The German actor Klaus Kinski (1926–1991) was best known for his leading roles in the intense historical and fantasy films directed by Werner Herzog during the 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to being cast in Herzog's award-winning historical epics Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, he took roles in several other films, but his career was hampered by his notoriously quixotic personality.
Klaus Kinski had a long and checkered career before his breakthrough to international prominence while working with German film director Werner Herzog. Kinski appeared in Italian “spaghetti” Westerns, German B-movies, and, occasionally, took bit parts in mainstream fare such as Dr. Zhivago. His art was born in the worst years of the 20th century as his family suffered during the Great Depression, and he spent the last part of World War II as a British prisoner of war. A volatile figure, to say the least, Kinski remains difficult to evaluate because his accounts of his own life are likely exaggerated to a greater or lesser degree. Yet his compelling screen presence in his performances under Herzog, for instance in his role as an unhinged conquistador in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), was responsible for the status of those films as landmarks of German cinema.
When he was 16, Kinski joined the Wehrmacht, the German army, and he was deployed to the Netherlands in 1944, when German positions there were crumbling. On his second day of combat, he was captured by British forces and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp in England. (His memoirs, thought to be unreliable, tell of his desertion from the Germans and subsequent capture.) Kinski had his first experiences as an actor in this camp, appearing in plays staged by prisoners for the entertainment of their fellow internees. He was held by the British until 1946 when he returned to a Berlin that the war had left in ruins.
In this unpromising atmosphere, Kinski began his acting career, taking small roles in plays and using the name Klaus Kinski. His gaunt intensity attracted attention from directors and he was hired by several established theater companies before being fired or sidelined due to his unpredictable behavior. In 1948, he made his first film appearance, as a prisoner of war, in the German film Morituri. Kinski continued to find parts in films through the 1950s and early 1960s, some of them in English.
Kinski's first meeting with Herzog occurred in 1955 when the two resided in the same Berlin boardinghouse; in Herzog's 1999 documentary about Kinski, My Best Fiend, he recalled how the actor once locked himself into the house's bathroom for 48 hours. Kinski toured for several years in a marginally successful one-man monologue show before finding a substantial part in the 1962 American World War II film The Counterfeit Traitor. Three years later, he scored a bit part—as a train passenger being transported to a Russian prison—in the blockbuster film Dr. Zhivago.
In the 1960s Kinski moved to Italy and appeared in a series of so-called spaghetti Westerns—Western-themed Italian films made and performed by international crews. These included a role alongside American actor Clint Eastwood in 1965's For a Few Dollars More, directed by Sergio Leone, and a part in A Bullet for the General (1968). He made numerous appearances in European films, often playing a villain, and his acting career became increasingly lucrative. In the year 1968 alone, nine new films with Kinski in the cast appeared. According to the actor, he turned down offers from prestigious directors such as Italy's Federico Fellini and Japan's Akira Kurosawa because he could make more money in spaghetti Westerns and other popular films.
Kinski met his match in the early 1970s when he reconnected with Herzog, who would soon emerge as one of the primary figures of the German cinematic new wave of the period. The first film on which they collaborated was 1972's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, for which the director sent Kinski the script and received in return a rambling 3 a.m. telephone call in which the actor indicated his interest. The relationship between actor and director was volatile to say the least. In order to induce the menacing and crazed quality Herzog wanted in the film character of the deranged South American jungle settler Aguirre, he would deliberately try to antagonize Kinski before shooting a scene. Kinski sometimes threatened to shoot Herzog, and at one point to throw him into a river filled with piranhas, and Herzog at least once threatened to shoot Kinski if he walked off the set. The result was a film that, although it started slowly at the box office, ran for 15 months in Paris and became a cult favorite in many countries.
While Kinski continued to support himself through his work in spaghetti Westerns and other low-budget European films, his most significant work through the 1970s and into the early 1980s was done in collaboration with Herzog. In 1979 he had roles in two Herzog films: he played Count Dracula in the director's remake of the German silent film Nosferatu, and he starred in Woyzeck, based on an earlier German play about a soldier who undergoes destructive mental health experiments and begins to lose his sanity. Actor and director reunited for the epic Fitzcarraldo (1982), which occasioned their joint return to the jungles of South America, and while this film had a more dreamlike quality than Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the challenges filming in a jungle environment took their toll. Herzog and Kinski made one more film together, 1987's Cobra Verde, which dealt with the slave trade between Ghana and South America. After that, their partnership broke down due to artistic and personality conflicts.
In his personal life, Kinski was married three times. By Gislint Kuhlbeck he had a daughter, Pola; by German writer Ruth Brigitte he had a daughter, Nastassia; and by Genevieve Minhoi he had a son, Nanhoi. He rarely saw his children, and they rarely met each other, but all three of them pursued acting careers.
Considerable notoriety surrounded Kinski in his later years due to the publication of his memoirs, which first appeared in English in 1989 as All I Need Is Love (in German Ich brauche Liebe, or “I Need Love”). Withdrawn by American publisher Random House under murky circumstances, the memoirs were reissued by Viking, with substantial alterations, as Kinski Uncut in 1996. “Few celebrity memoirs are remotely as raw, pornographic and confessional as this notorious self-portrait,” observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer in discussing the Viking version, which was ultimately pulled from the market. Some readers questioned the authenticity of Kinski's narrative, and Herzog in his documentary suggested that much of it was fabricated, asserting that the two had actually collaborated on the insults directed toward Herzog that appeared in the book.
While Kinski Uncut provided Kinski the opportunity to recount his film career during its early years, he also detailed a nearly nonstop series of sexual exploits, many of a decidedly unorthodox nature. His daughter Nastassia Kinski filed but then withdrew a libel suit against Kinski after the publication of the book. Daughter Pola Kinski alleged in a book released after Kinski's death that he had sexually abused her.
In 1989 Kinski took the director's chair for the first time with Paganini, a film about the flamboyant 19thcentury Italian violinist whose life, he felt, paralleled his own. Although the film was never released in the United States (perhaps a result of Kinski's controversial memoirs), its creator felt comfortable in that country and was quoted as saying in the London Times that he would “rather wash dishes in America than make films in Europe.” Paganini was to be Kinski's last film. He died of a heart ailment on November 23, 1991, at his home in Lagunitas, California.
Arnold, Matthew, editor, Klaus Kinski, Beast of Cinema: Critical Essays and Fellow Filmmaker Interviews, McFarland, 2016.
Kinski, Klaus, All I Need Is Love, Random House, 1988.
Kinski, Klaus, Kinski Uncut, Viking, 1996.
New York Times, November 27, 1991, Caryn James, “Klaus Kinski, 65, Actor Known for His Portraits of the Obsessed.”
Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1996, “Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski,” p. 78.
Times (London, England), November 27, 1991, “Klaus Kinski.”□