Klaus Kinski  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Klaus Kinski (October 18, 1926November 23, 1991) was a German actor, famous for his ability to project on-screen intensity, and for his explosive temperament. He acted in over 180 films, from The Misfortunes of Virtue to Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Aside from writing an autobiography, his life was documented by Werner Herzog in My Best Fiend. He is the father of Nastassja Kinski.



Kinski was born Nikolaus Karl Günther Nakszyński in Zoppot, then in Germany, today Sopot in Poland. His parents were Bruno Nakszyński, a German pharmacist of Polish origin, and Susanne Lutze, a German pastor's daughter from Danzig. In 1930/31, the family moved to Berlin and Kinski attended the Prinz-Heinrich-Gymnasium in Schöneberg.

Kinski was drafted into the German Army in 1944 and served in the Netherlands. He reputedly went AWOL and surrendered to the British forces, spending the rest of the wartime as a POW. Whilst in a POW camp near Colchester he discovered his acting talent, performing for fellow prisoners.

After the war, he returned to Germany. He began acting and changed his name to Klaus Kinski. He started on stage in Germany, became a legend as a monologist (presenting the prose and verse of William Shakespeare and François Villon, among others), and soon moved, pragmatically, to film, where the money was better. His last stage appearances were in November 1971, part of his "Jesus Tour", a one-man show in which Kinski reinterpreted the Gospels with Jesus as a ranting psychopath.

Off-screen, Kinski often appeared as a wild-eyed, sex-crazed maniac. He chronicled his exploits in an autobiographyKinski: All I Need Is Love or Kinski Uncut, which, according to Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend, a documentary about the pair's experiences working together, was largely fabricated to generate sales.

When he died of a heart attack in Lagunitas, California, United States at age 65, only his son Nikolai attended the funeral (his ashes were strewn in the Pacific Ocean).


His international reputation is built on five collaborations with director Werner Herzog, in the films Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Woyzeck (1979), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and finally Cobra Verde (1987). Several of these collaborations are now recognised as considerable masterpieces of European cinema, but the two men's working relationship proved to be a volatile and explosive one. Some of Kinski and Herzog's arguments during these productions have been preserved on both tape and film, with both apparently threatening to even kill each other during one heated dispute. The love-hate relationship between the two obsessive men drove them to creative heights, but eventually to a final split in 1987. Herzog's retrospective on his work with Kinski was released in the United States as My Best Fiend (1999).

Kinski was an extremely hard worker and strove for perfection, but was frequently at odds with collaborators and directors, and rarely a team player. On one infamous occasion Kinski hurled a lit candelabra from the stage at an audience deemed insufficiently appreciative, almost burning the theatre down. On another, whilst filming Aguirre: The Wrath of God, irritated by the noise from a hut where cast and crew were playing cards, Kinski fired three shots at it, blowing the top joint off one extra's finger.

Often referred to as a mad genius, Kinski was described by Werner Herzog as "an outright egomaniac". His behaviour may have been influenced by the German theatre directors of his early career, some of whom would frequently scream and shout abuse during rehearsals. Karl Paryla, for example, saw it as part of his methodology to drive his actors close to a nervous breakdown, on the basis that they would then perform better. Fritz Kortner (whom Kinski mentions in his autobiography) was also famous for being very harsh and brutal during rehearsals.

With his fluency in English, German and French, his unique appearance, and his ability to project onscreen intensity, Kinski was always able to get roles, although the quality of the productions varied wildly, most of them considered "junk" (Schrott) by Kinski himself. When Steven Spielberg offered him the part of one of the German villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he turned it down, stating: "[...] as much as I'd like to do a movie with Spielberg, the script is as moronically shitty as so many other flicks of this ilk.", preferring a part in Venom (1981), reportedly because the money was better. Of his film choices he once said "So I sell myself, for the highest price. Exactly like a prostitute. There is no difference."

Kinski's last film (which he also wrote and directed) was Kinski Paganini (1989), in which he played the legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini. His earlier film roles include - as well as the Edgar Wallace movies - Decision Before Dawn (1950), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), Winnetou 2. Teil (Last of the Renegades) (1964), dir.: Dr. Harald Reinl, For a Few Dollars More (1965), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Grand Slam (1967), The Great Silence (1969). Kinski also starred as the main terrorist character in the 1977 Israeli movie Operation Thunderbolt, based on the events of the 1976 Operation Entebbe.

His city of birth, Sopot gave him honorary citizenship.

On Klaus Kinski

For many years Kinski's own writings were the only source for facts about his life. It took until 2006 that the Viennese film director, film scholar, and writer Christian David published the first ever comprehensive biography based on interviews with Kinski's friends or colleagues and personal letters. Christian David was able to produce new and formerly unknown facts about Kinski's life and even corrected the actor's public and private image. This publication was followed by a paperback book by Peter Geyer containing essays on Kinski's life and work.


  • Klaus Kinski: All I Need Is Love (1988), ISBN 0-394-54916-3, re-titled Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski (1997), ISBN 0-14-025536-2.
  • Christian David: Kinski. Die Biographie. (2006), Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag 2006. ISBN 3-351-02647-1
  • Peter Geyer: Klaus Kinski: Leben, Werk, Wirkung (2006), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2006. ISBN 351818220X

Partial filmography

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Klaus Kinski" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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