Art vs. Artist: The Age-Old Debate

Recently I watched my first ever Werner Herzog-directed film, the terrifically atmospheric and bone-chilling Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979). (The film is better known by the title associated with the English-language version that was shot simultaneously with the German one: Nosferatu the Vampyre. Trust me, though, the German-language cut is the more authentic-sounding one.) It was also the first film I had ever seen that stars notoriously maniacal Polish-German actor Klaus Kinski. I don’t imagine that anyone who has read a fraction of the stories about Kinski’s activities both on and off film sets would doubt that the guy had serious issues. First you read about the allegations that he sexually abused his daughter Pola, then the revelations made shortly thereafter that he molested his younger daughter Nastassja as well. Then you dig a little deeper and read about Kinski’s conscription into the Wehrmacht in 1943 at the age of 17, which involved seeing combat and being a prisoner of war; then, after returning home to Berlin, learning that his parents had both been killed. (I recall also reading that Kinski was reportedly sexually assaulted by other men in the army, but I cannot find the story again to corroborate the details.) One wonders if the mental problems which led to Kinski being sent to sanatoriums¬†on a few occasions in the 50s (he was supposedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychopathy) and subsequently attempting suicide were part of his genetic makeup or were aftereffects fomented by his experiences during World War II.

I thought about this stuff while watching Nosferatu. I’m not saying that any of the traumas that Kinski lived through can stand as defense for his sadism towards others, but it seems clear that Kinski’s problems – or, as some say, madness – informed his acting in a Method sort of way. His craft appears to be tethered to his real life, unable to be completely separate things. I’m inclined to believe Kinski’s daughters about the damage he inflicted on them and there’s plenty of testimony to give examples of him flying off the handle on film sets and threatening violence against his colleagues, so I’m not trying to say that I like the artist himself as a person. But can I like the art without liking the artist? Can I say that Kinski brought depth to the role of Count Dracula, a menace that also contained pity for this vampire who longs for an end to his eternal torture and for the love of a beautiful woman? Can I write these things as a critic by attempting to remove some of the subjectivity of the real man from the objective celluloid record of his acting as it exists in the finished film, even though that performance was undoubtedly wrenched from the shadows of Kinski’s own darkness and pain? (Here, watch an example.) These are the same questions that plague me when I admit that I love some of Roman Polanski’s films, or a number of films directed by Woody Allen. I don’t believe that you should necessarily have to like the artist who created the art, but the two are so inextricably linked that it is sometimes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. And it’s hard for me to prevent myself from feeling guilty when I write that I enjoyed Nosferatu, madness and all.

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2 thoughts on “Art vs. Artist: The Age-Old Debate

  1. Check out Fitzcarraldo. If I remember correctly, it was a pretty entertaining film, with far less of the mania Kinski was always hired to project. His facial features being what they were, in all their unkind severity, relegated Kinski to tales of kooks and murderers. Fitzcarraldo is more about a man of earthly passions, a bit of a departure from his better-known (but standard) roles. Although I suppose passions are passions.

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