The Passion of the Kinski

Philip Concannon

Just good friends: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski

The title of Klaus Kinski’s memoir is Kinski Uncut, but that’s not strictly accurate. When the actor first attempted to publish his autobiography in 1988, under the title All I Need is Love, a lawsuit from Marlene Dietrich (who had taken offence to his depiction of her as a lesbian) ensured the book was withdrawn from circulation until after her death. Since then, each subsequent edition of the book has carefully removed the names of anyone still living who may be feeling similarly litigious, so what we have here is not exactly the complete recollections of Klaus Kinski as the author intended. Nevertheless, it still feels like a pure, concentrated dose of Kinski; as if the actor’s brain spilled out onto the page and he left it there without making any attempt to organise his thoughts or check his darker impulses. Perhaps Kinski Unfiltered or Kinski Unhinged would have been more appropriate titles.

But is it Kinski Untrue? I don’t doubt that many of the events in the book took place in Kinski’s life, but the author’s hyperbolic description of them often gives us reason to doubt the veracity of what we’re reading. Everything in Kinski Uncut is extreme – his suffering is more intense than most ordinary souls could bear, his acting performances are received with either angry derision or tears and standing ovations, his sexual encounters (of which there were many) are all epic and orgasmic. When he talks about his childhood, he describes a period of Dickensian squalor, where he suffered permanently from starvation and frostbite and learned to steal in order to survive. Everything in the book seems designed to reinforce the idea that Kinski’s life was more dramatic, outrageous and depraved than that of any mere mortal who might be reading his story; that he is a tortured genius who has suffered nobly among the “idiots” and “riffraff” who make up the rest of the population. This is Klaus Kinski’s world, and the rest of us are just living in it.

With such rampant egomania to the fore, it was inevitable that Klaus Kinski’s autobiography would be a memoir unlike any other. While the book is chronological, there are no chapters and no dates to help provide us with context for the author’s anecdotes. Other actors would surely spend time talking about their most famous films and the great filmmakers they have worked with, but Kinski treats that aspect of his life with nothing but disdain, describing himself as a whore who signed up for “some piece of shit” movie for two reasons: (1) the money, (2) the potential for sex. When Kinski does name-drop, he does so only to unleash more bile on the various “assholes” and “sluts” he encountered on films sets around the world. He dismisses Roger Corman (“that garbage producer”) Maria Schneider (“She thinks she’s hot stuff because Marlon Brando fucked her up the ass with butter”) Billy Wilder (“No outsider can imagine the stupidity, blustering, hysteria, authoritarianism and paralysing boredom of shooting a flick for Billy Wilder”) and Federico Fellini (“Instead of signing the contract, I wire him: Fuck you!”). Only two filmmakers emerge from Kinski Uncut unscathed: Jean Cocteau, who he seemingly saw as a kindred artistic spirit, and James Toback. His respect for the American filmmaker might be surprising, until Kinski helpfully provides an explanation: “At least Jimmy gets me girls.”

Kinski suffering worse than Jesus

Of course, the director with whom Kinski is most closely associated is Werner Herzog, with their love/hate relationship being the stuff of legend, but we’ll get to him later. First, let’s go back to those girls, the ones that James Toback helpfully procured for his star. At least half of Kinski Uncut is driven by the star’s raging libido. Ever since he was an adolescent, Klaus developed an appetite for women that no amount of sex could satisfy. Young or old, beautiful or ugly, and of any background or ethnicity, Klaus didn’t care. He gives few of them names, they are merely there to be screwed and then discarded, although he does spend a couple of pages recounting a lengthy and detailed conversation with a prostitute, in which she describes the many men she has been with. Kinski seemed to feel a bond with women in this particular line of business – “Why am I a whore?” he cries at one point, “I need love! Love! Nonstop!” and his thoughts rarely drift to any other subject. Even when he is destitute and homeless, he has women on his mind (“The main thing is to avoid dying of cold or hunger and to put my head somewhere or other, preferably between a girl’s thighs.”) and, luckily for him, it seems that no woman who encountered Klaus Kinski could think of anything else either.

According to Kinski Uncut, Klaus Kinski was irresistible to all women (even his own mother and sister). If any female so much as laid eyes on him, she would be desperate to feel his “righteous erection” (as he frequently describes it) inside her. Kinski’s prose comes to life when describing these encounters, as he rhapsodises over the intimate details of each lover’s body. A few choice examples: “Her hole is as hot as if she wanted to boil my dick.” “The gullet of her ravenous pussy snaps at my writhing eel like a feeding predator.” “Marlayna has a tiny, chubby piggy-cunt that vacuum-pumps my cock head like a pouting mouth.” “I would never have dreamt that such a huge pussy could possibly exist.” This stuff continues for page after page after page, reading less like memories and more like ridiculous fantasies that Kinski has written down as fact. Even when he lies immobile in a hospital, recovering from jaundice, a nun (!) climbs uninvited onto Kinski’s bed and straddles his face. It’s jaw-dropping and often hilarious to read (wait until you read about Kinski riding an Indian “giantess” like a horse until she has an orgasm) but it eventually feels relentless and deadening, with one sex act blurring into another. “It might look as if all I do is loll around in beds and fuck – no way!” Kinski insists, and it does come as something of a relief when he zips up his fly and ventures out into the world.

“I shit in the eyes of butterflies! They have the morals of scattered electrons and the smell of Bavarian sewers.”

Finally, over 200 pages into the book, Werner Herzog arrives and the most volatile relationship of Kinski’s life begins. Herzog was the only director who worked with Kinski more than once (hardly surprising, given his proclivity for reacting to confrontations by pissing on people or kicking them in the balls), but from Kinski’s description of their time together it’s hard to understand how they survived one shared experience let alone five. “His speech is clumsy, with a toadlike indolence, long-winded, pedantic, choppy. The words tumble from his mouth in sentence fragments, which he holds back as much as possible, as if they were earning interest. It takes him forever and a day to push out a clump of hardened brain snot.” That’s his description of his first meeting with the director, and it’s all downhill from there. Kinski rages against Herzog’s incompetence on the set of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, claiming that he saved the film by directing his own scenes and ignoring any instructions from Herzog. He begins to fantasise about seeing his director suffer: “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 gruesome deaths, the more he haunts me.” Once again, however, we have to wonder how true Kinski’s version of events is. It certainly doesn’t chime with what we see in Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend which – although it addresses their conflict – depicts a relationship that had moments of warmth and collaboration as well as animosity.

In Kinski Uncut Klaus Kinski is clearly telling the story that suits his own image of himself. Towards the end of the book, he focuses on his relationship with his beloved son Nanhoï and a narrative arc finally begins to emerge. Kinski appears to find a sense of peace and happiness with Nanhoï that he could never attain through all of those energetic but ultimately joyless fucks, and therein lies the moral of Kinski Uncut, although whether any reader will have sympathy for this devil is debatable. Approaching the book as an autobiographical novel or a piece of performance art rather than a straight-up autobiography might be the best way to appreciate it, and such a perspective may help to make its more outré elements palatable. Either way, Kinski Uncut is a unique portrait of a very unusual individual, and it certainly deserves a special status among books written by movie stars, all of which immediately look incredibly meek and anodyne in comparison. Can you imagine any other actor cheerfully admitting to pornographic encounters with underage girls, or taking a mouthful of shit after trying to bite the rump of a cow, or – in perhaps the book’s most representative moment – suggesting that he has suffered more than Jesus Christ?  “This riffraff is worse than the Pharisees,” Kinski complains of his detractors, “At least they let Jesus finish talking before they nailed him to the cross.”

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3 thoughts on “The Passion of the Kinski

  1. I once met the man who edited this book and I asked him, “What was Kinski like to collaborate with?” He looked at me as if I was mental. “For Christ’s sake… I never actually MET him. Why would you want to do that?”

    An extraordinary piece of work, this, but Herzog’s comments in his writings about how the antagonism between them was cooked up in order to get people talking strikes me as much truer than anything in its pages.

  2. Kinski strikes me as a prime example of someone you really can’t get to the truth of. Partly because he’s a little bit unhinged and partly because, as Paul indicates. he was concerned with hype. The article is very amusing though and in places a little worrying. I can only hope that you have not been psychologically damaged yourself in the reading of this book and in the writing of this aticle.

  3. I think I have been psychologically scarred. The madness and perversions that I included in the article were only the tip of the iceberg.

    It’s true that Herzog and Kinski both enjoyed building their own myths, and in that sense they were ideally suited to each other. It’s harder to know where the reality of Kinski ended and his perception of himself began, though, and he really is a fascinating enigma of a man. At times, there’s something oddly endearing about his writing in Kinski Uncut, even as his actions are totally repulsive.

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