Klaus Kinski was born to German nationals in Zoppot in what was, under League of Nations supervision, the Free City of Danzig from 1920-1939. (It is now Sopot, Poland). His father, Bruno Nakszynski, a German of Polish descent, was a failed opera singer turned pharmacist; his mother, Susanne (née Lutze), was a nurse and the daughter of a local pastor. Klaus had three older siblings: Inge, Arne and Hans-Joachim. Because of the Great Depression, the family was unable to make a living in Danzig and moved to Berlin in 1931, where they also struggled. They settled in a flat in the Wartburgstraße 3, in the district of Schöneberg, and took German citizenship. From 1936 on, Kinski attended the Prinz-Heinrich-Gymnasium in Schöneberg. Kinski was conscripted at age 17 into the German Wehrmacht some time in 1943, serving in the army. He saw no action until the winter of 1944, when his unit was transferred to the Netherlands. He was wounded and captured by the British on his second day of combat. Kinski gave a different version of events in his 1988 autobiography. He said that he made a conscious decision to desert; he had been captured by the Germans, court-martialed as a deserter and sentenced to death, but he escaped and hid in the woods. He finally surrendered to a British patrol, which had wounded him in the arm before taking him captive. After being treated for his injuries and interrogated, Kinski was transferred to Britain. The ship transporting him was torpedoed by a German U-boat, but arrived safely. He was held at the prisoner of war “Camp 186” in Berechurch Hall in Colchester, Essex. There he played his first roles on stage, taking part in shows intended to maintain morale among the prisoners. By May 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, the German POWs were anxious to return home. Kinski had heard that sick prisoners were to be returned first, and tried to qualify by standing outside naked at night, drinking urine and eating cigarettes. He remained healthy but finally was returned to Germany in 1946, after spending a year and four months in captivity. Arriving in Berlin, he saw how the once modern city had been reduced to ruins and was occupied by Allied troops. Kinski learned his father had died during the war, and his mother had been killed in an Allied air attack on the city.
After his return to Germany, Kinski started out as an actor, first at a small touring company in Offenburg, where he used his newly adopted name of Klaus Kinski. In 1946, he was hired by the renowned Schlosspark-Theater in Berlin. The next year he was fired by the manager in 1947 due to his unpredictable behavior. Other companies followed, but his unconventional and emotionally volatile behavior regularly got him into trouble. In 1950, Kinski stayed in a psychiatric hospital for three days; medical records from the period listed a preliminary diagnosis of schizophrenia. Around this time he became unable to secure film roles, and, in 1955, he reportedly attempted suicide twice. The same year, for three months, Kinski lived in the same boarding house as a 13-year-old Werner Herzog, who would later direct him in a number of films. In the 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, Herzog described how Kinski locked himself in the communal bathroom for 48 hours and reduced everything to bits. In March 1956 he made a single guest appearance at Vienna’s Burgtheater in Goethe’s Torquato Tasso. Although respected by his colleagues, among them Judith Holzmeister, and cheered by the audience, Kinski did not gain a permanent contract. The Burgtheater’s management became aware of the actor’s earlier difficulties in Germany. He unsuccessfully tried to sue the company. Living jobless in Vienna, Kinski reinvented himself as a monologuist and spoken word artist. He presented the prose and verse of François Villon, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, among others. He established himself as an actor touring Austria, Germany, and Switzerland with his shows.
Kinski’s first film role was a small part in the 1948 film Morituri. He appeared in several German Edgar Wallace movies, and had bit parts in the American war films Decision Before Dawn (1951) and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958). He starred as the doomed Jewish refugee in The Counterfeit Traitor with William Holden. In Alfred Vohrer’s Die toten Augen von London (1961), his character refused any personal guilt for his evil deeds and claimed to have only followed the orders given to him. Kinski’s performance reflected the post-war Germans’ reluctance to take responsibility for what had happened during World War II. During the 1960s/70s, he appeared in various European exploitation film genres, as well as more acclaimed works such as Doctor Zhivago (1965), wherein he featured in a supporting role as an anarchist prisoner on his way to the Gulag. He relocated to Italy during the late 1960s, and had roles in numerous spaghetti westerns, including For a Few Dollars More (1965), A Bullet for the General (1966), The Great Silence (1968), and A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (1975). He turned down a role in Raiders of the Lost Ark, describing the script as “moronically shitty”. In 1977 he starred as the guerrillero Wilfried Böse in Operation Thunderbolt, based on the events of the 1976 Operation Entebbe.
Kinski began to work with director Werner Herzog. Eventually, their collaboration brought him international recognition. They made five films together: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Woyzeck (1978), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987). He was considered a controversial figure in Germany, as his emotional volatility was notorious, as were rumors of his numerous affairs with women. Kinski co-starred as an evil killer from the future in a 1987 Sci-Fi based TV film Timestalkers, with William Devane and Lauren Hutton. His last film (which he wrote and directed) was Kinski Paganini (1989), in which he played the legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini. He reinforced his wild image by his accounts in his 1988 autobiography, All I Need Is Love (reprinted in 1996 as Kinski Uncut). The book infuriated many, and prompted his second daughter Nastassja Kinski to file a libel suit against him, which she soon withdrew. For many years, his own writings were the only source for facts about his life and were not questioned or doubted by independent analysts. In his retrospective film on Kinski, My Best Fiend (also called My Favorite Enemy, 1999), Herzog said that Kinski had fabricated much of his autobiography. The two even collaborated on the insults Kinski included about the director. In his film, Herzog showed lighter and humorous aspects of Kinski’s personality, although he describes difficulties in their working relationship. Also in 1999, director David Schmoeller released a short film entitled Please Kill Mr. Kinski, which relates stories of Kinski’s erratic and disruptive behavior on the set of his 1986 film Crawlspace. The film features behind-the-scenes footage of Kinski’s various confrontations with director and crewmembers, along with Schmoeller’s account of the events. In 2006, Christian David published the first comprehensive biography of Kinski, based on newly discovered archived material, personal letters, and interviews with the actor’s friends and colleagues, Peter Geyer published a paperback book of essays on Kinski’s life and work.
Kinski died on 23 November 1991 of a heart attack in Lagunitas, California, at age 65. His ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean. He was survived by his daughters, Pola and Nastassja, and his son, Nikolai. Only Nikolai attended his father’s funeral.
- October, 18, 1926
- Sopot, Poland
- November, 23, 1991
- Lagunitas, California
Cause of Death
- heart attack