Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In Character: Udo Kier

I don’t know what I love more about Udo Kier, the fact that he has one of the best, most recognizable faces in cinematic history, or that, with more than 200 roles to his name, he manages to make most all of them memorable. Whether it’s big budgets, tiny indies, cult sensations, or iconic classics, no role is too big (or, more importantly) too small for Kier to own.

It’s funny, although Udo Kier is often typecast as The Foreboding German Man, there’s an eclectic variety to his body of work that I find immensely appealing. Now, although I am a fan of Kier’s work, I certainly haven’t seen everything he’s done (hell… has anyone?). The roles below are simply my favorites of the ones I’ve seen. As always, feel free to share some of your preferred Udo Kier characters in the comments.

Five Essential Roles
Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)
Baron von Frankenstein
Early in his career, Kier found success by starring in this Andy Warhol-produced, satirical movie monster romp. Kier plays Dr. Frankenstein as a complete and utter madman, hell bent on creating a perfect race from the body parts of dead people. It’s a complete blast watching the fresh faced and wide eyed Udo Kier go for broke in Warhol’s word. It’s the kind of role that is so extreme, it forces an actor to relinquish any and all inhibitions. Such as the scene in which Kier lays on top of a dead woman, has sex with an open wound in her torso, then justifies the act by saying: “To know death, you have to fuck life in the gull bladder.”

With his role as Frankenstein (and as Count Dracula in the similarly-produced Blood for Dracula released the next year), a cult sensation was born.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)
One of the most memorable sequences Gus Van Sant has ever captured is Udo Kier dancing around a hotel room, singing an insane German pop song, illuminated only by a giant table lamp. Just as effective as Hans’ manic routine are the reactions of the male prostitutes he’s performing for (played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves). Reeves can’t help but laugh, and I’ve always wondered if his laughs were scripted or achieved out of pure shock.

Either way, because Kier is often typecast, it’s great to see him go all in and seriously ham it up in a movie like My Own Private Idaho. Thank God Van Sant had the nerve to approach Kier about this role in the first place. No other actor could pull it off the way he did.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Albin Grau
In the brilliant Shadow of the Vampire, director E. Elias Merhige fictionally asserts that Max Schreck, the lead actor of F.W. Murnau’s Nosteratu, was indeed an actual vampire.  And as the producer, art director and costume designer of Nosteratu, Kier plays Albin Grau as an efficient man full of suspicion. He’s the first one to really suspect that Schreck is far more than a dedicated method actor. Grau’s doubts culminate in a remarkable scene in which Grau and Nosteratu’s screenwriter sit and drunkenly quiz Schreck about the true nature of vampires. In the midst of their seemingly innocent interrogation, watch as Kier’s face slowly morphs into genuine fear. Much to the horror of Grau and everyone else on set, Schreck is exactly what he says he is, at least in this warped world.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2010)
Lee Meyers
Werner Herzog’s shamefully ignored My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done chronicles the true story of Mark Yavorsky (whose name is changed to Brad McCullum in the film) a kind, unassuming man who murdered his mother after slowly losing his grip on reality. In the film, Kier plays one of the few people who knew and befriended Brad before his emotional collapse. As Brad (played to frenzied perfection by Michael Shannon) holds people hostage inside his San Diego home, Lee tells the police of Brad’s slow descent into darkness.

One thing I love most about Udo Kier is his sense of restraint. Lee Meyers is well groomed, put together, and frequently reluctant to tell the police more about Brad than he has to. There’s a particular refinement to Kier’s best roles that I’m always drawn to. I only hope he has the chance to make more films with Herzog. The two were born to work together.

Melancholia (2011)
Wedding Planner
There are plenty of larger Kier roles to occupy space here, but I just love his brief work as an elitist wedding planner in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. The way he makes an effort to so obviously avoid the depressive bride (Kirsten Dunst) who ruined “his” wedding. The way he shields his face from the bride after running into her during the outdoor reception, or how he quietly professes that he will never forgive her. Sure, Kier has played absurd for the sake of a laugh, but rarely is he given a chance to play a part of such out-and-out humor. Truth be told, he’s one of my favorite characters in Melancholia – a welcome reprieve to the film’s rather, well, melancholic overtone.

The Best of the Best
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Sadistic Sailor
Udo Kier now has the rare distinction of being the actor with the shortest best role of any actor featured in my In Character column. And believe me, I know his very brief work in von Trier’s Breaking the Waves may seem like an odd choice, but hear me out.

I saw Breaking the Waves before any of the five Kier performances above, which means, while I knew Udo Kier, I didn’t really know what he could do. I knew him as the corporate vampire in Blade, the humble billionaire in Ace Ventura, the shrink in Armageddon – I knew him as the guy with the unique face who occasionally popped up in popular American films. It wasn’t until Breaking the Waves that I became fully aware of his command.

In the film, Kier plays a menacing sailor who orders an unwilling prostitute (the fearless Emily Watson) to have sex with another man in front of him. Now, the second I saw Kier come on screen in this film, I knew to be afraid. With his bald head, sweaty face, and determined stare, I knew this actor was capable of far more than throwaway roles in blockbuster films. I knew he was a force to be reckoned with, and I only wanted to see more of him. Breaking the Waves opened my eyes as to what Udo Kier can do, and that is one hell of a memorable feat.

Other Notable Roles
In Armageddon
Blood for Dracula (1974)
Suspiria (1977)
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Medea (1988)
Europa (1991)
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
The Kingdom (1994)
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Barb Wire (1996)
The Kingdom II (1997)
The End of Violence (1997)
Armageddon (1998)
Blade (1998)
End of Days (1999)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Invincible (2001)
Dogville (2003)
Surviving Christmas (2004)
Manderlay (2005)
Grindhouse – Segment: Werewolf Women of the SS (2007)
Halloween (2007)
Iron Sky (2012)



    I love this guy. He's one of the reasons why I look forward to a Lars von Trier film because he always does something in a von Trier film no matter how small he is.

    You're fucking dead on about his role in Breaking the Waves. That is acting.

    My 2nd favorite performance from is in My Own Private Idaho w/ Melancholia in 3rd.

    1. YES, YES, YES!

      You're so right: no matter how small his role in a von Trier film is, he always manages to stand out. I love that about him.

      So cool that we love the same Kier performances.

  2. He was in Suspiria? I have no memory of him there.

    I'm surprised there is no mention of Cigarette Burns here, he was amazing there.

    1. He actually has a pretty substantial scene in Suspiria as a shrink Jessica Harper meets with.

      I haven't seen any of the Masters of Horror series, but man, Cigarette Burns sounds right up my alley.

  3. I'm glad you included the scene in My Own Private Idaho. That was so bizarre.

    1. Thanks. Kier is one damn bizarre dude, isn't he? He played that scene to perfection.

  4. Ace Ventura: Excuse me, Ron, I need to use the bathroom.
    Ace Ventura: I think it's the pâté.
    Ronald Camp: Sure, right over there.
    Ace Ventura: Thanks! Stuff probably looks better on the way out, huh?

    1. I love how dry Kier is in that scene. Hey, remember when Carrey used to be great? ;-(

  5. Yeah, dunno what happened. I really loved his dramatic turn in The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, and Eternal Sunshine too. Since then... couldn't tell you. Though I did like him in Snickett's

    1. Yeah that was a pretty good character in Snickett's. Maybe he just got burnt out. Who knows.

  6. Great choice at #1. I also love him in Melancholia and Shadow of the Vampire, and it's always nice to see him pop up in a von Trier film.

    1. Thanks man. Kier is one of my favorite aspects of Trier's films. Wonder what he'll be doing in Nymphomaniac.

  7. Then i shall watch all of his movies and give you a reply. It was funny, when he spoke :0)

    1. Oh man, good luck. Dude has been in so many movies!

  8. Watching blood for Dracula, flesh for frank, story of O many more but I still yet to see apart from a beautiful face that he can really act. If you compare him with the greats then no his not the best in fact he would be a B actor at best

    1. Fair enough. He may not be regarded as one of the all time greats, but he is always great, if that makes sense.

  9. I always enjoyed his voice acting villainous role in Mystery Incorporated as the parrot Pericles.