Klaus Kinski was an amazing character actor with distinctive facial features who was best known for taking on any role available regardless of the quality, as well as his violent temper and behavior during productions and his working relationship with director Werner Herzog.
He would often take on second-rate European films for the large paycheck, resulting in his performances often upstaging what was a substandard production. His onset outbursts and reputation were well known.
In Herzog on Herzog, Werner Herzog said that “Kinski was probably the most difficult actor in the world to deal with. Working with Marlon Brando must have been like kindergarten compared to Kinski.
During a play he hit someone so hard with a sword that the actor was in hospital for three months; another time he threw a candelabra into the audience, after having hurled various insults at them first” (1).
Kinski and Herzog’s collaborations covered five motion pictures and no other director was able to fully capture the range of Kinski’s talents. His career spanned over 30 years and 135 film and television credits and while his performances in the Herzog movies where some of his best, he did manage to frequently stand out even in bit roles. Here is a list of the top 15 performances from Klaus Kinski.
1. Ludwig II (1955)
This is the story on the life of Ludwig II, the King of Bavaria who preferred fantasy and art over the actual wars that were taking place at the time. Bavaria sided with Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and ended up as part of the new German Empire run by Otto Von Bismarck.
Ludwig was more interested in matters of the arts, notably obsessed with funding Richard Wagner’s new Opera. His lavish spending on the opera and increased isolation led to conspirators trying to overthrow his rule by claiming that he was suffering from a psychiatric illness, using the fact that his brother was schizophrenic and had been institutionalized.
Kinski plays Ludwig’s insane brother. Despite his limited screen time, Kinski shines in the small role. He doesn’t necessarily act crazy in this, instead there is just dialogue regarding his condition and one scene that implies it.
One main scene really stands out for him in this movie. He returns to see his brother after the war has been won and there was a celebration of the new German Empire. He tells Ludwig of the celebration and the music and begins to cry as he describes what he thought were canons being fired at the people instead of the music and celebration that were taking place.
It is a pretty powerful scene and helped garner him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the German Film Awards.
2. The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)
William Holden plays an American-Swedish oil man who is blackmailed by the British Intelligence to become a spy for the Allies during World War II in order to collect intelligence against the Nazis.
Despite not wanting to participate, he is forced to because he is on a list of Nazi sympathizers and is fearful of it damaging his business and Swiss nationality because of a taped conversation by the British that admits to the blackmail and agreement. His involvement could greatly affect his standings in Switzerland because of their strict stance on neutrality.
This forces him to make constant trips to Germany and contacts with head officials and also disparage the Jews in order to keep his cover.
Kinski plays a Jewish refugee named Morgan that Holden’s character befriends and decides to try and help him escape into Sweden. Kinski is exceptional in his short time on the screen and his character helps add further depth to Holden’s character and his own personal struggles during the war.
Kinski looks sickly and weak as Morgan, most likely shedding some weight for the role. He does an excellent job of showing his character’s fear and struggle in his facial expressions.
3. For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Despite having a very small role, this makes the list because it ended up being one of the most memorable scenes in all of Sergio Leone’s films.
It is a somewhat unusual and comical scene featuring Kinski in a bit part, Col. Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) is sizing up some of the members of this gang that he is bounty hunting and strikes a match on Kinski’s suspenders. He turns around looking all crazy and blows out the match, wanting to draw his gun but one of the other gang members stops him.
Mortimer then grabs Kinski’s cigar out of his mouth and uses it to light up his pipe. Kinski’s face goes half twitchy and Mortimer offers it back to him, but they all walk out. Monco (Clint Eastwood) is in the saloon the whole time watching this, it being the first time both him and Mortimer where in the same building during the film.
4. A Bullet for the General (1966)
In this one, Kinski plays the half brother of the leader of a group of Mexican gun runners that work for a revolutionary General. They meet up with a mysterious American who joins up with their gang with the sole purpose of killing the general when they get to him.
Kinski is a minor character in this even though being billed as one of the main characters, yet he still stands as out as the very religious brother who thinks that they are stealing the guns and giving them to the people as opposed to selling them. He is almost unrecognizable with his long blond hair and the beard stubble.
His character preaches throughout the film and has a very memorable scene where he’s quoting religious doctrine in a monk’s outfit while tossing grenades at the army. This is also worthy of inclusion because it is highly regarded as one of the greatest spaghetti western movies to have been made.
5. The Great Silence AKA IL Grande Silenzio (1968)
This is considered to be one of the top spaghetti westerns that were made. Sergio Corbucci directs this story about a mute gunfighter (Jean Louis Trintignant), who seeks revenge against the men who killed his parents and sliced his throat.
The film takes place during the winter; the harsh cold and snow further enhance the darkness of the tone. And without giving anything away, this movie and its ending are dark. It also goes against the normal conventions of the hero saving the day. It had some influence on Quentin Tarantino and his motion picture Hateful Eight, notably taking place in the snow and the carriage scene.
In the end, the main reason to watch this is the greatness of Klaus Kinski. He is unusual and utterly evil as the main bounty hunter.
6. If You Meet Sartana Pray for Death (1968)
A stagecoach is robbed and all of the passengers are murdered and a strongbox full of gold is stolen, Sartana goes to track it down and the find outlaws who committed the crime.
This film and the Sartana character became popular because of his similarities to Clint Eastwood’s man with no name and Django. Kinski has a minimal role that lasts for around ten minutes of the picture but feature a memorable barbershop sequence and a battle with Sartana that takes place in an undertaker’s building that is filled with coffins.
7. Count Dracula (1970)
Christopher Lee returns to the role of Dracula that had made him famous at the British Hammer Film Studios, with what was called the most faithful adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel directed by Jesus Franco.
Kinski plays the crazed man Renfield, who is under the care of Professor Van Helsing as a psychiatric patient at his clinic because he believes that Renfield’s daughter was murdered by Dracula and that is what led to his insanity. Kinski shines in his short amount of time.
Despite uttering no words, he gives a masterful physical performance of a man that has lost his sanity. He eats flies and his facial gestures only add to the character, especially a glorious smile when he captures some type of large bug.
It was rumored that Kinski ate real flies for the role and may have been tricked by the producers into playing Renfield by providing him with a false title and script.