performance is as fascinating as you’re likely to read about elsewhere. But upon repeated viewings, which I have found rewarding and worthy of study, the supporting cast becomes more and more noticeable for their fine contributions; even when just relying on body language. Keep an eye on the silent exchanges between Billy and Lee Purcell’s Berle—they’re beautifully directed, and quietly contribute to his character’s development and aforementioned transformation.

Richard Evans deserves special mention. Goldie is such a brilliantly written component to the detrimental education of Billy the Kid—at least, in this story’s universe—and Evans acts within the confines of that character’s restricted psychology so well that he’s easily one of the most important ingredients to the film’s potency.

Besides all around great acting—including the extras, which is a rare thing—and editor David Wages’ crackerjack timing, the cinematography by Ralph Woolsey (of 1970’s Little Fauss and Big Halsy, and 1972’s The Culpepper Cattle Co.) compliments both the richly detailed sets and the performers perfectly. His use of sunlight is also impossible to miss. It’s really a treat for a movie lover to find something as well-crafted as co-author/director Stan Dragoti’s feature film debut. And it’s due to a recent viewing of The Hired Hand (1971)—an extraordinarily gorgeous film—and Dirty Little Billy which has inspired me to write my second Western. One dedicated to the genre’s future.  I don’t buy too many movies, but this one’s a keeper. My compliments to the entire cast and crew.

Billy, Goldie (Richard Evans), and Berle (Lee Purcell).

DVD Specifications: Runtime: 1:32:06 / Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English) / Subtitles: None / Widescreen anamorphic – 1.85:1 / Theatrical Trailer (2:36) / DVD Release Date: March 1, 2011 / Keep Case / Chapters: 10

Special thanks to author Edward M. Erdelac for getting me back into American Westerns with some goodies to get started with. Check out his “Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen.”

Ed and Len (Mills Watson and Alex Wilson) guarding the street outside of Goldie’s saloon. “We’ve got things to do.”

Goldie’s sleeping.

“What the hell more do you want?” Ben Antrim (Charles Aidman) asks Billy.

“It’s a wonder that Goldie even looked at me.”