Directed by Klaus Kinski
Starring Klaus Kinski, Debora Caprioglio, Nikolai Kinski, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Eva Grimaldi, Marcel Marceau, Feodor Chaliapin
Mya (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), X-Rated Kult (Germany R2 PAL)
One of the most extraordinary maniacs in cinema history, Klaus Kinski earned a notorious reputation for his difficult behavior and occasional verbal and physical attacks on the sets of his films. He was also a completely brilliant actor with the right material, particularly when paired up with director Werner Herzog. However, when Herzog turned down Kinski's dream project of a biopic about legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini (who was rumored to have made a pact with the devil for his almost supernatural skills with the musical instrument), Kinski himself stepped into the director's chair. This was his first and only time in this position, not counting some uncredited work helping with the troubled production of Nosferatu in Venice, and it proved to be a more problematic film than anyone could have anticipated. It was barely released outside of Europe in 1989 and proved to be his final film, as he passed away two years later.
Ostensibly there are other actors in this film, but 95% of it is focused entirely on Kinski (with jet-black hair, sideburns and eyebrows) as he portrays Paganini in his final years, alternating between his deathbed throes and his glorious days on the stage in which his playing would induce any woman within earshot to frenzies of physical ecstasy. There's very little dialogue and almost no plot as he moves from one female conquest to another (including Napoleon's little sis) and serves as a very weird role model for his son (with Kinski's real-lief wife and son at the time essaying the same family relations in the film). Along the way it's fun to spot the filmmakers who obviously inspired this free-assocative montage movie, ranging from Herzog (obviously) to Ken Russell (especially Lisztomania) and definitely Walerian Borowczyk (especially the powdery, candlelit softcore sex scenes).
Critically panned at the time and drastically hacked down by the original distributor for Italian and French audiences, Paganini was a serious labor of love for Kinski, who was distressed at its reception and editorial mangling. It's certainly an astonishing and wildly self-indulgent film to watch; if you don't know what you're getting into, the first ten minutes will be enough for many viewers to take. However, it's also a feverish, wholly unique ego trip on film in a way only a true madman could pull off, and love it or hate it, this stands as a fascinating testament to one man's determination to get his vision on film no matter what.
Long circulated on the bootleg video circuit throughout the '90s, Paganini was eventually released on DVD in Germany in one of this oversized clamshell boxes by X-Rated Kult, who paired up the theatrical cut with a workprint of the "version originale," which is basically the only surviving version of Kinski's original cut with a music mix but some ragged edits and filmic debris throughout. Those options are carried over to the film's first American video release in any format courtesy of Mya's DVD, which presents the theatrical cut on disc one. Audio options are English, Italian, and French with no subtitle options, but given the fact that a very small percentage of the film has any dialogue (and most of that is voiceover at that), it doesn't matter much. The biggest extra here is a pretty amazing 54-minute backstage reel of video footage showing Kinski at work on the film. Cavorting on the beach, shouting at the actors, and coaxing his actresses through some of their lustier scenes, he's always entertaining in documentaries and once again glues your eyes to the screen even when he's completely off his rocker. A maniacal five-minute Cannes press conference features Kinski shrieking at the reporters in German (no subs, but you'll get the idea), followed by a quick photo opp. Image quality for the main feature is okay; it appears to be the same master used for the previous DVD and is claimed to be the best surviving one, which might be true given the film's orphan status and bizarre history.
Disc two contains the director's cut of the film, which runs nearly 17 minutes longer and is even more abstract and dreamlike with a surreal flow driven only by the violin music. It looks rough with muddy black levels and lots of element issues, as expected, but it's a nice curio if you want to see what Kinski intended. Like the theatrical cut, it's presented full frame; the film has been listed as anywhere from 1.66:1 to 1.55:1 for other aspect ratios, so this could be open matte; given the additional cut material and the fact that the compositions don't seem impeded, it's acceptable to have it presented this way if not perhaps ideal. A 50-minute reel of deleted and extended scenes from Kinski's estate includes some sequences later snipped partially into the theatrical cut and and others present only in his rough, pre-final cut; it's a mixture of silent and violin-scored footage sourced from VHS, including several longer takes of many scenes and even more graphic footage of the already startling "oral pleasure" scene with Kinski performing on one enthusiastic actress. Also included are a photo gallery (including some excerpts from Kinski's infamous autobiography), and a pretty wild theatrical trailer. You've certainly never seen anything else like it.