1991.12 - 1992.01 Frisko "Klaus Kinski's final interview"

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Klaus Kinski's final interview

A personal tribute

We all have one film we keep returning to. It's usually a movie that involves a character whose on-screen persona mirrors the struggle we sense in ourselves. It's a conflict that won't go away. As moviegoers, we seek an external validation, to be wedded to a character's destiny that we can also call our own. Perhaps that is why I have read Moby Dick four times; during each reading I relive Captain Ahab's obsessive quest for the elusive white whale.

I have seen Werner Herzog's Aguirre (The Wrath of God)" five times. I don't ever recall viewing any other movie more than twice.

Aguirre is the bizarre saga of a deranged conquistador's search for the lost city of gold in the hidden reaches of the Amazon basin.

The German actor Klaus Kinski plays Aguirre, whose tyrannical control over his party of explorers is so complete that they have no recourse but to follow him on his crazed quest, even as they are being killed off by the unseen Indians. Here's film critic Pauline Kael on Kinski's acting: "...wearing a metal helmet that seemed to be soldered to his skull, [he] had so little to do that he kept acting up a grotesque storm. Aguirre's glassy blue eyes didn't blink; they seemed to have popped open and stayed that way. He was like an angry, domineering Bette Davis; he held his mouth like a dowager, pursing his lips and scowling, and he took command of a group of soldiers by the demonic force of his glare. Kinski's Aguirre was a crazed conquistador who always walked at a tilt, and when he stood still he was slanted backward or, occasionally, sideways. He achieved the effect of the angled sets in Caligari just with his own body, which told us how off-balance his mind was." It is said of great actors - and Kinski was considered one of Europe's greatest - that there is one role that awaits them. Though Charlton Heston was certainly not a great actor, he was destined to play Moses in The Ten Commandments. For the Polish-born Kinski, who launched his career right after WW II, performing Ibsen and Shakespeare monologues in cabarets, Aguirre was the role of a lifetime. This twisted and embattled Zarathustra was the cinematic embodiment of someone who resided in an otherworldly dimension - both timeless and placeless. As Kinski was fond of saying, "I am like a wild animal born in captivity, in a zoo. But where a beast would have claws, I was born with talent."

When I first saw Aguirre in 1977, I left the theatre haunted. Kinski's intense gaze, set off by his high forehead and angular Aryan features, held me in its grip. His penetrating blue eyes seemed to offer a private passageway into a hellish inferno. Why, this was the maddest and greatest actor of them all, a demented Teutonic version of Dennis Hopper with Robert De Niro thrown in for added existential torque. Kinski was the lunatic lodestar before whom all American actors paled in comparison.

Perhaps his Slavic brand of intensity was too red-hot for American audiences to fully appreciate - notwithstanding starring roles in movies like Woyzeck, Nosferatu (Fantôme de la nuit), and Fitzcarraldo, where he played totally unhinged characters. In this country, he's known for fathering Avedon serpentine pinup Nastassja. In France, Germany, and Italy, he was treated as silver screen royalty and he spent years living in sumptuous comfort, with a fleet of Ferraris, seven palazzos in Rome - the kind of caviar lifestyle the fawning Robin Leach exploited for tabloid TV viewers.

But in the last ten years, Kinski opted for a Garbo-like existence, living alone with his German shepherd Apollo on 40 acres untamed land outside Lagunitas. He lives there, in an unheated cabin, to be close his 16-year-old son, Nanhoi, who lives with Kinski's third ex-wife in nearby Fort Knolls. Kinski deliberately shied away from the media, whom in his 1988 autobiography All I need is love, he called, "... freaks... These vultures are trying to feed off me. Mad masturbators, thieves, plunderers. They want to write books about me. Everything I say to them is misunderstood. They're all nuts. I have the nauseating suspicion that human society wants to accept me into its fold."

So, like a bird of prey, I, too hovered close to the legend of Kinski, hoping to secure an interview with him when I read in a Herb Caen column that he had recently attended a book party for Norman Mailer at Tosca's. The item mentioned that he lived in Ross. I tried calling information; his number was unlisted. No surprise there. I then wrote to him in care of his movie agent, Paul Kohner Agency in Los Angeles. I addressed the letter to a Mr. Kinski. I briefly stated the purpose of my contacting him. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to profile him. I wanted to discuss his autobiography, which his publisher Random House had yanked off the market. I left the letter purposefully vague and open-ended, because I was not sure how he would respond to someone disturbing his privacy. I frankly did not expect to hear from him. One week later, I did. He called me at home. He had obtained my phone number from the Frisko office. A voice, thick and foreign and possibly German, asked for a Mr. Katovsky. He said it was Klaus. I had difficulty placing a Klaus in my life; I assumed it was a wrong number. He then said loudly, "IT'S KLAUS KINSKI!" Startled, I asked for his number and told him I'd call him right back. I needed a moment to regroup and plot my conversational strategy.

We talked non-stop for almost two hours. However, it would be more exact to say that it was Kinski who talked for most of the time. He was a whitewater rush of dammed-up exhortations, jeremiads, and rantings. He was relentless, pushing forward insights and observations that needed to take bloom in another person's mind. Assigned the role of sympathetic listener, I was glad to have passed his audition. Kinski's chief gripe was the sorry condition of American publishing, which he claimed was plagued by commercialism and censorship. "It's shit, it's fucked," he hollered repeatedly into the phone; in fact, almost every other sentence was punctuated by a fiercely spoken obscenity. Random House was the primary villain for banning his book. A best-seller in Europe for years, All I need is love is a brutally honest memoir written in the raw tradition of Genet. It charts the turbulent circumstances of Kinski's varied life, beginning with his poverty-stricken childhood in Germany when he and his family of six were forced to live in an unheated, toilet-less room while they stole food to survive. His mother eventually shunted him off to a children's welfare home. When WW II broke out, he enlisted at the age of 16, but was wounded in one of his first battles and spent the remainder of the war in a British POW camp. He gravitated to the stage and theatre after the war, and quickly developed a cabaret following as an accomplished Shakespearean monologist. Before long, he was acting in movies - 180 of them over his 30-year film career. ("I work only for money," he said, which explains why he starred in so many low-budget scare-fi flicks and Spaghetti Westerns. "If you always need money like I do, then you can't be selective about movies. They're all just one big heap of nonsense."

Besides acting, his life-long obsession was sex - and this is where his autobiography takes a lusty turn to Henry Milleresque candor about women and what he liked doing to them. "I drag every woman I can grab into my bed," he wrote, "salesgirls, waitresses, maids, married women, mothers, American tourists, students, a Bedouin woman, all the girls in the coffee houses who smile at me as I pass by." Passage after passage describes these quick, sometimes faceless encounters. He loved to screw. Such bluntness about his many conquests made Random House lawyers nervous. The memoir was pulled from bookshelves right after it was published because they were worried about libel suits. "They wanted to prove who I fucked," he said. "How should I know who I fucked and where I fucked thirty years ago? If I said I did it and I wrote about it, that's enough. I told them to FUCK 0FF!" What angered him even more was that 150 pages had been excised from the original German Version and that the book had gone to press without his final approval of galley proofs. Understandably after that experience, he kept the American media at bay, maintaining a virtually invisible presence. He even turned down a request by Vanity Fair to run an excerpt from the autobiography. "Why should I let them publish what they want, when all they will do is fuck me over?"

If Klaus had such a vitriolic attitude toward the press, l felt obliged to spring the following question: "Why did you call me?" His voice immediately changed, shifting from spleen and bile, to a soft, fey, childlike tone muted with wonderment and sensitivity. "When I got your letter and magazine, l had just finished my second book on the making of my movie Paganini. I was ready. My instincts said it was the right thing to do. It seemed okay, since you are the publisher and editor, and not some reporter who will get screwed over by someone else." He paused, as if waiting for my personal consent, that I would become the protector and guarantor of his interests, whatever they might be. I became an enlistee in Klaus's small, private army.

And private it was. He often went for weeks without speaking to anyone, severing his contact with the outside world. "I don't read newspapers," he boasted. "Or listen to the radio or television. I used to have an antenna on my roof, but I took it down. I don't need to know what is going on in the world." For example, one of Klaus's few friends in Marin County, Supervisor Gary Giacomini, had the privilege of breaking the news to him that the United States was at war with Iraq - several months after the fact. (Klaus told me that he found out about the Gulf War when he "saw all these trucks driving around with tiny American flags attached to their antennas. So I asked Gary why." Hearing this, I thought of a Japanese soldier emerging from hiding on a Pacific Island years after the end of WW II.)

A recluse by his own choosing, Kinski now had a gnawing need to reenter the world he scorned. He was embarking on a new crusade - to publicize Paganini; which he wrote, directed and starred in. A brilliant, tormented Italian composer, who is considered to be the greatest violinist who ever lived, Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was the first of the concert hall Superstars. He was the Mick Jagger of his day. "There was a feeling of Satanism about this tall, dark, emaciated Italian," wrote the music historian Harold Schonberg, "who could do undreamed-of things on his Guarnerius. Musicians swarmed to his concerts trying to figure out how he achieved his effects. The public also flocked, and many of the more superstitious listeners believed him in league with the Devil. Paganini did nothing to dispel the notion. A great showman, he played up the diabolical quality of his concerts and did everything but come on stage wrapped in a blue flame. He gave saturnalia rather than concerts. One of his tricks was to break a string in the middle of a composition and continue to the end on three strings. Or he would produce a pair of scissors, cut three of the strings, and perform mirades on the G string alone."

With monetary backing from an Italian production company, Kinski, who played the composer, filmed Paganini in 1988. A finished cut has been shown in Europe, including a premiere at the Paris Opera House, but the movie was blocked from being commercially distributed in this country because of some sort of legal snafu between Kinski and his Italian money men, whom he characterized as the "mafia." Kinski needed $600'000 to buy the film distribution rights. He'd never allow himself to be extorted. "I told them to fuck off!"

Even when presented with the opportunity to screen Paganini, Kinski was extremely selective in his choice of venue. Though he once hosted a private screening at Lucasfilm, he had recently turned down the Mill Valley Film Festival because the theatre lacked Dolby sound equipment. "Paganini can only be appreciated in Dolby," he insisted. "It can't be experienced any other way."

Kinski viewed Frisko as the ideal vehicle to call attention to Paganini, which he also thought was his greatest acting triumph. Because I never questioned his total indictment of celebrity journalism and because I practically agreed with everything he said, he decided to work with me. In the business world, it's called a win-win situation. Kinski would grant me an exclusive interview, while I would be responsible for assembling a multi-page cover story on the making of Paganini. Our mutual project would go forward; our destinies would intersect. My only fear: throughout most of his acting career, Kinski was notorious for being difficult to work with. His repeated falling-outs with film director Werner Herzog were legendary, including a near gun duel on the set of Aguirre. In his memoir, Kinski wrote, - "I absolutely despise this murderer Herzog. He should be thrown to the crocodiles alive. An anaconda should throttle him slowly. The sting of a deadly spider should paralyze him. His brain should burst from the bite of the most poisonous of all snakes. Panthers shouldn't slit him open with their claws, that would be too good for him! No. Big red ants should piss in his eves, eat his balls, penetrate his asshole, and eat his guts! The more I wish the most horrible of deaths on him and treat him like the scum of the earth that he is, the less I can get rid of him."

I certainly didn't want Kinski to someday turn against me. Nonetheless, we arranged to meet over lunch the following week at Piazza D'Angelo in Mill Valley. "I can't eat in an Italian restaurant if it's not owned by Italians," he said. "You have nothing to worry about," I replied. "The two owners, Paolo and Domenico, are from Calabria."

I was seated at the bar taking the first sips of a Moretti beer when a disheveled-looking, white mop-haired elderly man walked into the restaurant. Dressed in a Eurostyle leather bomber jacket, a pair of unfastened jeans opened at the waist, and a white T-shirt, he seemed disoriented by something. He was talking animatedly to Paolo, who was standing near the entrance. It took a few moments for me to register that this stranger was Kinski. Should I have been expecting Aguirre himself in 16th-century full body armor, with a sword at his side? This Kinski looked like a cross between Andy Warhol and Rutger Hauer. I slid off my bar stool to greet him. He exploded into a smile, relieved that I had found him and happy to see me. At 65, his deeply lined face bore the signs of a life lived hard, fast and on self-agonizing terms - a roadmap of private pain. Yet his eyes, radiant and blue like a summer alpine sky, shone with power and intensity. They were the eyes of a fragile, haunted soul, of someone who felt too much and saw too much.

Our first task was finding a table in the near-empty restaurant. Kinski led me from table to table, with Paolo right behind us. No, this table wasn't right because it was too close to other diners. No, this table was in the sun. No, this table was too near the aisle. So, we circled the room for several minutes before he settled upon a small marble table by the window in the front bar area that had not yet been set up.

After we sat down and he ordered a Pellegrino, I handed him a gift. It was a small kev chain called the Final Word which electronically blurted out swear words whenever it was pressed. There were several foul-mouth choices, ranging from "fucking asshole" to "eat shit." I told Klaus that he never had to talk to anyone again if he didn't like them. All he'd have to do is press and point the keychain. Delighted by his obscenity-uttering amulet, he began waving it through the air like a goofy conductor, pointing this way and that. I didn't know where to begin. How does one engage in small talk, innocuous chit-chat with Klaus? He engages you; you listen. He asked me where I used to live. When I said Oakland, he began talking about one of his favorite authors, Jack London. He narrated the plot of one story, To build a fire, which he said he always wanted to film. The tale is about a Yukon adventurer who is caught out in the Klondike cold. His only hope for survival in the sub-freezing temperature is to build a fire, but his hands are numb with frostbite. He does manage to ignite a fire with matches and a scrap of beech bark, but only by cupping the flame with his hands until his palms begin to burn. While Klaus told this story, he, too, cupped his hands. I half expected to see the yellow tip of a flame flickering up through his fingers.

When Paolo came by to take our order, he and Klaus began speaking in Italian. In fact, Klaus went through the entire menu, item by item, pointing to each dish: capellini, melazane alla parinigiana, carpaccio, bruschetta, pesce del giorno, scaloppine. He wanted to know in detail how each dish was prepared. He understood Italian cuisine. He really cared about what he was going to eat. "I don't eat in restaurants anymore," he said. "I'm used to having a bowl of soup in my cabin. I don't go anywhere. If I visit San Francisco, it's usually twice a year to buy Italian coffee in North Beach."

I figured that once we'd broached the subject of Paganini, I would have little opportunity to converse (read: listen) about anything else. I wanted to hear about his film career. But before I had the chance to launch a salvo, Klaus started talking frenetically about how stupid most people are, how closed off to life they become, how they've become ghetto-ized in their thinking and behavior. He was making a point, a random outpouring of associations that would lead somewhere definite. The writer Marcelle Clements once likened Kinski's conversational style to "a very fine jazz improvisation, in which a musician explores a theme from which he often detours, the detour then becoming an adjunct to the theme itself, which is always returned to. It is a highly personalized way of addressing any subject, especially in combination with his sometimes curious syntax and his bursts of invective."

From the universal to the particular, he ranged seamlessly. He started talking about how stupid most directors are. "They want you to do a hundred takes. One should be enough. They should know what they want before they shoot a scene. But they are all so stupid that they don't know if a scene works or not. So they shoot it over and over again. When I did Doctor Zhivago, I was paid to work for four months. All I had was a small scene as a soldier in the train. I did it once. The director David Lean wanted to know if I wanted to do it over again. I told him no. So I got paid four months for working one day."

He went on to say that he turned down offers to work with Fellini, Pasolini, Ken Russell, Steven Spielberg, and many others. Either the money wasn't great enough, or he had little respect for their talent. "I make movies for money," and if they were trash films or Spaghetti Westerns, then at least he knew he wasn't being exploited by some pretentious auteur with "art" on his mind. In a Playboy interview, he once noted, "So I sell myself, for the highest price. Exactly like a prostitute. There is no difference."

I wanted to ask him about Werner Herzog. I wanted to know why he continued working with a director whom he despised and loathed so much that when he came to California to visit him, Klaus met him in Sausalito so "the asshole wouldn't find out where he lived." But my question needed to be couched in an elliptical, roundabout fashion, or else I risked offending Klaus. So I mentioned that I really liked the way Fitzarraldo had been filmed, especially the sunrise scene of the steamboat being lugged over the hill. "I filmed that scene," he shouted. "It was my shot. Herzog was always sleeping late. I had to wake him up earlier and drag him out of his sleeping bag so he could catch the dawn and mist on film. I told him where to station his camera. I told him where to point it. He was a lazy idiot."

I sensed he was ready to discuss Paganini. Which he was. Herzog and company were in the past. Paganini was his future. He explained the complicated legal maneuvering that had prevented the film's distribution in the United States. In Europe, however, the film was popularly received. He talked about how audiences reacted favorably to his crowning achievement, a film he shot in less than six months on a six million dollar budget. He was the proudest of his ability to authentically re-create the era in which Paganini lived and performed. Concert halls were illuminated solely by candlelight. Eighteenth-century castles in Sicily were rented out. "I would make a personal visit to these old single women who still lived in these castles and tell them that I had to use their castle for my film. I would've slept with them if that's what it took."

He cast his own son Nanhoi in the movie. I asked him if Nastassja had a role. His face went blank at the mention of her name. All color leeched right out. Softly, as if to himself, and not to me across the table, he said, "I wanted her to be my wife in the movie, but her husband said no. She's the mother of two children. She needed to take care of them."

"She's a great actress," I interjected.

"Yes, yes," he said distractedly, as if looking for something or someone far off in the distance. "She's one of a kind. She has a beautiful aura, a glow. A woman like her is only born every few centuries."

Klaus went back to discussing Paganini. We explored the possibility of having a private screening in San Francisco. Better yet, we would try renting out the War Memorial Opera House or Davies Symphony Hall. After all, he had managed to take over the Paris Opera House for one evening and invite 1'000 guests. "Everyone was so confused by the invitation; they thought they had to pay. I said, No, It's free."

"What about after San Francisco?" I asked. "Why not in other cities?"

"Yes! Perfect!" he exclaimed. "We will show Paganini in opera houses all over the country. Fuck my Italian distributors. America will finally get to see my film." He was joyous at finding a way to circumvent his Italian nemesis. His glee was contagious. I would support his newest quest. Years seemed to miraculously slough off his face as he continued talking. I was transfixed by the force of energy that kept rolling toward me. He reached out and clasped my right hand with his right hand, and he held it there, in that warm mano a mano Mediterranean way. It felt as if he were sending a current in my direction, a Promethean exchange.

He was so happy. There is simply no other way to describe his emotional state. After lunch, we walked out to his Jeep. His dog Apollo was tethered in the back from both sides of the vehicle. "If he's only held down on one side," Klaus explained, "he would find a way to break free." I petted Apollo's giant head; his long ears were standing straight up.

"We must talk in two days about our future plans," he said, as we swapped goodbyes. "We have so much to do. We can't let this opportunity slip away." As he drove off, I looked down in my workbag where I kept my tape recorder. I had purposely kept it switched off during our three-hour lunch. How could I? Then again, how could a tinny recording do justice to the sheer magic, the alchemy of Klaus? My life - in ways I couldn't even begin to predict - had been forever changed and charged.

When I found out two weeks later that he had died of a heart attack in his sleep, another one of his Marin friends, the Lagunitas postmaster said to me, "Klaus had that effect on people. He doesn't get close to many people. But of those he does, he sort of takes over you. He chooses you as a friend; you don't choose him." During those two weeks, his last two weeks alive, we talked on the phone almost every morning. Sometimes our conversations would last for an hour; other times only ten minutes. He always wanted me to call him at eight in the morning.

He had arranged for the Dolby Laboratory in San Francisco to host a private screening of Paganini for Frisko. The screening was scheduled for December 2. On the morning of his sudden death, November 22, we discussed the screening and who to invite. He was also bubbling with boyish pleasure since he had just received a fax from Poland that said they wanted to publish his Paganini book. "You must come over to my cabin so we can go over my color slides of Paganini," he insisted. We tentatively agreed to meet that weekend. Very few people, I later learned, were ever invited to his house.

The night I found out he died, I listened to my Shlumo Mintz Deutsche Grammophone recording of Paganini's "Caprices". The soulful, troubling, achingly vivid sound of the violin's eery wall unnerved me. I began to cry, for a man I hardly knew.

Author: William R. Katovsky