Interview with photographer Beat Presser

Never let it be said that I don’t take my work on Du dumme Sau! seriously.  On 21 July, I travelled all the way from London to Münster especially to catch the Klaus Kinski-Beat Presser exhibition at the Westpreußisches Landesmuseum.  Because I’m organised (kind of!) I’d already pre-arranged to meet Beat Presser for an interview.  When we arrived at the museum, which is in a lovely location on the outskirts of Münster, Beat Presser was busy being interviewed for German TV, so we (Dave and I) took the opportunity to look around the exhibition before anyone else arrived.  We also met Dr. Martin Steinkühler, who was responsible for bringing the exhibition to the museum and who was incredibly welcoming to us.   We got to see everything in peace and quiet before anyone else arrived: the many beautiful photographs and portraits Beat Presser had taken of Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog (some impressively blown up to massive proportions); Klaus’ outfits from Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde; the selection of magazines with Kinski-Herzog movies on their covers; other items from the films… I particularly liked the “portrait” of Klaus and Claudia Cardinale from Fitzcarraldo.

It was a wonderful exhibition and you really need to go and see it for yourself to appreciate that, although I have included throughout this article a few photographs Dave took of the exhibition to give you an idea of what you’re missing out on if you’ve not seen it yet.

After the German TV interview was finished, Beat Presser came over to say hallo and gave us 40% proof Goldwasser to drink and a mini-tour of his exhibition.  With time tight before the Kinski-Abend our interview was postponed until later.  The Kinski-Abend was very informative and entertaining – or at least I think it was, with my grasp of German not being what it should be I caught only snippets and had to ask Beat Presser to verify certain things during the interview, which is good for those of you reading this as you get to read it here.  The event was sold out on the evening and the audience who came to see the exhibition and Beat Presser in conversation was a very mixed bunch of all ages.  Subtitles would have helped me and Dave to enjoy it as much as the rest of the audience did, but we enjoyed it nonetheless and afterwards we headed back into town with Beat Presser and Martin Steinkühler to a restaurant where, finally, the interview began…

DDS:  How did the Klaus Kinski-Beat Presser exhibition at the Westpreußisches Landesmuseum in Münster come about?

Dr. Martin Steinkühler:  Last year I worked on a project about prominent people from West Prussia and one of these people is Klaus Kinski.  And I found one photo – I think it was the picture where Klaus Kinski is attacking Werner Herzog with his big knife – and I found that Beat was the source of this and I asked him, “Can we get this picture from you and the rights to publish it and use it in the exhibition?”  And he answered, “O great! Great idea, I have a whole exhibition… I have the right thing for you… a complete exhibition.  I can give you what you want…”  And I talked with my boss and said it would be a nice exhibition to get new visitors because the classical visitors of our museum are really old and we must generate new sources [of visitors] and diversify.  We wrote a little bit and he said, “I’m in Münster in a few weeks, let’s meet and talk about it,” and we met and talked about it and then he worked up a very professional design for the exhibition on the computer and, yes, that’s the story of this exhibition.  And we see that this idea of getting new visitors succeeded after all.  Not only this evening but over the however many months – three and a half months – it’s been very successful.

DDS:  The exhibition is still running until 3 October as well so there’s time to get even more visitors… and there are still places left for the final Kinski Abend mit Beat Presser, which takes place on 8 September 2011(see the website for more details: http://www.westpreussisches-landesmuseum.de/images/stories/ausstellungen/Fotografie%20im%20Ausnahmezustand.pdf)    

DDS:  Beat Presser, did you say during your talk that you were 15 when you first started taking photographs?

Beat Presser:  No, that was when I was first exposed to photography.  A friend of mine at school, Bernard Burckhardt, took me to his parent’s house. In their cellar he had his laboratory; a darkroom. When I saw how a white paper turned into a photograph, when the picture appeared, I knew instantly I would be a photographer.  I really enjoyed that moment – it was so… impressive that I decided to become a photographer, even though I had wanted to become a theatre director before that. But that moment in the dark changed my whole direction in life.

DDS:  When did you start taking photographs?

Beat Presser:  In the beginning I didn’t have a camera. If I needed one, I borrowed one.  But I had a darkroom where I could work and experiment; a darkroom in my bedroom.

DDS:  You were half way there!

Beat Presser:  No, I was nowhere yet.  I was interested in printing photographs, but it was not until 5 years later that I had my own camera. I was more interested in the film processing and the printing of the photographs than taking pictures. That changed later on, after the initial start up… that’s why I still enjoy printing.  Two days ago I was making prints in my darkroom from my new book Dhau – Beatus Piratus auf Sindbads Spuren.   I like to say I really enjoy that very much; just being there by myself in the dark, listening to good music, having time to reflect and time to work for myself and to come up with beautiful results.  For me, that’s much more interesting than working on a computer all day long like everybody else does. When you turn off the computer, it’s all gone. There is nothing physical to it. If you print a photograph in the darkroom, by the end of the day, you hold a beautiful result in your hands.

DDS:  I know you met Klaus Kinski through the film maker and photographer Just Jaeckin and that as a result of that meeting you ended up taking the Madame Claude photos of Klaus, but how did you get to work with Klaus on the Werner Herzog films?  Did this come about because you already knew Klaus?  When did you meet Werner Herzog?

Beat Presser:  Werner Herzog, I met him in the airport.  [Laughter]

DDS:  Really? By accident?! [jokingly]

Beat Presser:  No-oo, I guess not.  I was already contracted to take the stills…

DDS:  And that was before Klaus was involved?

Beat Presser:  It was five years after I had met Klaus in Paris for the first time, and it was two weeks before Klaus came to the film set of Fitzcarraldo in Camisea in the middle of the Peruvian jungle.  Werner Herzog and I met at the airport in Miami. Werner said: “Guten Tag, ich bin der Werner Herzog.” That was all; after that he did not say a word. “Strange,” I thought, “why doesn’t he talk to me?” The plane was delayed and we went to the VIP lounge and there we sat in silence. Four years earlier I had seen Aguirre by Werner Herzog, starring Klaus Kinski as Aguirre. When I saw that film, I thought to myself, it would be great one day to work together with the both of them. So I was very happy that I got the job as a still photographer and as an assistant cameraman on Fitzcarraldo. But Werner did not know that then. Finally, about two hours later we were boarding on a plane from Faucett Air that would bring us straight down to Iquitos on the Amazon River. Immediately after we were airborne Werner started to talk to me and said:   “I don’t think we shall ever finish this film.  But I did not want to tell you, because I was afraid that you wouldn’t come along.” Werner asked me a few questions since he wanted to know about my photography work in the past. I showed him my magazine, The Village Cry, with the black and white photograph of Klaus Kinski. He was more than pleased, put the magazine away and slept all the way to Iquitos.

[long interruption including directions for us all to get back to our hotels after we’ve finished up our dinner and the interview, and the waitress informing Beat that she used to live in Guatemala and asking us if we were participating in the Münster Arts Festival – we tell her we’re there to attend a Klaus Kinski exhibition she says “Klaus Kinski… a little crazy! A very interesting man.”]

Back to the interview…

DDS:  It seems like Fitzcarraldo was a difficult film to make for a variety of reasons – just because of the nature of the film, dragging a boat up a mountain, possibly because of Klaus – but was it really difficult?

Beat Presser:  Well, you see, difficult doesn’t mean it was difficult for everyone the same.  Also, things look different from the perspective of time. We from the technical staff, we had the privilege to be there to do our job.  We did not have to pull a boat over a mountain. For myself, it was difficult because I had two jobs at the same time – assistant cameraman and set photographer. Cameras and material were difficult to take care of; the film material, exposed or not, had to be handled properly and carefully, because of the rains, the humidity, the sun, the heat, long transports etc. But that was nothing compared to the logistics like building a camp in the jungle, to move a heavy boat of 250 tons in the Amazon over a steep hill from one river to another.  To get hundreds and hundreds of Indians to take part in a movie. A movie; something they had never ever seen before. And we were filming in an area of the Amazon that nobody knew and where nobody lived, far away from their own habitat in some other jungles. To shoot Fitzcarraldo was mainly difficult for Werner Herzog, the director and producer of the film, and for Walter Saxer, the production manager who was responsible for all the logistics. That was difficult. For them it was. For me I only had to take care of the material and to take good photographs. And that wasn’t that difficult.

DDS:  Sometimes it is!  Didn’t you get injured at some point?

Beat Presser:  Well, only a little.  We shot the scene when the boat Molly Aïda gets loose and drifts down the rapids on the wild river.  I was operating the fourth camera and was thrown against the camera when Molly Aïda hit a big rock. There I was injured and had a black eye for a week or so. But that was it. Thomas Mauch, the cameraman, he really got injured and cut open the palm of his hand and could not operate the camera properly for a few days. But all that one can see in the film The Burden of Dreams by Les Blank.

DDS:  Yes, but it’s not normal, is it?  Other films don’t have those difficulties.  When you think of Werner Herzog, you tend to think of difficult situations and that he puts other people in difficult situations too.  That he’s a bit driven and obsessed with certain things.

Beat Presser:  What is normal anyway? You must be driven and obsessed if you wish to do films the way Werner Herzog does. But for myself that is alright, no objection. I have often lived a dangerous life anyway, I am used to that. And I like it. The last work I did I lived and worked for six months on sailing boats called Dhows in the Indian Ocean; that’s also very dangerous.  Dangerous because of storms, possible pirate attacks and other unexpected turbulences on board nobody had expected.

DDS:  Other people might see Herzog as driven to want to do that though… to do that for a film; I think most people thought that what happened in Fitzcarraldo wasn’t real.

Beat Presser:  But it was. But if you were not there yourself it is hard to believe that this was for real. That we really pulled a boat over a hill. Under such conditions. But it does not really matter what people think. The woman that was standing here just a minute ago [the waitress], said, “Oh, Klaus Kinski! A very interesting man but maybe a little crazy…”  That is her observation, but based on what?  What does this woman know that makes her to come to such a conclusion? For an outsider, it’s different than if you are involved in it. If I tell someone that I just came back from the Indian Ocean and about the pirates out there and all that, I often get the following response: “Wow, that is dangerous! You must be crazy!” Why do people think that is crazy or dangerous? Or why do they say, that cannot be real? It is an assumption, based on their own experience and existence. That is why it doesn’t matter what other people think or if they think it is real or not.

DDS:  But I do think it’s interesting that the films Werner Herzog did with Klaus Kinski were pretty much about somebody who is obsessed or who behaves in a crazed manner – like with Woyzeck, he’s going crazy and he behaves in an obsessive way; and Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre…

Beat Presser:  This was the role he had and he wanted to play!  If you play Woyzeck you have to go around the bend.

DDS:  It’s interesting though that he always wanted him to play those kinds of roles…

Beat Presser: Klaus hated to be called an actor! When Klaus impersonated someone, he was the person he played. That made him a great actor. When he played Paganini he was Paganini, when he played Fitzcarraldo he was Fitzcarraldo.  When he was Cobra Verde he was wild and dangerous like Cobra Verde. He was really participating in the role. Klaus had a great sense for the characters he impersonated.

DDS:  Talking of wild and dangerous, that’s what I wanted to ask you… Did you say during the Kinski-Abend session that the photograph of Klaus with the knife was banned from being published by Werner?  But he did end up using it in the My Best Fiend film in the end anyway…?

Beat Presser: When Werner first saw this photograph in 1987 he put a stamp on it:  “Private Photograph”. If a photograph has that stamp “Private Photograph” you’re not allowed to publish it; that was the deal between us. One day, Werner called me from Los Angeles, saying “I am planning a film on Klaus, would you like to be part of it?” When we shot the scenes with me in his film My Best Fiend in Prague, Werner asked me if I had a photograph of him and Klaus that would be suitable to promote his film. I sent him 2 or 3 photographs of them together where both look nice and friendly. After he had received them he called me and said, “These photographs you sent, they are all nice and everything but it is not what I want, there was this one photograph with the machete, do you remember?”  “But is has a stamp “Private Photograph”, I said, “Do you want to publish it now, it was banned by you?!” So he said, “Well, I think it fits the film, never mind if it was banned or not.”

DDS:  In the documentary there’s a scene where the two of you are walking around the gallery looking at the photographs and Werner says to you, “…that happened because he must have sensed the presence of your camera…”, and you said, “He also just wanted to let you have it, didn’t he?!”

Beat Presser:  Well, we all knew that the photographer was there! It was probably true that Klaus did this unique performance because I was there with my cameras ready; otherwise nobody would have known or would have seen that moment when Klaus goes with a machete after Werner’s throat. Somehow it looks so intense that we think it is for real. This photograph is part of a series of six.  It follows the process of how it came to that instant that is shown on the picture. For me it is like a symbol of their relationship that was starting to break up. And it was incredibly hot and dry up North in Ghana, in the middle of the African savannah. This photograph was born in the heat. We were about 20 crew members out there for the making of Cobra Verde. But not all of them could manage the heat and the climate up there in Tamale in Ghana. Some of them collapsed; others had to go to hospital. Not all of us could continue the second part of the filming in South America. For some, it was just too much.

DDS:  Again, extreme circumstances!

Beat Presser:  Yeah, but for myself it was not really extreme because before I came to the film set of Cobra Verde I had been travelling around the world for about 9 months. I was photographing surfers and windsurfers out in the Pacific Ocean in very high waves in Maui; I was taking long walks in the Burmese jungle with rebels all around; and I was trying out new cameras and new films.  I was really fit when I started work in Ghana as a set photographer. It was Klaus that wanted me to be the still photographer of the film. So that was great. Extreme? I couldn’t care less! As long as I would take good photographs, everything was fine.  

DDS:  Yes, and sometimes, at the other end of the spectrum, Klaus picked some banal films – he mostly put his all into his performance, whatever the film, but sometimes on those films you can tell that his heart wasn’t in it, or he wasn’t interested…

Beat Presser:  But he was interested in the money…

DDS:  Yes, but with Werner he couldn’t have got that much money for his work, in terms of how much time he had to spend working on them, so he must have wanted to do them…

Beat Presser: I guess so.

DDS:  Compared to some of the other films he worked in where he would maybe work 2 days and get paid a lot of money…

Beat Presser:  So I have heard. I guess Klaus and Werner had a deep understanding and respect for each other; together they could do great films. And they both knew that. I don’t think money was a big issue between the two of them. Werner and Klaus did five films together; they are all very special and they knew from the beginning that together they would create something unique – despite all problems and difficulties. And we, the technicians, were only the supporting act; Klaus and Werner were the ones that made it happen. Klaus loved being out there in the jungle, the nature under extreme conditions – even if he was romanticising his time in the jungle, he enjoyed it a lot. I don’t know, have you ever been in the Amazon…?

DDS:  Amazon, the website – someone bought one of your Kinski books from my link on this blog and I got £1.05p for that!

[Laughter]

Beat Presser:  I am just back from the Amazon; from Leticia, where Peru, Brazil and Colombia meet. It is absolutely amazing… The Amazon, life along the river, the people, their attitude, the nature, the animal life, the dolphins in the river.  I really like the jungle, to be there. And if you have the chance to do something like Fitzcarraldo, it is even more fascinating.  I think the jungle was also why Klaus got involved; I don’t think he was in it for the money.

DDS:  Yes, Klaus would say that he would select films on the basis of the least number of days’ work for the most amount of pay.  But it’s not necessarily true – other directors have said they did not pay him massive amounts of money to work with them and yet he still took the work anyway.

Beat Presser:  Maybe so, but the two of them had a deep understanding for each other.  I had the impression that even when things went wrong with Fitzcarraldo, they still went right somehow. Both, Werner and Klaus knew that they would have to go through all these difficulties – that they had to do that, even though there were fights and everything – but somehow instinctively they knew that they would do something great together, and they did.

DDS:  Which is why they would both do it again… but it’s interesting because Werner said after Cobra Verde he would not work with Klaus again…

Beat Presser:  That was for sure.

DDS:  Was it really bad?

Beat Presser:  Well, it was a little bit bad.  Especially for the two of them; it was clear that this would be their last film together. Also you have to see Klaus wanted to do this Paganini film. I remember one day during the making of Fitzcarraldo, we were sitting in hammocks at Werner’s house, and Klaus came along with this enormous script. After Klaus had left, Werner told me, “It’s impossible to make a film out of that…”

DDS:  He did though and it’s really not a bad film at all.

Beat Presser:  Yes, he did.  I went to visit Klaus on the film set of Paganini in Venice. That’s also where I met his son Nikolai for the first time. Also that is where I saw Klaus for the last time.

DDS: Nikolai is a good looking young man!

Beat Presser:  Yes, and he is nice and talented as well.  So, what did I want to say… yes, Klaus wanted Werner to direct Paganini

DDS:  But, in any case, Klaus just really wanted to get the film made.  He spent years and years trying to get it off the ground.

Beat Presser:  When Klaus came to shoot Cobra Verde he already knew that Paganini would go into production soon. Klaus had never worked as a film director before; he wanted the experience of directing, so he tried to dictate how Werner and the camera department had to do the filming.

DDS:  Oh, was he interfering with the direction?  There’s the picture of him covered head to toe with mud and he’s looking through the camera…

Beat Presser:  Yes, he sure did. That photograph with Klaus on camera in the goldmines of the Serra Pelada in Brazil tells a lot of stories about the making of Cobra Verde.

DDS:  He would also say that instinctively he knew when something would not look good – that he could tell that the lighting was not good, or the way another actor was moving into the frame was wrong, etc.

Beat Presser:  Have you watched on my website the little film with Klaus? (http://www.klaus-kinski.com/filmclip/index_.htm)

DDS:  The one where he’s going crazy about the way the guys are running across the bridge?

Beat Presser:  If you look at those three minutes carefully you know who is directing the film, or trying to direct the film.

DDS:  Was Klaus right in what he was saying though?  There was something very similar in Commando Leopard where he was going crazy at another actor for moving into the screen space incorrectly and grabbing him from the wrong angle or something along those lines.

Beat Presser:  But he was always right, definitely. I remember when Fitzcarraldo buys the boat Molly Aïda, a scene that was shot in the Post Office of Iquitos with Klaus, Claudia Cardinale and Bill Rose as the notary.  Just before filming, Klaus stops and says: “The light in my eyes is not right.”  Twenty people standing around, light people, camera people, make-up people, trying to convince and calm him down: “No, Klaus! Everything is fine! What are you talking about? It looks perfect! No, no, no!” So Klaus says: “Bring me a mirror.”  He looked in the mirror and he was right, the light in his eyes was not perfect! Something told him if something was wrong, he could feel and see the light on his face without seeing it. His instinct told him.

DDS:  He did the same thing with David Schmoeller on Crawlspace, maybe he was trying to direct that one too – there are behind the scenes shots of him arguing about the light with the lighting man and the camera man.  Maybe they wouldn’t accept his advice because he never gave it calmly, he would always get wound up…­­­­­­­­­­­

Beat Presser:  For some people it’s better if you speak up loud, clear, direct and distinct!

DDS:  Yeah, maybe he wasn’t an angry man, he was just a frustrated director all along!

Beat Presser: I don’t know if he was frustrated, but I think Klaus was not a happy person… And also, he was a little bit greedy for money.

DDS:  Well, he acknowledged that…

Beat Presser:  He did?  If you’re greedy for money, you miss out on a lot of things in life.

DDS:  Yes, people say he could have had a much better career if he had chosen his films and work more wisely and not on the basis of the money.

Beat Presser:  I can imagine.

DDS:  But he did work so hard!

Beat Presser:  Like you writing all these things for your blog!

DDS:  Yes, but there are so many films to write about!

Beat Presser:  I’m sure!

DDS:  Were there two Klaus Kinskis – Klaus Kinski the showman and a different Klaus Kinski in private?  As he didn’t see himself as “acting” but saw himself as “being”, what was he like when he was not “being” someone else?

Beat Presser:  After filming Klaus was a rather quiet man. Mostly he went to his hut, house or hotel and did not come back for the evening. He did not socialise very much; he stayed home and did his own thing. If one is so intense all day long like he was, one probably needs the quiet in order to stay in balance.

DDS:  I think that’s why Kinski gets such a bad deal as so many people say bad things about him, relating his characters back to him…

Beat Presser:  Yeah, but what do the “many people” know?  Who cares?

DDS:  But a lot of it seems to be based on the Werner Herzog stories, I guess.  The famous story about the gun etc.

Beat Presser:  I was not there when the famous story with the gun apparently took place. That was during the filming of Aguirre. I guess some stories are more true than others. But I like the myth that Werner is creating around Klaus and other people that he has worked with. It’s like the salt and pepper in the soup.

DDS:  Werner said sometimes he would send Klaus off to be photographed by you when he was misbehaving, maybe because he was no longer the centre of attention…

Beat Presser:  Possible!  Klaus and I, we both enjoyed taking photographs. He was the model; I was his photographer. When we were sent off to somewhere, the jungle or elsewhere, where it was calm and peaceful, Klaus found his balance again. Away from the busy and nervous film set. And while taking photographs we were both directors; the symbiosis between Klaus and myself worked very well. There was this mutual understanding what, where and how to photograph him. One does not get great photographs by saying: “Look to the left, look to the right, look up, look down”, it is your presence that does it. And when Klaus and I took photographs together it was like electricity in the air. That is why the photographs came out the way they are and that is why they will last.

DDS:  Werner also said about Klaus that he didn’t really go into the jungle and that he was more preoccupied with his designer army fatigues and appearing to be nature’s child and being at one with nature, than actually being out there in nature because he was quite frightened of it and that he’d be scared of the simplest thing like ants…

Beat Presser:  Aunts and uncles?

[Laughter]

Beat Presser:  No, you’d better ask Werner about that… we lived in the jungle; it was the jungle everywhere so why does he say that Klaus didn’t go into the jungle? The jungle was everywhere.

DDS:  Werner said Klaus would say how sexy the jungle was, but he, Werner, did not find it at all “erotical”, to use his words.  He said you took photographs of Klaus making love to a tree!

Beat Presser:  That’s correct!

DDS:  Shame, I didn’t see that one in the exhibition tonight!

Beat Presser: In Camisea, when we pulled the boat over the mountain, we lived in the middle of the jungle – jungle everywhere! Designer clothes?  That I cannot recall. Klaus had two Fitzcarraldo outfits for the film, a pair of jeans, some T-shirts and a green overall if I remember well. But who designed it I do not know. But if you live under such extreme conditions like we did, you forget about your designer.

DDS:  Anyway, it’s difficult to work out what’s true and what’s not…

Beat Presser:  There’s no truth, my dear.  The truth doesn’t exist.

DDS:  Well, I think that Werner and Klaus used to do the same thing – develop stories to grab people’s interest and work on them and hone them until they’re perfect, but no longer necessarily “true”.  They had a strange relationship…

Beat Presser: I had a different relationship myself; with both of them.  Their relationship doesn’t really concern me, because I’m someone else and I can’t describe their relationship.  I’m not a Robert Murdoch journalist!

DDS:  Okay.  You took some photographs of Klaus when he was working on Crawlspace in Rome?  There was one photograph from that time in the exhibition…

Beat Presser:  Yes, but I was just visiting and this was a private photograph anyway.  That’s the only photograph that has Klaus and me in the same photograph.  You can’t see me because I cropped it; the photograph was taken in a mirror, so I’m standing next to him but I cut that out.

DDS:  Because you didn’t like your picture…!

[Laughter]

DDS:  What kind of mood was he in then, because there are really bad stories from the director David Schmoeller about Klaus’ behaviour on-set…

Beat Presser:  Klaus was very nice to me. We met at his house at the Via Appia in Rome. He showed me his new Ferrari or whatever it was, then we went for lunch with some producer who offered Klaus three films. The Italian producer offered him an amount of money and a Maserati. But Klaus argued: “If you want me to do three films, I want three Maseratis”. Then we were picked up by the driver who brought us to Dino Di Laurentiis’ studio where Crawlspace was shot. There I met Jay Miracle and Jay asked me if I could introduce him to Klaus.

DDS:  Yes, maybe this is where the different relationships come in – Werner and David Schmoeller had expectations of Klaus, in terms of him being involved in their projects and them wanting to get a certain something out of him; whereas with Jay Miracle he was just doing something on his own terms… Jay said he didn’t have much of a chance to get a word in because Klaus just talked and he was ready to go and he just went on until the film ran out!

Beat Presser: Yes, Klaus liked that for sure. When he was interviewed in private and under such circumstances he just talked.

DDS:  Yeah, but he didn’t like to do interviews very much, so it was almost as if he was talking to a friend or something.  He was just letting off steam instead of being interviewed.

Beat Presser:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DDS:  He didn’t like to be interviewed – I’ve seen some of the Kinski Talks interviews and he’s quite awful in them!

Beat Presser:  Most interviewers that talked to Klaus asked stupid questions. That made Klaus aggressive and he started to talk in a way that got everybody irritated. The viewers, the audience, the interviewer, who then asks even more stupid questions. And that is why the whole thing got so absurd and out of hand. And Klaus knew that and played with it. When I first met and photographed Klaus in 1977 on the film set of Madame Claude in Paris I interviewed him. It was a one hour interview, but there was no aggression or irritation, he told me about him being Aguirre, how he was fed up with civilisation and that he wanted to leave. He wanted to live on the sea, on a sailing boat. For Klaus the sea was the last freedom.

DDS:  Probably because he knew you, he would have felt comfortable with you?

Beat Presser:  He didn’t know me then, it was the same day I met him first. But I agree with Klaus, it does not make sense to answer idiotic questions.

DDS:  But aren’t you expected to “play the game” a little bit?  To promote your work etc?

Beat Presser: Regardless how Klaus appeared on TV or in a film, he always promoted himself or the films he was starring in. These TV interviews with Klaus, even if they were chaotic, they were great promotion for him. And great fun too. That is why so many people still watch these interviews.

DDS:  Yes, but of course it would get you a bad reputation…

Beat Presser:  So?  So what? As long as you have a reputation. It did not matter for Klaus what people think about him. He did not care. And he was right. I myself was long considered as the Enfant terrible! Now, not so much anymore but in my earlier days I had a terrible reputation.  If you do something that is not within the norm, people already find you strange and it’s easy to get a bad reputation.  A few rumours, some badly retold stories and your reputation is established. And once you have a bad reputation, it sticks to you.

DDS:  But has that affected your career?

Beat Presser:  My career?  What do you mean, my “career”?  I just take photographs; that’s all.

[Laughter]

DDS:  Well, I think the people from The Idler – a magazine in the UK – would like you as they campaign against the work ethic.  The fact that you, as you say, do as little as possible work-wise and do what you enjoy to do and nothing more than that…

Beat Presser:  That would be very wise, but unfortunately there is still too much work to do!

DDS:  You enjoy doing what you do though…?

Beat Presser:  Of course, but I would like more time to do nothing – to sit on my sofa and read. Or to go sailing. There I agree with Klaus: The sea is the last real freedom.

DDS:  But you like your travelling too – like when you were in Colombia…?

Beat Presser:  Oh, that was lovely!

DDS:  Your eyes were twinkling just then!

[Laughter]

DDS:  But you went there to do work though…

Beat Presser:  Yes, that’s true. I was invited to do a Klaus Kinski show at the Mambo, the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá.  And apart from that I was teaching photography at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and at LaBloom, a private photography school in Bogota. But after a month of hard work, we went to the Amazon, took a boat and Manuel, the Indian boatsman, brought us deep into the Amazon jungles.

DDS:  You’ll find somewhere else to go for the next project?

Beat Presser:  It looks like that for the moment, yes.  We’ll see.  Anything goes.  First I’m going to Bremerhaven tomorrow morning.  I will have a speech there at the National German Schiffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven. I am exhibiting the photographs that I took on different Dhows along the Tansanian Coast in the Indian Ocean; I’m gonna talk about my experiences, adventures and my life as a photographer on different Dhows. In the afternoon I’ll be talking to children – a pirate workshop.  We shall talk about pirates and everybody has to be dressed as a pirate.  I can show you a photograph…

DDS:  You dressed as a pirate?

Beat Presser:  I’m not dressed; I am!

DDS:  What happened on your adventures on the Indian Ocean? [Dhau-Beatus Piratus auf Sindbads Spuren is available now from Moser Verlag]

Beat Presser: I have lived and worked together with the British born graphic and book designer Vera Pechel in Madagascar from 1988 till 1992 to do a story with the title “From Fire to Religion” – a photography story that tells us more about the evolution of human culture. When you work out there, you wonder, how did the people get here in the first place?  Since the island was populated already around 500AD, they must have come by boat. By Dhow. I wanted to find out how it is to live on a Dhow and I wanted to find out if life on sea has changed much since the first settlers came all the way from Indonesia and other places across the Indian Ocean to populate the big island of Madagascar. So I have lived on different Dhows for three month. In those three months I exposed 200 black and white Ilford films and two Moleskine books full of my writing. One year later I went back with a waterproof photography exhibit; the Goethe Institut in Dar es Salaam rented a Dhow and organised a travelling exhibition. So we sailed from place to place and presented my photographs to the people and their families that I had photographed the year before. It was a marvellous experience.  That was the last work I did. And I am very happy with the outcome. A beautiful book, published by Horst Moser, and many more exhibits to come in many different parts of the world.

DDS:  How did that come about?

Beat Presser: Some friends of mine that work for the British High Commission – I’ve know them for 30 years or more – John and his wife Doris, were appointed in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and they invited me to come see them. I remembered my unanswered question that troubled me since Madagascar and so I went to Tanzania, trying to get afoot a Dhow. And after a year of hard work, when all the photographs were scanned, printed, laid out and an exhibition and a book was put together, it all fell into place.

[There was a break here as Beat showed us the photograph of him dressed as a pirate…]

DDS: Has this photograph been published?

Beat Presser: No it has not been published as yet, but it’s a great photograph, isn’t it?  So tomorrow I’m going to show up like that.

DDS:  You’ll scare all the kids!

And with that, we closed the interview.  Many thanks to Beat Presser for giving Du dumme Sau! the opportunity and for taking the time and trouble to produce such a good interview (and such a wonderful exhibition!).  Thanks also to Dr. Martin Steinkühler for the great welcome he gave us.

The exhibition continues at the Westpreußisches Landesmuseum until 3 October and if you hurry there’s still time to get over for the final Kinski Abend mit Beat Presser, which takes place on 8 September 2011  http://www.westpreussisches-landesmuseum.de/index.php/kinski

If you can’t make it over there, the Kinski-Presser catalogue is available to purchase from Amazon and other good stores as is the Dhau – Beatus Piratus auf Sindbads Spuren book, which Beat Presser mentions throughout the interview.


Click the image to purchase from Amazon


Click the image to purchase from Amazon


Click the image to purchase from Amazon

Thanks to David Tinkham for the photographs of the Kinski-Beat Presser exhibition.   All other photographs used with the permission of Beat Presser. 

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About tinynoggin

I love films (anything from exploitation stuff to stylish Eastern European cinema, but I'm not really into blockbusters and modern Hollywood), music (Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Michel Polnareff, Left Banke, Francoise Hardy, The Seeds, Love, The Zombies, etc) and books (Kurt Vonnegut, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Hamilton, Alan Sillitoe, and more). I take photographs with my Lomography Diana F plus or my Olympus Trip and like making stuff in my spare time.
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