The daughter of one of the most infamous actors of his generation, Nastassja Kinski found her own place in the spotlight from the late 70s throughout the 80s thanks to roles in well-received films, that Richard Avedon poster and public attention for her personal life. Then, she just went away. In honor of her birthday, let’s talk about her fascinating career’s highs and lows.
Childhood and early career
“To understand Nastassja, you must look at her parents… Her mother is a poet, her father was possessed”
– Werner Herzog
Kinski is the daughter of the late controversial German actor Klaus Kinski and former actress Ruth Brigitte Tocki. She has two half-siblings; Pola and Nikolai. Kinski never had a good relationship with her father. She has claimed he was abusive and tried, but never succeeded, to sexually assault her when she was a child. He left the family in 1969 and they barely had any contact afterwards, with Kinski saying he only tried to contact her to work together after she became famous. After his death, she was quoted as saying:
“He was no father. Ninety-nine percent of the time I was terrified of him. He was so unpredictable that the family lived in constant terror […] I would do anything to put him behind bars for life. I am glad he is no longer alive”
Tocki struggled financially to support her children, which led Kinski to get into some trouble with the law for stealing and eventually ended up spending some time in juvie. Her family’s dire situation spurred Kinski’s decision to start working as a child model. She was then discovered by German filmmaker Wim Wenders’s wife in a disco in Munich at age 12, after which she was cast in his critically acclaimed film Wrong Move, beginning her career as an actress. At age fourteen, she filmed her scenes for the horror film To the Devil a Daughter, the second-last Hammer production to feature Christopher Lee. She first attracted international attention thanks to the romance film Stay as You Are in 1978. She received rave reviews for her performance, with Time Magazine writing:
“Kinski is simply ravishing, genuinely sexy and high-spirited without being painfully aggressive about it”.
All three films featured the then-underage actress in nude scenes. Kinski has stated she does not have fond memories of her early films for that reason. In an interview with W Magazine, she said:
“If I had had somebody to protect me or if I had felt more secure about myself, I would not have accepted certain things. Nudity things. And inside it was just tearing me apart.”
Tess, and the Birth of a Sex Symbol
Kinski’s big break came with her critically acclaimed performance as the title character in Tess, the Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
To prepare for the role, she studied method acting with Lee Strasberg in the United States and learned how to do a Dorset accent through elocution studies:
“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 [Polanski] 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”
Her work in the film earned her the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Female. She was also nominated for César Award and Golden Globe for Best Actress. Tess is also notable for being the first film directed by Polanski after fleeing the United States to avoid incarceration for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, which makes the way people so casually and unconcernedly speculated about the nature of the director/sex offender relationship’s with the then-fifteen-year-old actress in 1976 even more disturbing. Although he claims otherwise, she steadfastly denies ever being involved with him, as she stated:
“There was a flirtation. There could have been a seduction, but there was not. He had respect for me”
And a statement like that really shows how messed up it is that we get young girls to believe that a grown man staying away from them as they should shouldn’t be seen as the norm, but a sign of respect.
Kinski’s next big moment after Tess was not a film, but a picture shot by Richard Avedon that potrayed her with a Burmese python coiled around her nude body for the October 1981 issue of US Vogue. That’s pretty much the second best-known instance of an It girl and a python creating an iconic image after Britney Spears and Banana the Snake at the 2001 VMAs. The picture was later released as a poster, becoming a best-seller and cementing her status as a sex icon. In 2015, Jennifer Lawrence and Patrick Demarchelier paid homage to the picture for a Vanity Fair photoshoot.
In 1982, Kinski starred in two films: Francis Ford Coppola’s romantic musical One from the Heart and the erotic horror Cat People. While neither achieved particularly notable box office success, they are still remembered for other reasons: One from the Heart had a very troubled production, switching distributors multiple times, losing funding and saw its budget go from $15 million to $23 million. However, all these issues allowed Coppola to introduce a more economic method of filmmaking: the “electronic cinema”, which involved shooting and editing a visual storyboard on videotape, allowing for a reference during the actual shooting on film. Cat People earned Kinski some more good reviews and developed a cult following over the years. It also became somewhat infamous because of director Paul Schrader’s claim that Kinski ended their on-set fling by saying: “Paul, I always **** my directors. And with you, it was difficult”.
When asked about in 2001, she denied Schrader’s story and reflected on her image at the time:
“What! Where does that come from?” I never, ever said anything remotely like that. Plus I never? Well, maybe there was one person I worked with that I had a relationship with. No other director, ever, ever. […] But it could not be further from who I am or what I actually said. You know what I think? I think people imagined so many things, put together so many interpretations when they saw me, years ago. And it’s just so many fantasies”
Kinski starred in four films in 1984. The best known of the group is Paris, Texas. The film reunited her with Wenders, won the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and continues to have a lasting effect on critics, film aficionados and creatives such as Wes Anderson and David Robert Mitchell. And people like myself who just want to get their hands on a replica of the fluffy pink sweater she wears in the film. Speaking of which, the image of her in that fluffly pink sweater is one of the most memorable images of not only Paris, Texas itself, but Kinski’s entire career. While preparing for her role, Kinski wrote a diary to develop her character’s backstory, imagining her emigrating from Europe, and getting more affection from Harry Dean Stanton’s character than she had from anyone else.
The second best known of the bunch is The Hotel New Hampshire, an adaptation of John Irving’s novel of the same name. In spite of receiving positive reviews from critics, the author’s seal of approval and starring an assortment of then-popular stars, it was a box office failure at the time, which was attributed to mismarketing by star Rob Lowe. However, it has attained a cult following over the years. A story about the making of The Hotel New Hampshire did, however, bring attention to Kinski’s personal life once again, as Lowe’s then-fiancée Melissa Gilbert cheated on him with John Cusack after she found out that Lowe had an affair with Kinski.
Then, there were the forgotten, critically panned Dudley Moore vehicle Unfaithfully, Yours and the indie film Maria’s Lovers. While the latter didn’t really make much of an impact on Kinski’s mainstream presence, she received glowing reviews for her acting in it and she considers it one of the films she’s most proud of:
“Maria’s Lovers is indeed a very special movie. It carries a message that is very close to my heart and my own values. The message there is that war claims people’s lives not only in the direct physical sense, when people die from bombings, killings, wounds; it destroys them from within, burns them out. People’s souls die as well; they become filled with sorrow, revenge, mourning, painful memories. Love is the only force, the only source of energy that brings hope and gives one the strength to survive. Love fills the future with meaning”
Motherhood and Semi-retirement
Kinski married Egyptian film producer Ibrahim Moussa against her mother’s wishes in September 1984. Their first child was born the same year, while the second was born two years later. After getting married and having children, Kinski stepped away from the spotlight for some time to focus on her family life. She stated she chose to do so to be able to give her children the attention and care she didn’t receive as a child, as she explained:
“I never had a family, and what I always wanted was my family. And now that I had little kids, that’s what I wanted to do: to be there. And not not be there”
During these period, she still appeared in the odd movie here and there. One of them was Revolution, a critical and commercial letdown so big that star Al Pacino – who blamed the movie’s failure on its rushed production – decided to take a four-year break from screen work. After Revolution, Kinski left Hollywood and mainly appeared in European films such as the French romantic drama Maladie d’amour (for which she earned a Best Actress nomination at the César Awards), the period drama and 1989 Palme d’Or competitor Torrents of Spring, and her second reunion with Wenders, Faraway, So Close!. Film critic Roger Ebert praised her casting in the latter, writing:
“Klaus is dead, but with every year you can see more of his face in his daughter. The deep-set eyes. The hurt in the lips. […] A few years ago Kinski would have been cast as one of the humans. Now her face can reflect the sadness, the experience, the wisdom that allows her to be an angel”
Kinski also said she turned down many offers at the time, one of them being Miloš Forman’s Valmont, an adaptation of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to avoid having to travel to film on location and be away from her kids. Kinski and Moussa divorced in 1992. The same year, she began a three-year relationship with legendary musician Quincy Jones, with whom she had a daughter in 1993.
Kinski made her return to Hollywood films in 1994 with the Charlie Sheen-led action film Terminal Velocity. The film received mostly negative review from critics and flopped at the box office. Needless to say, it wasn’t triumphant return, but it didn’t stop her from continuing to get cast in American mainstream films in the the next few years.
Unfortunately, those films weren’t all that: Fathers’ Day, in which she played the third lead alongside funnymen Robin Williams and Billy Crystal was a major critical and commercial failure. She was the female lead in Mike Figgis’s drama One Night Stand, but that’s best known for being the film Robert Downey, Jr. was shooting when he was was arrested for cocaine and heroin possession, and breaking into a neighbor’s house in early 1996. The Oliver Stone-produced war drama Savior was another failure, while the John Landis-helmed black comedy Susan’s Plan got such a negative audience reception at the AFI Film Festival that it was released straight to video.
However, this period wasn’t all bad for Kinski at the movies. The black comedy Your Friends & Neighbors, where she played a gallerist who has an affair with Catherine Keener’s character, is the high point of her career in the 90s. Written and directed by Neil LaBute, the film received a mainly positive reception from critics, and is notable for being the first movie to be reviewed on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. It wasn’t exactly a hit, but good reviews and good buzz in indie circles count for something when you consider all the dreck she had ammassed in her oeuvre in the then-recent past. She also had a cameo role in the romantic comedy Playing by Heart, opposite Jon Steweart and a young Angelina Jolie. It received lukewarm reviews, but performed poorly at the box office.
In 2000, Kinski played the third lead in Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim, where she played Sarah Polley’s character’s mother. Like her breakout film Tess, The Claim was based on a Thomas Hardy novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Unlike Tess, The Claim received only lukewarm critical notices and didn’t make any impact at the box office. But hey! She got to be in a Michael Winterbottom film at this point in her career and it wasn’t terrible! However, the real mystery here is why Wes Bentley is front and center on the poster when the main character was played by Peter Mullan.
After wannabe Hollywood hits and well-received indies failed to propel Kinski’s back to her old It girl status, she kind of ended up in semi-retirement once again. She appreared in Town & Country, and that’s kind of a big deal. Because this little romantic comedy holds the distinction of being one of the biggest box office flops in American film history, grossing a little over $10 million worldwide from a $90 million budget. Reviews were really bad, too. What? I said it was a big deal. I never said that was for good reasons. She then starred alongside a young Scarlett Johansson in An American Rhapsody, which was based on the life of its writer and director Éva Gárdos.
Since the English language stuff wasn’t working out, Kinski made a brief detour to France. There, she starred in the television mini-series Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2003). This adaptation was set in France in the 1960s, and co-starred Helen Hunt clone Leelee Sobieski. The same year, she starred opposite Kiefer Sutherland in the Paul Gauguin biopic Paradise Found, playing his wife Mette-Sophie Gad.
In 2006, Kinski had a minor role in the well-received and under-seen surrealist thriller film Inland Empire, written and directed by David Lynch. In 2008, film director Quentin Tarantino talked to the actress about playing the role of Bridget von Hammersmark in his alt-history war film, Inglourious Basterds. He flew to Germany to meet her, but a deal could not be reached, so the role went to fellow German actress Diane Kruger. Kinski’s last screen appearance was in the 2013 indie drama Sugar. In 2016, she was a contestant on the German version of Dancing with the Stars.
Why she disappeared, why the comeback didn’t really work, and what’s she doing these days?
Kinski was never one to star in particularly commercial films, both in Hollywood and in Europe. After all, few movies in her filmography have the same mainstream appeal as, say, Splash. And that showed in their box office performance.
Second, she chose to step away from the limelight on her own accord to take care of her family. She then went through a custody battle with her first husband, which ended with her winning custody and him being allowed around the children for supervised visits.
Third, it’s worth noting that when she tried to make a high-profile comeback in her mid-30s, she also had to face ageism in the industry and press. Publications would describe her as too old to star alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, conveniently leaving out that she is only one year older that Cruise and two years older than Pitt.
Another factor would be that while Kinski often being linked to other celebrities sparked further interest in her, she was never a big tabloid celebrity and never tried to harness the curiousity towards her personal life to help her career or build a brand the way other actors like, say, Julia Roberts, have.
In spite of having fallen out of mainstream consciousness and later retired, Kinski’s films and performances remain appreciated to this day, giving her the opportunity to continue appearing at festivals and screenings of her filmography from time to time, and give interviews about her past work.