Films about composers are rare, and probably for good reason. Few can forget Hollywood’s sickeningly sanitized version of Chopin’s life, A Song To Remember (1945) with Cornel Wilde’s Hallmark-style portrayal of the composer literally (and hammily) dying at the keyboard (of tuberculosis) after a grueling tour for “the song to remember.” It was Liberace’s favorite movie for good reason. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the 1970 composer biopics by Ken Russell. Russell being Russell, these were, naturally, highly irreverent and decidedly idiosyncratic takes on Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler (Mahler), and Liszt (Lisztomania). Then came Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning film on Mozart, Amadeus (1984), which, though largely fictional, does capture the spirit, personality, and drive of the composer. If Forman’s triumph seemed to signal a new, respectable artistic trend in musical dramas, then along came Klaus Kinski with Paganini (1989) to prove that notion wrong. Script in hand, Kinski attempted to solicit Werner Herzog to direct the life story of the demonic 19th century virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini. Kinski had long felt a strong identification with the famed musician and repeatedly implored Herzog to direct. Upon reading Kinski’s treatment, Herzog deemed it an “unfilmable mess.” Not one to be dissuaded, Kinski, for the first and last time, took over the director’s reigns himself. The result is absolutely the weirdest musical biopic ever made, and that is no exaggeration. It has aptly been referred to as Kinski Paganini since it as much a self-portrait as it is the composer’s portrait. Picasso once said “every work of art, regardless of subject matter, is a self-portrait.” Kinski Paganini is the second of two highly personal self-portraits Kinski left behind before dying at the age of 56 in 1991. The first is an actual autobiography, titled “All I Need Is Love.” Both works sparked an outrage amongst the status quo. Kinski’s written manifesto has since come to be regarded as one of the great maniacal bios.
To call Paganini a biopic is a bit of a stretch. As Herzog predicted the film is a mess, and a repellent one at that; but it is such an individualistic mess that it demands attention. Kinski’s film is an unquestionably disturbing example of what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum.
The film is available on DVD via Mya Communications in both the 84 minute theatrical cut, mandated by aghast producers, and Kinksi’s own, fourteen minute longer “versione originale.” With Kinski’s cut, there is no reason to watch the theatrical version, which was an impossible attempt to downsize the director’s monstrously egotistical vanity project.
Kinski’s version opens with two priests, racing towards the dying musician. They bicker back and forth over whether they should offer last rites to that vile seducer of young girls. To make his point of hypocrisy about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles, Kinski intercuts the carriage ride with shots of priests’ hands distributing the Eucharist to the awaiting, open mouths of nubile catechumens. The composer’s young son (played by Kinski’s own son, Nanhoi) greets the priests and, upon learning their intent of attempting to solicit repentance from the dying composer, Jr. sends them packing. Like Kinski, Paganini obsessively dotes on his son (Nanhoi repaid the affection in 1991, being the only person who attended Klaus’ funeral). Kinski’s Niccolò Paganini has almost no dialogue in the film but he does supply a judicious bit of 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.” To drive that point home, the rest of the film is, essentially, a series of montages: Paganini plays his violin with searing intensity, women masturbate to him, Paganini plays, horses have sex, Paganini plays, crowds throng to him, Paganini plays, upper class society types deem him the devil, Paganini plays, women succumb to orgasmic heights, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in carriages, Paganini plays, underage girls dance, Paganini walks through the streets-alone, silent, internally determined, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in a field of flowers, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex on an actual bed, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini has more uninhibited sex, Paganini composes, Paganini plays, Paganini has even more sex, Paganini helps aspiring young musicians, clerics deem Paganini a rapist of underage girls, Paganini gives to the poor, the ill Paganini comes to increasingly depend on his son, Paganini gets sick and dies. The End.
Kinski’s cut of the film is excessively graphic (bordering on pornographic), contemplative, and rapturous. The film itself, like both Paganini and Kinski, is deranged, coarse, impassioned, libidinous, and artfully arresting. Unfortunately, Mya Communications’ very good transfer work is solely reserved for the theatrical cut. Kinski’s versione originale is merely an extra, and that print remains unretouched, leaving the darkly lit interior scenes almost unwatchable. Pier Luigi Santi’s lush cinematography compliments the film’s excellent score of Paganini caprices. In addition to cutting the graphic sex scenes, the theatrical version omits the entire opening sequence with the priests, making an already disjointed film feel even more fragmentary. The dubbing is poor in both versions. The extras are a mixed bag. There is an indispensable, hour-long making of the film documentary, deleted scenes (from both cuts), the original trailer, and a bizarre Cannes press conference. Unfortunately, the cost of the set may require a second mortgage.
It was the theatrical version I saw in a dingy theater upon its release. I was one of ten patrons present. By the time the credits rolled, there were only two of us remaining. I was not sure whether the film was an adventurous masterpiece and/or an “unfilmable mess,” but I do think that any film that inspires eight out of ten people to walk out has to have something going for it.