Synopsis: Witness the life and times of madman and genius violinist Niccolo Paganini. Haunted by the demons of lust and beauty, Paganini pursues his ideal of artistic creation while challenging the moral boundaries of his era. Ridiculed and feared, suspected to be a devil worshipper and still envied for his miraculous musical skills, Paganini created some of the most complex and astonishing music ever. And yet, for all his visionary art, the master of demonic violin playing was considered no more than a freak to be pitied. But his genius still lives today. Just as strong as Klaus Kinski’s final masterpiece.
Directed by Klaus Kinski at the most rebid height of his feverish hallucinatory creative power, Paganini is one of the most extreme biopics ever committed to the screen. Mixing together Werner Herzog, Ken Russell and Federico Fellini, Kinski pulls off his artistic testament in a way no director has dared before. Sex, violence, incredible complex shots and gorgeous women make Paganini a one of a kind film.
Culled together from only the best preserved original materials, this is the director’s cut that Klaus Kinski so desperately tried to preserve until his very last days.
eyelights: its soundtrack. its attenuated incoherence. its spicier sexy bits.
eyesores: its uncannily poor storytelling. the performances.
“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.”
When the producers of Klaus Kinski’s baffling 1989 vanity project ‘Paganini‘ saw the finished film, they insisted on recutting it, eventually trimming a good 14 minutes of footage. Given the rambling mess that this baffling “biopic” turned out to be, I figured that Kinski’s original cut (or “versione originale”, as he dubbed it) could hardly be any worse; the worst case scenario would be more of the same.
Thankfully, it’s a mild improvement.
The most significant change is the opening: Instead of starting with Paganini’s concert, Kinski’s version begins with silent credits over a black screen. In a complete reversal, the music only begins after his own credit – whereas the producers’ cut started with music and stopped the moment that his name hit the screen, punctuating the arrival of his name as though his ego had just expanded beyond all reason.
Then it uses footage that had been tacked on the end of the producers’ cut, with a couple of clergymen in a horse-drawn carriage, discussing the eccentric violinist, wondering if his soul could be salvaged, hoping to convert him before his imminent death. Now the scene in which the priest visits Paganini at home and goes through his things is slightly more coherent – the incoherence level drops from 7 to 6.
The rest of the picture remains a frightful mess, but it felt more fluid this time, perhaps because it was cut slightly differently or because it was the second time I watched this film in the same day; perhaps I had been mollified by then. It helps that there is a little bit more voice-over explaining the characters and what’s going on. And it actually helped that he added much more sex in his version.
In the producers’ cut/theatrical version, the sex seemed randomly tossed at the screen, but here, while still gratuitous, there’s actually a slight build-up in some of them. The scene with the girl masturbating in the carriage while thinking of Paganini? Well, there’s a heck of a lot more of it, but then her desire doesn’t feel as random. And the scene with the girl masturbating on the couch felt like a release.
Some of it is pure titillation, however: We see him delve his tongue into a spread-eagled girl many times over, in close-up and in long-shots, as though to prove that he’s actually doing this on screen. And there’s a sexy scene with a girl bent over behind some bushes, bottom up: Paganini lifts her skirt, revealing her nakedness, and proceeds to lick her. Sexy, but completely unnecessary – we know he’s lascivious.
For a little while, the picture morphed from being a rambling biopic to a pornographic home movie; essentially, it felt as though it were Kinski boasting.
Thankfully, there’s also extra footage of Paganini and his son, which helps to develop their relationship, the strength of their bond. It’s a bit disturbing at times, truth be told; Paganini seems a bit too affectionate with his son, if you get my meaning, and his son is utterly tethered to him. But at least it’s clearer, unlike the fate of his girlfriend/wife, who disappears from their lives without an explanation.
And there’s another improved scene, towards the end, in which Paganini plays for passersby and collects money for a kid. In the producers’ cut, it gives the impression that he’s busking for money, but here it’s made clear that he’s trying to help a kid who was playing violin but not attracting attention. He shows him how it’s done and forces people to pay up. It’s one of his few redeeming moments in the film.
He still eats, eats, and eats bread. And it’s still out of focus much of the time. To make matters worse, the print for the “versione originale” is darker, losing detail in its shadows. From a censorship standpoint, this is better, because we can’t see what would clearly be very explicit sexual behaviour. But, from an audience’s perspective it’s unfortunate because we’re not watching the film in the best light at all.
Having said this, ‘Paganini: versione originale’ wouldn’t be considered a masterpiece no matter what the condition of the print or the viewing experience. It’s not as incoherent as the theatrical version, but it’s nonetheless astonishingly inept. Its only saving grace is the fantastic Paganini score by Salvatore Accardo. But that’s no reason to recommend this trainwreck of a motion picture to anyone.
This picture is for the morbidly curious only.
All others should just get the soundtrack.
Date of viewing: July 3+4, 2016