Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Rating (out of five): * 1/2
Anyone familiar with Werner Herzog’s 1999 docuhomage My Best Fiend knows that Klaus Kinski – whatever his merits as a performer – was a prone to deranged lunacy. Herzog’s film posited Kinski as a demon-possessed megalomaniac nearly incapable of taking direction. His (allegedly fabricated) autobiography is full of abuses hurled at the “idiot” directors who Kinski felt mismanaged their films and, above all, his performances.
Kinski’s single directorial effort – 1989’s Paganini – was his chance for him to vindicate himself from all the meddling hacks he’d endured throughout his career. Kinski finally had control of everything – from pre- to post-production – and could deliver the Klaus Kinski performance that he’d longed for audiences to see.
The result is a disaster.
Paganini is ostensibly a biopic of the titular violin virtuoso, a lothario who was thought to have gained his talents from the devil. Kinski opens the film in the middle of one of Paganini’s frantic performances. The scene is breathlessly narrated by a woman enumerating Paganini’s magnetic powers (“As he played, Paganini’s member became erect” ). Cutaways of women pawing themselves in the audience underscore the (never-named) narrator’s orgasmic claims.
The opening is certainly daring. The shrill scraping of Paganini’s violin and erotically charged voiceover accompany diving, swirling camerawork and disorienting editing, creating a pugilistic mise-en-scene. It’s a bold first scene.
The trouble is, the next hour-plus maintains this violent pace. At about the thirty minute mark, the film ceases being daring and disconcerting and becomes a painful slog. The spectacle of women caressing themselves (or being ravaged by Paganini) to the strains of the rapid-fire consummation of bow-and-string gets very, very tired. Worse are Kinski’s laughable visual double entendres. He cuts between Paganini playing, Paganini having sex, and a graphic shot of a horse mounting a mare. But even this is more visually inventive than much of the film, which mostly consists of Kinski staring ghoulishly at the frame.
Further connecting himself to the material, Kinski cast his then-wife (Deborah Kinski) and son (Nicolai Kinski) as Paganini’s wife and son. The fact that it’s a family affair somehow makes Kinski’s film even more an inscrutable inside joke/ode to himself. The film never really bothers to delve into who Paganini actually was. The violinist just becomes a sick surrogate for Kinski’s tormented soul.
Long unavailable on DVD, Paganini has recently resurfaced as a double-disc deluxe presentation from Mya Communication. The transfer is horrible, managing to look washed out and muddy all at once. The English language track is a collision of schizophrenically mixed ambient noise, overly hot music, and poorly acted ADR.
Still, the film is an indelible curio and the extras, mostly depicting Kinski the director feverishly at work behind the scenes, are absurdly fascinating. In one behind-the-scenes vignette, Kinski instructs a long-suffering actress, showing her how to react to Kinski’s amorous activities. Kinski writhes alone on the bed, moaning and rocking back and forth in the sheets, making love to an invisible consort. There could not be a more apt summary of the film than Kinski twitching in ecstasy by himself.
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