by Alex Ross
Slate, Jan. 24, 1997
The naming of autobiographies is a minor art. A great title can be nobly direct (Nabokov's Speak, Memory; Jack Paar's I Kid You Not), bitterly cryptic (Josef von Sternberg's Fun in a Chinese Laundry; Adolf Loos' Nevertheless), or too clever by half (Roman by Polanski). In this obscure pantheon, a place must be reserved for Klaus Kinski, the erratically gifted Polish-German actor and noted mal vivant, who tried to publish the English version of his autobiography in 1988 under the massively ironic title All I Need is Love. The book was caught in a copyright dispute between Random House and a West German publisher, with huge libel problems looming; it was withdrawn shortly after publication, and became one of the books most often stolen from public libraries. Now, five years after its author's demise, it has re-emerged as Kinski Uncut. Despite the unfortunate change of name, this ghastly and hypnotic memoir lives up to its long-festering legend. The whole witless genre of the celebrity confessional undergoes a horrifying self-disembowelment.
Kinski, with the huge, burning eyes, the weirdly colored hair (yellow? orange? rotting gold?), the sandpaper voice, the glint of a sharp intellect beneath a brutish exterior. He emitted a strange kind of electricity; before he even said a word on screen, he put everything and everyone on edge. (In his five-minute role in Dr. Zhivago, he seems to be performing with a wax statue of Omar Sharif.) There was no visible technique to his acting, other than radiating ineffable Kinski-ness. His secret weapon was, perhaps, his playfulness, his sense of being slyly amused by a mad world and his own mad self. He will live into posterity on the strength of the five films he made with the great German director Werner Herzog, Fitzcarraldo and particularly Aguirre, Wrath of God; his Aguirre, the languidly nihilistic martinet who leads an Amazon expedition toward nothingness, is one of the great human monsters in movie history. But for the most part, his talents were wasted, and Kinski Uncut shows how he went about wasting them.
He was born Niklaus Nakszynski in 1926, in the old free city of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland). Growing up impoverished in Berlin, he was drafted into the rag-tag teen-age and old-age army that fought for Hitler in the last days of World War II. He showed no enthusiasm for the Nazi cause, and soon deserted. On the other hand, he said afterward that he would have outdone Hitler if he had been given the part. He began acting in Berlin and regional theaters, developing a reputation for savagely accented classical performances and electrifying one-man shows. In the latter, he would read mad scenes from plays, poems of Rimbaud or François Villon, and other programs of his own devising. He began acting in movies in 1948; from 1960 on, he made at least one film a year, sometimes five or ten.
The film career began promisingly. He appeared in Douglas Sirk's A Time to Love and a Time to Die; a film by the mildly celebrated German director Helmut Käutner; Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More; and several crisp English thrillers and war flicks. Addicted to quick work and upfront salaries, he quickly gravitated toward the lower road: countless crime serials, low-budget horror films, spaghetti Westerns, other multinational genre pictures of no distinction. Even when he began the seemingly career-transforming collaboration with Herzog, he kept spewing out atrocious B, C, and D movies, right up to his death in 1991. He was the kaiser of crap, and took pride in his bad taste. Several times in Kinski Uncut, he lists the famous directors he turned down: Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini, and so on. He passed on Raiders of the Lost Ark for something called Venom, because Spielberg didn't pay enough.
The nearly unrelieved squalor of this career goes side by side with a self-consciously degenerate lifestyle. Episodes recorded in Kinski Uncut fall into four categories: 1) sexual encounters with hundreds of women, beautiful and ugly, young and old, in a grotesque pornographic idiom that excludes sensual pleasure; 2) Céline-esque voyages of degradation and misery, often involving vomit, excrement, and delirium; 3) excoriations of incompetent directors, producers, writers, actors, journalists, and generally, all individuals who are not Kinski; 4) bouts of self-righteousness mixed with intense self-loathing. He actively sets out to make himself appear the biggest creep who ever walked the earth.
"Once when I was asleep I pissed on my sister because I dreamed she was a tree," writes Kinski. "I believe there is no stench that I haven't stunk of," writes Kinski. "The chick with the blond curls ... yells 'Kinski!' which sounds like 'Fuck me,' " writes Kinski. "Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, blackmailing, cowardly, thoroughly dishonest creep. His so-called 'talent' consists of nothing but tormenting helpless creatures and, if necessary, torturing them to death or simply murdering them. ... Every scene, every angle, every shot is determined by me. ... I can at least partly save the movie from being wrecked by Herzog's bungling," writes Kinski. (This behind-the-scenes mastery of cinema did not seem to bear fruit in Paganini, his 1989 directorial debut and farewell, which has been described as unwatchable by the few people who have watched it.)
On and on it goes, sickening and tedious by turns. But this book is weirdly enjoyable for what is not in it: conventional film gossip, name-dropping, show-biz folly of any kind. Here is a man who reports working on For a Few Dollars More, but fails to mention Clint Eastwood. For good long stretches, you'll be wondering, "What year are we in?" or even, "What decade?" There are no dates, and few hard facts; movies are referred to as "some piece of crap," directors, as "some idiot." (The "New York actress slut" referred to on page 309 is Susan Sarandon.) He doesn't even give the full names of his various wives. You also wonder whether certain things actually happened. Some of the sexual escapades sound curiously like unfulfilled fantasies. Phrases recur in them like literary motifs.
Eventually, a genre crisis sets in. Is this autobiography, or an autobiographical novel? It becomes an interesting game to guess at the real feelings behind this Kinski-esque character called Kinski. The Herzog sections ring particularly false; if Herzog was a bungling murderer, why did Kinski keep making films with him? Read Maureen Gosling's journals about the making of Fitzcarraldo, or Bruce Chatwin's essay on Cobra Verde, and you discover a rather different Kinski: an irascible, lonely, lovable eccentric, whose fits of rage come and go like squalls, whose childish enthusiasm for filmmaking and playacting bursts through the put-on cynicism. The camera faithfully recorded his impishness; Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo are grand, dark, but also comic, and Kinski supplies the lion's share of the wit.
So why is Kinski Uncut such a glum book? Part of the problem may be the translation. Joachim Neugröschel is a respected and experienced translator, but he tries too hard to turn Kinski's thuggish prose into slinky American slang. Idioms are sometimes not quite on the mark--for example, references to Kinski's pals sleeping with "minor boys" and "minor girls." The translation that Kinski made himself in 1988--I found one remaining copy in the New York Public Library--was more arch, cold, stylish. Also, there are strange discontinuities between the two versions: each has material omitted from the other, and the new "uncut" edition is actually much more cautious naming names. All this will have to be sorted by Kinski scholars of the future.
In the end, the book is another performance, another ranting Kinski creation. Amateur psychologists may enjoy it as a sort of high-level Nintendo game of bombarding sexual neuroses. Students of human misery can savor its underlying sadness and futility. And as always with Kinski, there's a taunting taste of comedy; the tears on his cheeks are from laughter. As I put this wretched book down, I thought I heard a cackle from somewhere, and a man with red eyes rasping, "Idioten!"