July 03 1999
Barely in her twenties, Nastassja Kinski was the
enigmatic seductress directors adored. For good or ill, a
pattern had been set by her parents, especially her father,
the intense actor Klaus Kinski. But where - a grown woman, not mad, not dangerous, like him - does that lead her next? By Suzie Mackenzie
Saturday July 3, 1999
is late. Which is fine by me, sitting in the garden of
Los Angeles' Bel Air Hotel in the crystal light drinking iced tea
and watching a man prune the roses. Five pm becomes six. Six
pm dwindles into seven. And by the time she does arrive, at half
past seven - leaning over me and saying breathlessly in that
voice of shy wonder, "Is it me you are waiting for?" - well, it's a
bit of a surprise. A surprise, too, that she brings with her two of
her three children, Sonja, 13 and Kenya, 6. Her girls.
beautiful?" And even more of a surprise when she
declares, after just 15 minutes - time enough to order ice cream
and chocolate orange cake, but not time enough to eat it - that
she has to be leaving now. Evenings are not good for her, she
explains, she suffers a form of narcolepsy. She daren't even
drive at night. We will meet in the morning, she says. "At 6.30."
And again, if I like, at lunch. "Why not? We'll be old friends by
then." Trust me, she says - wooing, combative, the ultimate
erotic mix - as she looks out from wide eyes, those great brown
pools of beseechment that everyone must remember from Tess.
And it occurs to me that one would never know when or if she is
lying. But come 6.30am, sure enough, there she is.
"I keep my
word. I told you I would make it work and I did."
Making it work, mending things, is what she has been doing all
her life. She is aware of this. "As a kid, I always wanted to be a
doctor." Does she know why? "I like men in white coats." She is
very endearingly dotty. But for something to be mended, first it
has to be broken. And this is where things get tricky. Appointments not kept can be remade. A career let fall can be resumed. Even a marriage, a love dissolved, may be resolved elsewhere. You can carry on breaking things, over and over, and all in the name of preserving one precious objective. "All I have ever wanted is to be a good mum. My children are everything to me, the loves of my life."
this may be a dodgy tactic, it can work. She has
made it work, as her life now shows. She lives in a beautiful
home in Bel Air, with her three children, three cats, three dogs,
next door to her former partner, the music producer Quincy
Jones - Kenya's dad. They get along. "There's a bit of distance
there, but it's fine." The children adore her. "She's the best mum
in the world." With a bit of ruthless editing, she has managed to
excise the bad bits of her life - she makes me give an undertaking not to mention the name of her former husband, to whom she was married for eight years. She left him for Jones in 1991. "I don't want rubbish in this interview." And when I point out that this "rubbish" is the father of two of her children, she says, "Make it different. Just for once. Do it for me."
What no one
can mend is the world they are born into because,
of course, a child is powerless. No amount of editing, breaking
and mending can usurp the unalterable fact that her father,
Klaus Kinski, was mad and that her mother, Ruth Brigitte
Kinski, was a child. There were no siblings. "I longed for a
brother or a sister. That's why, when I had children, I said,
'Whatever happens, not just one.' My kids will always have each
no one for her to share the chaos with. As she says,
two things then happen: if you are going to survive, you develop
skills to cope, and at the same time you carry on longing for
someone to protect you. So there is a tension - between
vulnerability and strength; submissiveness and assertion;
yielding and resistance. What there is, in other words, is the
dynamic of eroticism.
Which is exactly
what all those films that she made at the end
of the 70s and in the early 80s - the films that made her name -
were about. The eroticism of victimhood. Roman Polanski's
Tess, the ultimate victim martyred for wanting too much. Paul
Schrader's Cat People, a woman whose unleashed sexuality
confines her to a cage - she turns into a panther, for chrissakes,
wildly dangerous, imprisoned for its own good. And, most
consummately, in Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas, a woman so
beloved by a man that he has to leave her, all but destroys her,
turns her into a peep show. A mother who is not allowed to be a
mother, but merely an object to be admired.
simply got sick of it. Not in those films, she says.
Those she is proud of. But others yes. Films where she was
used, where her inexperience was taken advantage of. In one
execrable film in 1978, Stay As You Are, with Marcello
Mastroianni, when she was just 18, she took her clothes off.
"There was no one prepared to say, 'She shouldn't do that.
There is no point.' No one to protect me. I was just a young girl,
in Italy. It was stupid." Anyway, in 1985, pregnant with her son,
she married and pretty much retired. "To be a proper mother, to
be there for my children." There followed the odd movie, but
nothing special, even though she continued to work with good
directors - Fellini, the Taviani brothers, and Wenders again.
Then, a few years ago, she started working more concertedly.
"Following Roman's advice, that the way to make them want you
is work, work, work." She was the love interest for Wesley
Snipes in Mike Figgis' One Night Stand in 1997 - something of a
flop, but that was the script, not her. And in the past year she
has had parts in a number of films, a cameo in Willard Carroll's
Playing By Heart, a complicated drama of relationships soon to
be released, and in Chris Menges' The Lost Son, which has just
opened in London. The latter is a small part for her, but she took
it because of the subject matter. "It is difficult material about the sexual abuse of children, which is an important subject, and you cannot show that enough." And so, yes, I did ask her. Did your
father molest you? Did that madman, genius that he may have
been, abuse his daughter? She didn't look away, she didn't look
down, which is what she normally does when asked a question
she doesn't like. She didn't threaten to leave, which is another of
the cards she likes to play. She said, "No, not in the way that
you mean, but in other ways, yes." And again, the eyes, the
intense gaze that kind of holds you - the gaze of the girl in
Paris, Texas, which speaks candour and conceals everything.
you with power, but not with the knowledge of
how to use it. Nastassja understood this early; she had only to
watch her mother. Brigitte was a shopgirl in Berlin, barely 19,
"exquisitely beautiful", when Kinski, in his mid-thirties, found her and wooed her. "He made her all sorts of promises. You'll be my
little this, my little that, my princess." He put her in a gilded
cage, "mansions", surrounded her with fineries, and wouldn't let
her out. She wasn't allowed to work, she wasn't permitted to go
to the theatre - her passion. "She wasn't even allowed a
gardener, because that was a man." Absorbed in Kinski's private
theatre, his fantasy - his castle, his princess - she scarcely
existed in her own right. As Nastassja says, "She didn't need to
think or to do anything. She was a kept woman from the start."
And when he
left her for someone else, when Nastassja was
eight, "that was it for us".
She says she
can barely remember her early childhood now.
Just small things. Her bulldog, Sarah, on which she would lavish
attention, "smooth out her creases with baby oil", and which her
dad would dress in baby clothes, put in her pram, and all three
of them would go for a promenade in Rome, where they then
lived, frightening passers-by who asked for a peek. "That used to
make me laugh." And the Rolls-Royce he hired to take her -
aged five - to her first school so that everyone would think she,
too, was a princess. The presents he would buy for her mother -
diamonds, gold. "Everything had to be gold." The days he would
take her mum to the beach - "That made her happy." But,
basically, there was not a lot of happiness around. "He was a
very exaggerated person, very dramatic, and he hurt my mum a
lot. I was glad when he was gone and there was just the two of
Just the two
of them, first in Rome, then back in Munich. No
finery now. "My mum was selling everything we had." She didn't
work. "She couldn't." Completely unused to the world, she was
helpless. "So it became my mission to look after my mum. She
was all I had."
I didn't grasp
at first what she meant, the extent of this "looking
after". I assumed she meant soothing her mother, showing her
how much she loved her. I didn't understand that she took
financial responsibility for this child/woman. That at the age of
12 she was supporting them both with her earnings from making
a film, and that, before that, they were living hand to mouth, in a
van, decorated by her mother's lover. "He called himself
Napoleon, but that wasn't his real name. He was the nearest
thing I had to a dad. But then he started being unkind to my
mum. I couldn't bear that. He went."
She must have
been casting around for some way out of this
mess - she was the responsible one, after all, with a child's
sense of practicality. "Show me a problem," she says, "and I'll
solve it. That's what I am like." And so, when she was spotted
by Wim Wenders' wife at a rock-and-roll competition and offered
a part in Wenders' film, Wrong Movement, she said, "Yes". In
fact what she actually said was: "You'll have to ask my mum."
Which is just poignant and sad. There followed, at age 14, a
lead part in Reifenzeugnis, a hugely successful series on
German television, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, later of Das
Boot fame; she was cast as a schoolgirl who has a love affair
with her teacher.
was apparent, this strange tension in her nature: the
child who grew up too fast. Already, this was being translated,
by the adults around her, into a mystery, a seduction: the child
as savage in relation to the world, unleashing uncontrollable
How much did
she know of what was being made of her?
Probably very little. She was no Bardot, no wild creature of the
elements. Bardot came from a bourgeois background, she knew
enough of the rules to be able to jettison them. Nastassja knew
no rules. Her only model was anarchy. She longed for
conformity, for domesticity. You see this clearly in Avedon's
portrait of her when she was about 22, naked except for a
python draped around her body. How it is possible to look
domestic with a snake wrapped through your legs and around
your neck is a mystery. But the two of them managed it. The
picture is stylised, tame. The point is that at age eight, the age
at which Bardot might have been playing with her abacus,
was having to use her child logic to survive. A very
it immediately. Recognised the need and
contacted her with a view to casting her as Tess, a part he had
originally conceived for his wife, the late Sharon Tate. You can
imagine he had a particular interest now in a story about a
woman who loses her baby and her life. He sent Nastassja to
Lee Strasberg's studio to improve her English and her accent.
"He took a lot of time, two years," she says, "preparing me for
It was worth
it. Nastassja was wonderful as Tess - she was
Tess, the child-woman, governed by a child's intuition and
manipulated by adult codes that she is too innocent to comprehend.
which was released in 1979, made her. What Ingrid
Bergman was to the 40s and Julie Christie to the 60s, Nastassja
Kinski was to the 80s: the face of the time. Five years later,
when Wenders' Paris, Texas came out - to great acclaim for
Kinski and her co-star Harry Dean Stanton, and written by Sam
Shepard, the leading American playwright of the day - you would
have thought her future fixed. Then, just as suddenly, it was
In his biography
of film, David Thomson dismisses Kinski as "a
sensation, a rage". Her greatest interest, he says, "may be in
pioneering the brevity of such rages". Which is unfair - it was her
choice. Motherhood brought her full circle. It united the themes
in her best work - Tess, the girl who loses her child, and Jane in
Paris, Texas, the girl reunited with her child. She was four
months' pregnant when she made the Wenders film. It drew
together the threads of her life: the child of a child herself, she
now had the chance to be a "proper mother" to her own child. All
those clever men had used her to explore their own creative
obsessions. Now she had the reality she longed for.
she seems more relaxed. I know she has been in
court that morning and, though she won't say why - the "no
rubbish" rule - I guess it may be to do with her battle with her
former husband over their two children. He contested custody in
May 1992, after she left the family home to go and live with
Quincy Jones, and, although she won that round in July 1992,
there have been on-going wrangles about access ever since.
She takes it seriously. The evening before, when the children
were with her, she could scarcely let them out of her sight. At
one point they went off to look at the swans, and within minutes
she was out of her seat. I'm sure they are okay, I said. "How
would you know?" she replied. What is a parent's duty to a
child, I asked her. "To protect it," she said.
"I'll tell you a story that I think you'll like. One that will make you laugh." And I suppose all that can be said about what follows is that it reveals what a totally distorted view of reality she grew up with, what wilful crazies her parents were. And the lengths to which a deprived child will go to protect itself.
She was 15
when she was put in juvenile prison. For years she
had been stealing, shoplifting little presents for her mother, the
sorts of things her father would once come home with - bits of
jewellery, watches, chains - things she believed would make her
mother happy again, "like I remembered her when I was little".
As though these things were as central to her mother as food. A
lot of the time she would get away with it, but at other times she
was caught, and then there would be paperwork and forms to fill
in and visits to the police to be made. "Except mum wouldn't
take me. I think she thought it would go away. Then I started
doing movies." They caught her coming off a plane, she was
quite well known by this time through the television series.
"Somehow, they knew where I was."
three months in a "tiny" room, with a "little" bed.
"One of the best times in my life." And, for the first time, she felt safe. "Everything stopped, I had time to think. It is hard to be working from the age of 12." It gave her time to grow up, she
says. An odd thing to say because she'd been grown up from
the age of eight, from the day she started to take responsibility
for her mother. When she came out, she knew, she says, "From
now on, I would be on my own." She moved in with a girlfriend,
though she continued to support her mother. "Always."
spoken to her mother in years, scarcely at all since
her children were born. "She has seen them maybe twice, like
an acquaintance would see my children. I can't get over that, but
I am getting over it." Maybe it's jealousy, she says, that her
mother felt supplanted by her children. "My mum didn't want me
to get married. She said to me, 'You better not have children.'"
She was never reconciled with her father. Over the years, she
saw him only rarely, and towards the end they were not
speaking at all. When he died in 1991 from a stroke, there was
no regret. "Maybe a minute. No, 30 seconds." She didn't go to
his funeral. The last time she had heard from him was when he
telephoned to ask her to be in a movie with him. "That's why he
contacted me. Business." She doesn't love him. How could
she? Imagine, she says - being a father who has never in his
whole life done anything right. Who never saw her children. "Not
even a picture. That's pitiful, it really is."
And yet her
trap is precisely that she is her father's daughter.
She is like him in so many ways. Just like him, she erects
castle walls, separates out her own reality. Refuses to
acknowledge anything that doesn't fit. She won't mention the
word death. "It's too sad." She has a list of subjects that are
taboo. "I won't be raped into saying something. I don't want to
hear about anything bad." When her younger half-brother, her
father's son, asked her to talk to him about Klaus, she refused.
"My father hurt too many people…"
like her father, she has walked when it suits. The men
in her life she seems to relate to not as equals, but in terms of
their suitability as paternal figures. Polanski is good: "He was
strict with me, but in a good way. He made me feel smart, that I
could do things. I loved him, I still do, and I always will." There
was categorically no affair, she says, although it has frequently
been reported that they were lovers. "There was a flirtation.
There could have been a seduction, but there was not. He had
respect for me."
a director she has worked with three times: "He
was always nice, very calm, steady. He created a family
atmosphere. Everything I wanted." And Quincy Jones: "He has
been there for us when we needed him." It's not surprising, is it,
that she constructs everything around her need? She who was
never given anything, who had to make it all up. She scarcely
has a history. I asked her at one point what she knew of her
parents' backgrounds. "I know next to nothing. I never met
anyone. No one ever talked about it." And she didn't ask. What
was the point, she says. She didn't want to know. The vein of
reality was frail enough. She was just concentrating on hanging
Now, at 38,
very nearly 39, she has a conundrum. Who is she?
She is no longer the remarkable, confused, grown-up child who
so fascinated Wenders and Polanski. Motherhood put paid to
that. She doesn't want to turn into her own mother, a bored
princess, picked up and dropped, who made too little of her life.
"My mother lives in a shell. She lives in the past." She wants to
go forward and she wants to work. For herself and for her
children. "I don't want my children ever to see me lost."
At the moment,
she is edging back into film, playing bit parts -
or love interest, which she's not very good at. As she says, "too
detached". She knows there will always be some director willing
to use her name, her beauty - she is more beautiful than ever,
as though time has somehow reversed to soften her features.
But the question is, can her persona ever again achieve the
force of the early years.
at one point, trying to make her mobile phone
work, whacking it to death on the restaurant table, waiters
frenziedly running around her, I had a vision of her as the central
character in some screwball comedy - the kind of piece you
could imagine directed by Hal Hartley or even Woody Allen.
Playing herself again. A woman, funny, light-hearted, muddled.
A sprite of unreason, a not quite grown-up - or not what one
would call a grown-up - at large in the adult world.
• The Lost
Son is on general release. Playing By Heart opens
later this year.
(mirrored from the GuardianUnlimited U.K.)
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