Arguably the most recognizable German actor to find fame in the post-war English speaking world (Arnold is Austrian), it is somewhat ironic that Klaus Kinski was born Nikolaus Nakszyñski in what was then the free city of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Although he appeared in nearly 150 movies, he is most famous for the five films he made with director Werner Herzog. Of course, he is also famous for his rather, shall we say, volatile personal life.
Early Life and Career
Klaus Kinski was born in 1926 to a Polish father and a German mother in a suburb of Danzig. The family moved to Berlin in 1931 and did reasonably well. In the 1940s, Kinski was drafted in the Wehrmacht and deserted at some point, standing in the path of an American bomber, hoping to be killed. Instead, he was captured the British kept as a POW in England for the duration of the war. While in England, he apparently discovered Shakespeare and gave acting a try when he was repatriated to what was then West Germany.
Kinski made a name for himself in the Berlin theater and received good notices for his emotional intensity (if only they knew...). Apparently his big break came in Jean Cocteau's La Voix Humane as the lead character - a woman who performs the show solo. It was during this stint that his eccentricities got the better of him for the first time, and he was sent to a mental institution for a minor drug overdose during an orgy reportedly involving a woman, her sister, and her mother. Kinski had made the transition to film in 1948 as an extra in a German war film and this is apparently where he discovered his philosophy about work:
I choose films with the shortest schedule and the most money.
That Kinski would compare himself to a prostitute several times at least showed that he understood the best way to get ahead in the acting profession. In 1963 alone, he appeared in at least 10 films. Two years later, he would receive his first major exposure in the English-speaking world with roles in Doctor Zhivago and Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More (I know, I know, the second one is Italian). Unfortunately, these great movies were usually exception for Kinski, who turned down work with Frederico Fellini and Steven Spielberg because the pay wasn't as good as what he could get for something like Rendezvous with Dishonour or The Naughty Cheerleader (both 1970). Still, Kinski considered himself an artiste and somehow found time to begin a travelling series of monologues that have come to be collectively called "the Jesus Tour." I'll let Kinski explain:
I've come to tell the most exciting story in the history of mankind: the life of Jesus Christ. I'm not talking about the Jesus in those horrible gaudy pictures ... with the jaundice-yellow skin -- whom a crazy society has turned into the biggest whore of all time ... I don't mean the Jesus whose moldy kiss frightens little girls out of horny dreams before their First Communion and makes them die of shame and disgust when they foam in the latrines. I'm talking about the adventurer, the freest, most fearless, most modern of all men, the one who preferred being massacred to rotting with the others.
Essentially, the Jesus Tour was Kinski's reinterpretation of Christ's life which, unsurprisingly, bore a suspiciously close resemblance to his own. I guess you could say the Jesus Tour was "successful" in that people came to see them, but more often than not, they did so to purposefully infuriate Kinski so as to watch him explode. If wikipedia is to be believed, he threw a candelabra at one audience because they weren't being "appreciative" enough. Allegedly, this almost caused this building to burn down.
The Herzog Years
Ever the restless soul, Kinski abruptly quit the Jesus Tour in 1971 to work in Peru with Werner Herzog on the film Aguirre: the Wrath of God with Kinski in the title role. Aguirre is the story of a group of conquistadores who travel through the jungle in search of gold and fame. This was the first collaboration between Kinski and Herzog as well as the beginning of their tumultuous working relationship. Immediately there were creative differences. Kinski bizarrely demanded that Aguirre be "crippled" in some way "because his power must not be contingent on his appearance." As the shoot lingered on, the jungle got to Kinski. He became wild with rage on a nearly daily basis, insulting the cast and crew alike for the most minor infractions. Allegedly, a rowdy poker game was keeping him awake late a night, so he fired a shot from his rifle into the hut where it was going on. Kinski described his feelings about Herzog thusly:
The huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his balls and his guts! He should catch the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Yellow fever! Leprosy! It's no use; the more I wish him the most gruesome deaths, the more he haunts me.
After Aguirre finished shooting, Kinski somehow or another made the acquaintance of a Vietnamese woman named Minhoi and the two married shortly thereafter (this was Kinski's third of four marriages). The marriage was intense, to say the least, and produced a son named Nikolai (nicknamed Nanhoi, who recently turned out a performance in the horrible Aeon Flux movie). Nikolai was Kinski's third child from various marriages, preceded by Nastassja Kinski and Pola Kinski, both from different mothers. Unsurprisingly, Minhoi divorced him in 1979, just as Herzog convinced Kinski to appear in his remake of F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (this time subtitled Phantom der Nacht). In my estimation, this version actually surpasses the original and Kinski's performance as the Vampire is incredible. It's somewhat ironic, considering he played Renfield in the Christopher Lee version of Count Dracula. The role was emotionally harrowing for Kinski and he even put most of his hatred for Herzog to the side in his writings about it. Of course, this would change the second Nosferatu wrapped because he had agreed to make Woyzeck immediately afterward.
Woyzeck is the story of dehumanization and suicide as seen through the eyes of a tortured soldier. The part was seemingly tailor-made for Kinski who nevertheless saw this as one of his most grueling experiences in film. Toward the beginning of the movie, there's a scene in which the Woyzeck character receives a beating from a military officer; Kinski specifically asked the other actor to make it as real as possible. He demanded that each of his scenes be done in only one take, on the grounds that to do them again would be disingenuous. When it was all over, Kinski remarked "it's gonna take me a long time to recover. But the damage done to my soul is a lot worse."
Their next collaboration was 1982's Fitzcarraldo, the story of a man determined to bring opera music to the Amazon. Originally, Jason Robards had been cast in the title role but an illness forced him to quit. By that time, nearly half the film had already been shot. According to Kinski, Herzog "begged" him to play the part and he eventually agreed. Once he arrived in Peru, it was Aguirre all over again, with the two men constantly at odds over Herzog's direction as well as his supposed disregard for the safety of the cast and crew. Some of their feuding was captured by Les Blank, who was shooting a documentary about the filming of the movie called Burden of Dreams. Kinski ridiculed Blank as lazy and slow, unable to catch anything of any value on film.
Keep in mind that during the collaborations with Herzog, Kinski was still acting in tons of other movies, most of which were horrible. Sure, he did all right in the Little Drummer Girl but by this time, everyone knew he was impossible to work with. A peronal low came in 1986 with the Nazi-doctor-gone-mad crapfest Crawlspace. After Crawlspace, Kinski somehow became utterly obsessed with the violinist Niccolo Paganini and was convinced that he was Paganini reincarnated. He wrote a script about the man's life and asked Herzog to direct it, although he said it was completely unfilmable. This was partially what led to the breakdown of filming for the final Herzog/Kinski collaboration, Cobra Verde, a film about the African slave-trade. Behind the scenes, it featured the usual war of attrition between the two men, with Kinski eventually starting to call Herzog "Adolf Hitler." Kinski left before filming was complete and the finished product leaves much to be desired.
Klaus Kinski only appeared in two movies after Cobra Verde. The first was a shitty Italian sequel to Nosferatu with Kinski reprising the title role. Considering the original character died and Kinski refused to shave his head or go through the make-up sessions again, it's a little difficult to see the similarities. There was tension on the set, but Kinski wasn't the cause of all of it. By the time Kinski shot his first scenes, two directors had already come and gone, and he refused to work with the third. The result was that the film's producer, Augusto Caminito, directed some scenes with the help of his assistant. Kinski is rumored to have directed some of his own scenes, but I don't know this for sure.
Kinski's final movie, of course, was his beloved Paganini biopic, officially called Kinski Paganini. Although the finished product lasts barely an hour and a half, it turns out that Kinski had originally intended for it to be 16 hours long as a miniseries for Italian television. To this day, the reaction toward Kinski Paganini is mixed, but the general consensus is that while the film itself may have no point whatsoever, and Kinski is hardly the greatest writer/director, his performance is captivating.
At some point, Kinski wrote an autobiography called Kinski Uncut. I'll let you figure out what that's a reference to. The book was a lightning rod for controversy. In it, he alienated virtually ever surviving family member he had by infamously claiming to have had incestuous relations with his own sister and by implying the same thing about his daughter Nastassja. The book also contains several savage attacks on Werner Herzog, including the "ants" passage I quoted above. After Kinski's death, Herzog would get his "revenge," so to speak, with his documentary Mein Liebster Feinde (My Best Fiend), a study of their relationship in which he concluded that although they hated each other, they generally respected one another as artists. A storm of litigation erupted over Kinski Uncut, but not for the reasons you might think: apparently he had agreed to write his memoirs for one company but failed to do so, deciding instead to write Kinski Uncut for another one. No new editions have been printed since 1996 and I can't find it anywhere.
Klaus Kinski died in his sleep at the age of 65 on November 23, 1991, of a massive heart attack. Kinski was so isolated from the rest of the world that the only person who attended his funeral was the only person he really seemed to love unconditionally: his son, Nikolai. Although these words were written years before his death, they reveal both Kinski's obsessive personality as well as his conflicted emotional nature:
Do not be sad, Nanhoi. The truth is, I can never die. For I will be in everything and see you in everything and watch over you. I am your reaction in the water of a mountain lake. I am your shadow and I am the light that creates your shadow. I am your fairy tale. Your dream. Your wishes and desires, and I am their fulfillment. I am your thirst and your hunger and your food and your drink...