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Working From the Heart: The Career of Nastassja Kinski

I have spent the last half-hour or so at this keyboard trying to find some subtle or analytical method of easing into the central thesis of this article but having failed to do that, I have decided to simply get to the fulcrum of my particular gist—Nastassja Kinksi is my all-time favorite actress. This may seem like a bold and potentially questionable opinion to some of you, but having been mesmerized by her singular screen presence for more than 30-odd years at this point without having this view shaken in the slightest in that time, I stand by these words. Her combination of extraordinary beauty, raw acting talent, pure screen charisma and a facility for choosing projects that gave her ample opportunities to display those gifts made her into one of the most electrifying movie stars in the world during the peak of her stardom in the 1980s and even today, her mere presence alone is generally enough to make a film worth watching. Put it this way—I even have a bizarre fondness for the lunacy that is "Terminal Velocity" (1994) and I assure you that it has precious little to do with Charlie Sheen.

Needless to say, I am not the only person that feels this way, as many of the films that she made during her heyday have overcome numerous instances of initial commercial indifference and have gone on to become cult favorite. To demonstrate this, the Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York is paying tribute to Kinski and her work with "Nastassja Kinski: From The Heart," a nine-film retrospective running November 27-December 3 that includes most of the key titles from her long and illustrious filmography: "Tess" (1980), "One from the Heart" (1982), "Cat People" (1982), "The Moon in the Gutter" (1983), "Exposed" (1983), "The Hotel New Hampshire" (1984), "Paris Texas" (1984), "Maria's Lovers" (1985) and "Faraway, So Close!" (1993). In addition to the films, the always-colorful writer-director James Toback will be on hand on November 28 following the screening of his "Exposed" and Kinski herself will participate in Q&A's following the screenings of "Tess" on the 29th and "Paris, Texas" on the 30th. To view any one of these films on the big screen, to get the full impact of both the work as a whole and of the actress herself, would be a must-see by itself but to get a chance to experience them all together must go down as one of the key cinematic experiences of the year.

How to explain her appeal to those who are not that familiar with her or her work? Well, at first, there is her incomparable physical appeal—she could toggle between innocence and pure carnality in the blink of an eye with a timeless look that could be absolutely of the moment while simultaneously evoking such classic screen beauties as Garbo and Bergman. (If nothing else, no one has ever managed to wear a snake with as much grace and élan as she displayed in that infamous 1981 Richard Avedon photograph that did as much as her films to put her into the pop culture consciousness.) Then there was her equally striking screen presence—a pose at once open and tantalizingly aloof that set her apart from most other stars of her time and which made them want to know more. This would have been enough to make for a solid career in many cases, but Kinski was also a gifted actress who turned in performances that were touching, powerful and hypnotic

She was born in Berlin in 1960, the daughter of infamous cinematic wild man Klaus Kinski, and, at the age of 12, so the story goes, she was discovered while dancing with friends in a club and cast in her first film, "Wrong Move" (1975), an early work from up-and-coming German director Wim Wenders. Over the next few years, she would appear in a few films of the type that young actresses sometimes find themselves in when first starting out—the horror epic "To the Devil, A Daughter" (1976), which saw her appear as a nubile nun alongside Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee and one of the silliest endings in the history of the genre; the sex comedy "Boarding School" (1978); and the erotic drama "Stay As You Are" (1978). None of these films were particularly good or notable but even under such dire circumstances, Kinski displayed the kind of presence that suggest that bigger things were in store for her.

That was certainly the case when Roman Polanski decided to cast her in the title role of "Tess," his1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel about a young woman whose life takes a turn for the tragic due to her involvement with two men—a rake who seduces and abandons her and a nice guy reacts badly when he learns of her previous indiscretion. At the time that it was being made, the notion of Polanski (who had initially planned to make the film with his late wife, Sharon Tate) directing an expensive period piece with a virtual unknown in the central role struck many as being a potential folly, but it would prove to be one of high points of his legendary career—a viewing experience of stunning emotional power utterly devoid of the usual chilly detachment that marked his films. Much of this was due to Kinski's incredibly touching work as a woman who, try as she might, is eventually ground up by the gears of fate for the crime of being an innocent in a world where that quality alone is enough to make one a target.

"Tess" made Kinski into a star, and to follow it up, she came to America to work for Francis Ford Coppola on his follow-up to "Apocalypse Now," an intimate romantic musical drama about a couple who break up, find new partners and come back together again over the course of the July 4th holiday called "One from the Heart." Coppola, who had just launched his dream of running his own studio, got caught up in the technological advances of the day and decided to apply them all to this project, including recreating the Vegas strip on sound stages and directing from an Airstream trailer tricked out with all the latest gadgetry that he believed would streamline the filmmaking process. As a result, the budget spiraled out of control—all of which was recorded by the press in gleeful detail—and when it finally opened in February 1982, it was a flop that nearly bankrupted Coppola and kept him churning out one film after another for the next decade to get out of his hole.

The punchline, however, is that the film itself, divorced from its budgetary problems, is an absolutely glorious work of pure cinematic style that offers viewers some of the most stunning sights imaginable. Among them, of course, is Kinski, who portrays a circus performer who becomes the obsession of the newly free Frederic Forrest while representing new romance in all its glitzy allure—the sight of her cavorting inside of a giant neon martini glass is just one of the spectacular images on display here—and while the role itself may not be all that much to speak of, she manages to pull off beautifully, both the fantasy girl that lights up the night like a million-watt bulb and the real person that remains the next morning.

From there, Kinski moved on to "Cat People," Paul Schrader's 1982 remake of the 1942 Val Lewton horror classic that, even more than 30 years after its release, remains such a singular work that it boggles the mind that a major studio would have dared to put it into production. A serious-minded and decidedly adult fairy tale about a virginal young woman who learns from her brother (Malcolm McDowell) that they are descended from a race of human-panther hybrids doomed to revert to their murderous feline state while making love to anyone outside of their own bloodline—a problem as she has just fallen in love with a sweet-natured zookeeper (John Heard) who specializes in big cats—this is a film swimming in sex, violence, poetry, philosophy and swanky visuals in such extremes that it always seems to be on the verge of becoming utterly ridiculous but it somehow never goes over the edge into camp because of Schrader's serious-minded handling of the material; it may be nonsense but he never treats it as such. As for Kinski, her innocent allure (or is it her alluring innocence) and offbeat presence never had better vehicles than this film. To perform such erotically-charged material, especially when one has to convincingly suggest that they have an actual feline presence inside of them, would challenge the best actresses and to this day, I cannot think of anyone who could have pulled off the part as well as Kinski does.

Thanks to films like this, Kinski found herself in the odd position of being one of the leading sex symbols of the age that was further solidified through her appearances in the 1983 films "The Moon in the Gutter" and "Exposed." In the former, she returned to Europe to work with French director Jean-Jacques Beneix (making his followup to the international hit "Diva") on a noir-influenced melodrama, based on a David Goodis novel, about a dockworker (Gerard Depardieu) obsessed with getting revenge on the man who raped his sister and drove her to suicide and the new woman in his life (guess who) who may hold the key to either his salvation or destruction. In the latter, she came back to America to star in writer-director James Toback's wild tale of a midwestern girl who becomes an international supermodel and finds herself caught between a romantically obsessed concert violinist (Rudolph Nureyev) and the Carlos the Jackal-like international terrorist (Harvey Keitel) that the violinist has vowed to destroy.

Both films tell flamboyant stories of obsession and revenge—Beneix through his super-stylized visual palette and Toback through his equally audacious flair for dialogue—and both films contain the two most singularly erotic moments of Kinski's entire filmography, all the more impressive because they don't actually involve nudity. In the former, the moment in which she makes her first appearance is a literally breathtaking moment that is perhaps equaled only by Grace Kelly's similar entrance in "Rear Window." In the latter, there is a sex scene in which Nureyev literally plays her with his violin bow that is simply without precedence. (Toback, a raconteur of the first order, has a great story of how this sequence came to be and while it cannot be printed here, perhaps if you ask real nice during the Q&A, he will tell you.)

To be honest, most of the aforementioned films, with the exception of "Tess," received mixed receptions from critics and audiences alike but that was not the case with "Paris, Texas," the award-winning 1984 drama that reunited her with Wim Wenders for the first time since "Wrong Move." In it, the great Harry Dean Stanton plays an amnesiac drifter who, as the story opens, turns up unexpectedly after being gone for years and attempts to forge a bond with the young son (Hunter Carson) he barely knows, and reunite with the wife (Kinski) who left them both. Towards the end, he finds her working in one of those weird sex clubs where you pay to look at the woman through a window, though she cannot see you, while talking on a telephone. In a long and painful scene, he begins to tell a story as she gradually begins to recognize who is on the other end of the line and the result is one of the most moving and powerful scenes that I have ever seen in a film thanks to the performances of Stanton and Kinski, who manage to forge a powerful connection in these brief moments despite their figurative and literal separation. It is, in fact, the single best bit of acting that she has ever done on screen and shows what she truly was capable of as a performer.

At this point, alas, Hollywood began to move on to whoever the next big thing was and while Kinski would continue to work steadily, oftentimes in Europe, the projects were often a step down in quality—an unnecessary remake of "Unfaithfully Yours" (1984) here, the disastrous Revolutionary War epic "Revolution" (1985) there—but there were still interesting projects to come. "The Hotel New Hampshire" (1984) was an adaptation of the John Irving best-seller about the trials and tribulations of a quirky family in which she played a lesbian acquaintance, and lover to siblings Rob Lowe and Jodie Foster, who spends almost all of her time in a bear suit—more than other Irving adaptations, this one best captures  the author's unique and often infuriating tone and oddly anticipates the films of Wes Anderson in certain ways.

"Maria's Lovers" (1985) tells the story of a mentally scarred WWII vet (John Savage) who marries his childhood sweetheart (Kinski) but has obsessed over her for so long that he is now psychologically unable to consummate the union--this was a rare opportunity to see her in the role of an utterly normal and relatively deglamorized person and she managed the task of going from extraordinary to extra-ordinary. In 1993, she would even reunite with Wenders for a third time in "Faraway, So Close!," the sequel to his 1987 cult classic "Wings of Desire" that found her in a supporting role as a trenchcoat-wearing angel bearing witness on the denizens of a newly-reunited Berlin—although the crackpot plotting would earn it mixed reviews, the eclectic cast (including the likes of Peter Falk, Willem Dafoe, Lou Reed and Mikhail Gorbachev) and the look of Berlin after the fall definitely make it worth reexamining.

Since then, Kinski has continued to work, though more often than not in Europe, and while many of these efforts have either been forgettable or never even appeared on these shores, there have still been some interesting moments along the way. She was good as one-half of the extramarital affair at the center of Mike Figgis's "One Night Stand" (1997). and found herself enmeshed with many of the awful people at the center of Neil Labute's brutal "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998). She gave one of her very best performances in Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" (2000), another adaptation of a work by Thomas Hardy. In "An American Rhapsody," she was touching as a Hungarian refugee in America struggling to reconnect with the daughter (Scarlett Johansson) that she had to leave behind initially when she, her husband and other daughter were forced to flee. She even cropped up in, of all places, the last few moments of David Lynch's surreal epic "Inland Empire," adding one last enigmatic touch to a film and a career filled with them.

Hopefully with the advent of events like the Film Society retrospective, some of today's filmmakers will become duly inspired enough to put her into their own works and add a new chapter to a story so sensational and striking that if Hollywood were to one day make a movie of her life, she is the only person around who could conceivably do it justice.

For more information on the "Nastassja Kinski: From The Heart" retrospective, including screening dates and times, go to the official site.

Below, Nastassja Kinksi, through the miracle of email, chimes in with some thoughts on a couple of her most iconic performances.


Did I feel [intimidated by being the center of such a big film at a young age]? Well, yes and no. Yes, because it was as you say, a classic book and one of the biggest directors, but the role was my age and reading the book again and again replaced most of my being intimidated. Also, I was trusted by my director, who had done such amazing work with films we will never forget and who was so hardworking and serious. He worked mostly with the same team that loved him and if I was trusted to take on this role by him, then I would have to trust myself too, since I trusted and admired and adored him.

I was given the book almost a year prior to read, I then had to transform myself and lose my German accent completely. I worked with a coach from the National Theatre in London, Kate Flemming. It was almost an intellectual voyage.

I went to live in the countryside of the deep part of England, on a farm, did everything they did, and learned it. When the time came in Paris to do my test, it was with our director and our producers Claude Berri and Timothy Burrill, I had done a screen test with Roman prior to that, for Dino DeLaurentis, but now this was for "Tess." Preparation is an amazing thing. It, somehow, after all the work, carries you if you are fully present, it carries you through like a bird, like big inner and outer wings.

The other very intimate and personal treasure I felt inside was that I knew Roman wanted to do this film with Sharon Tate and it was dedicated to her. I kept seeing her beautiful face in front of me, accompanying me silently. It was a labor of love—this film, the entire crew, the feelings and big nature,everything about it. It helped me grow and be out in the world, it was my step into being an adult, and seeing the world.

Well when it is based or from a book, especially a famous writer such as Thomas Hardy, yes one feel very much wanting to do it as written, respecting of course the book, it is also nice because one can read it and read it, and it accompanies you and helps you, I love doing films from a book, anyway one has one's own feelings in it too.An original screenplay of course is just as important, maybe there one has more freedom to improvise. Tess, well I knew that it was from a famous book, I knew that this director was another dimension, a larger bigger stronger dimension then I had worked with and seen, like a very big sky, like a open sea, a endless field, a endless sunset, sunrise, a feeling that big, that I felt.

When it opened in Cannes, it was my first time in Cannes, I was 18 and Roman and Claude the producer said ' this is going to be an important time for you, like growing up, be strong, and know we are all in this together, and choose well. And it was true, I felt it, and I felt we were in this together, us the cast, our director, our team.Like the feeling when you do a play, and in the end the cast comes out and everyone hold hands and bows, it's true, we are in this together, that is the best feeling. Everyone for him or herself, yet we are in this together, creating something beautiful, meaningful.


I always thought how lucky I was to even meet this amazing director, Francis Coppola. We all met in Cannes—Francis was in Cannes with "Apocalypse Now" and won, along with "The Tin Drum," and we were there opening the festival with "Tess." Claude Berri, the producer of Tess, and his wife, Roman, Volker Schlondorff and there was Francis with his wife Ellie and all his amazing kids, little Sofia, Geo and Roman, Sofia and Geo's brother. We all met on a boat and on it played "Blue Skies" by Willie Nelson, that is how we all met.

Once I was in New York, I met Francis and he said he wanted to do this film like a fantasy and asked if I was ever involved with a circus. I said yes—actually, twice. Once I performed at maybe 12 with an elephant and once through my mom's friend, who trained tigers. He cast me with Teri Garr, Raul Julia, Freddy Forest and Harry Dean Stanton. We were to all stay together and practice—we were like a theatre group, all of us always together. We all had our things to learn—trapeze, high-wire, tango, singing, all in a fantasy light and world—looking for love in a Vegas setting, and finding, even in an extraordinary frame, how simple and basic all our needs are. But yes it was like a fantasy he had—after doing these big amazing films that we know, he wanted to do a story about fantasy and love and it was like that for all of us actors who were involved in it.


Well, first of all, it was Paul Schrader's film, a writer that I got to know through seeing Scorsese's amazing films—"Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," films I saw many times. My love for animals, and that animal side inside of us. When or how would I ever be able to be that close to panthers, those big cats that belong to the wild, yet are only for us to see in zoos, sadly? How would it be to interact with them, and touch them and be so close to them? That to me was beautiful, like a dream. I loved, of course, working with the actors—Malcolm, John, Ruby Dee, everyone.

It was also haunting, going deep into the unknown. Paul Schrader was a quiet and great writer, and now directing this inner journey of animalistic love and dreams and forbidden sides of us. People trapped in an animal they could not escape, or vice versa. I really do love the last scene, where Irena becomes the panther, forever, and the zookeeper whom she loves is her caretaker, her love, and she his.

David Bowie's song, that too, How else would I get to meet David Bowie, and have a song in a film I am in by David Bowie? That was just a fantasy and Giorgio Moroder's score...Music was major in this film, it almost accompanied the entire film, like a dream, a fantasy.


Well, it is always amazing when one gets an interesting and good review, especially if the film and work means something to you. If you did a lot of research and you worked on it and love it, of course, it matters. Then again, if it matters too much, that's not right, because if you believe in something you should stand by it in any weather, I think. At times, it affects you, but, again, one has to be just true to one's self and do one's best with your heart, always.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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