Klaus Kinski lives -- vile, wild, brilliant


"Kinski Uncut," by Klaus Kinski and translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Viking. 322 pages. $26.95.

The tortured and misanthropic male artist has become a veritable cliche of Western art. Think Tolstoy, Gauguin, Beethoven: by all accounts absolutely vile, especially to women (with whom they were obsessed), yet who can dispute their genius or charisma? Klaus Kinski - casual pedophile, serial adulterer, sexual nihilist - deserves a spot in this lupine line-up; his lugubrious libidinous exploits matched his undisputed brilliance as an actor.

Be warned: "Kinski Uncut" (with its not-so-subtle double entendre title) is not for the faint of heart. (Feminists must leave politics at the door.) But for those willing to take Kinski as Kinski, this raw nerve-end of an autobiography provides the reader with the most vivid portrait of a real, in-your-face, tortured genius since van Gogh sliced off his ear.

Here I confess: I consider Kinski to be one of the most brilliant actors ever to cross stage or screen. After reading "Kinski Uncut" I have a small inkling of why. The drama of his performance was comparable only to the dynamic of his own life.

Born in Poland in 1926 to a chronically unemployed pharmacist father and seamstress mother, whom he adored, Kinski, the youngest of four children, came brutally of age in the last days of the Weimar Republic in Berlin, adept at stealing food before he could read or write.

The violence and isolation of his hideous "childhood" (stealing and starving at 5, sexually omnivorous at 12, conscripted at 15, wounded POW at 16) explain a great deal about both his misanthropy and his ability to convey emotions of every ilk on stage or screen.

A man of myriad passions, Kinski details his thousands of sexploits in graphic and often hilarious detail, giving new meaning to the term "scorecard."

Early on, sex both drives and succors him, holding his demons at bay. Acting does not. Kinski refers to himself, star of more than 250 films and countless plays, the man sought by directors from Fellini to Pasolini to Herzog, as a whore. Kinski approached his most stellar work, four films with Herzog, with the same sneering contempt as the spaghetti westerns he made with Sergio Leone.

Kinski never met a director he didn't despise (though his six-page diatribe on Herzog is particularly vicious). In stream-of-consciousness raconteuring, vivid tales of chamber maids and butcher's wives warrant more space than meetings with Visconti, David Lean, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau or Jean-Paul Sartre, which will annoy film buffs.

Dubbing an Eisenstein film, drinking with Prince Kropotkin, bedding the female lover of Marlene Dietrich, all carry the same narrative weight. Every director is a means to a financial end, every woman (and girl) a sexual conquest waiting to happen.

This kind of roller-coaster narrative, while breathtaking, is not without flaws. We ache for chronology, rarely clear on year or place. Kinski marries three teen-age girls - the mothers of his two daughters, Pola and actress Nastassja, and his adored son, Nanhoi. When these events occur, how old Kinski and his son are at book's gut-wrenching end would help the reader comprehend Kinski's desperation in his final plea to his son.

Yet in an era of celebrity tell-all-trash, "Kinski Uncut" is epic as Brecht, gritty as de Sica. Painfully brutal and surprisingly tender, "Kinski Uncut" is about real life lived on an explosive edge few ever witness outside an darkened theater.

Victoria A. Brownworth's writings on film have appeared in the Village Voice, Ms., the Advocate, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Cineaste among others. Her most recent book is "Too Queer: Essays on a Radical Life," and her book on women filmmakers, "Film Fatales," will be published later this year by Seal Press.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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