excerpts from a 1985 Playboy Magazine article…
I don’t know whether or not I’ll be able to explain “the thing” to you, though I believe that I understand it perfectly after spending some time with Kinski. It is not so much any specific thing he said, any one word he uttered; it is the accumulation of many words, images, metaphors, examples that he used, but also gestures, facial expressions, tone, the settings in which we talked and, above all, the moods he can generate when all those arc combined. During one of our conversations, I tried to pin Klaus Kinski down for a name, and he reminded me of the fairy tales in which people die when they find out a forbidden name.
KINSKI: “There can be no word to express this thing, this secret. Because this secret, which is not actually a secret, it is very simple, but it includes, includes, endless, endless, almost everything, you know. The thinking about it and being conscious of all this means at the same moment changing everything, like in nature, changing and changing and changing, endless, always, never-ending movement, you see…”
Kinski speaks elliptically. He calls it “telegraph style.” Sometimes his meaning is clear only by inference. But in talking with him, I soon understood how skillful he is, by instinct, at leading one to leap from an image to an idea. I realize now that Kinski could have talked to me in this seemingly inexact manner about the quantum theory and I would have learned a great deal of physics. In fact, in a way, that is exactly what he talked to me about: the emission and absorption of energy in nature. This was my first important lesson about what it is the actor does. In trying to convey its essence to me, Kinski sometimes also called it “the force,” or the power, or nakedness, or receptivity, or “the incarnation of all that is alive.” Sometimes he used the phrase “participation in the universe.” Indeed, Kinski admits that certain of the states he sometimes enters resemble meditation and embody some of the tenets of yoga.
“But, I don’t need anybody to tell me how to be alive…”
I’d become accustomed to his yelling. Tricks of the print medium cannot – capital letters cannot – convey the intensity of Kinski’s voice when it rises, as it often does. And in the several long telephone conversations we’d had before I went to see him in Northern California, I’d been frightened by it.
“Why should I do any interviews? It is all shit. Why me? Because I am what they call an actor? It is me or someone else, a murderer or a conductor, or anybody, anybody, anything, that can be consumed. They consume everything – art, executions, hamburgers, Jesus Christ. It is all supermarket talk. It is consumer SHIT to fill up their pages.”
You can witness Klaus Kinski having a mood Swing within a minute, within a sentence, as his mind conveys him from an infuriating image to a soothing one to a humorous one. If you watch his face while he speaks, you will see it become a mask of ire, his glance menacing as he spits out words of contempt and outrage. Then, suddenly, there’ll be a smile so gentle that something will constrict in your chest. It is impossible not to respond. He’s so close to the surface, I had thought during one of our first long telephone conversation. But after I’d spent some time with him, I sometimes felt there was no surface at all. I think of him now as exposed consciousness, as fragile as a human organ taken from the protective case of the body. I think that’s why, between films, he lives alone, in a cabin in the middle of his 40 acres of forest in Northern California.
“Freedom! Freedom! That’s what every shitty ruler promises you before he takes over!”
He won’t drive a car other people have driven. He won’t read a copy of a book anyone else has read and that, in fact, one of the reasons he hates old houses and hotel rooms is that he can sense the lingering presence of their former occupants.
“Fun? There is no fun.”
Eating a chili dog: “These beans are disgusting, they are hard. Look at this sign, HOMEMADE. What does this mean, ‘home’? Does it mean that the beans are even more disgusting than others? I don’t understand their signs. I don’t WANT to understand their signs. This HOMEMADE, it’s supposed to tell you these disgusting beans are good. These fucking signs! Signs everywhere that lie.”
Kinski often goes for weeks without speaking to another human being. He reads no newspaper. He watches no television. “I climbed up to the roof and smashed down the antenna.” He keeps few possessions. When he has finished reading a book, he uses it to start a fire in the hearth that is his sole source of heat. He cuts his own hair. He grows his own vegetables so that he will not have to drive into town. The animals in the forest do not threaten him as do people and their societies, nor do the storms, the wind, the trees. In the cabin, surrounded by vegetation through which there is no path save that made by the passage of his own body, and in his forest, he is safe. Except from “the thing.”
“I am like a wild animal who is behind bars. I need air! I need space!”
Kinski was about five years old when he first felt this thing. He says he can recall looking at a dog or a tree or a whore on the streets of Berlin and hurling his own consciousness into the creatures or even the inanimate objects, not pretending to be but becoming the dog or the tree or the whore. “Incarnating” is what he came to call it later, not playing a role. Being, not acting. He detests the word entertainer. He also hates the word actor and mocks the European critics who have called him the greatest actor of the 20th Century. Not surprisingly, he loathes all critics and refers to them as “the masturbators.”
On Herzog: “He is a less big asshole than the others.”
On doing another take: “ASSHOLES! Do you ask a car crash for another take? Do you ask a volcano for another take? Do you ask the storm for another take?”
On method acting: “Completely worthless shit.”
“I am like a wild animal born in captivity, in a zoo. But where a beast would have claws, I was born with talent.”
On films: “I make movies for money, exclusively for money. So I sell myself for the highest price. Exactly like a prostitute. There is no difference.”
“Why do I continue making movies? Making movies is better than cleaning toilets.”
On awards: “(rejecting them) if they’re not changeable into cash money. It is the Nobel Prize I want, It’s worth $400,000.”
On the girl behind the McDonald’s counter who says “next”: “I will NEVER be next!”
On traffic signs: “There is a sign that says, RIGHT LANE MUST EXIT. Right lane MUST exit! MUST! And I say to myself, MUST? Fuck YOU!”
Of course, I had no control over these conversations, which Kinski conducted entirely according to his fancy. He followed none of he rules of the interview situation – not one, not even the most basic. “I don’t want to talk too much about myself.” He refused to sit in a quiet room with a tape recorder; all of our conversations took place in cars, at the beach, in noisy restaurants. But, to be precise, he didn’t refuse anything: I never had a chance to ask him. He would simply announce our schedule for the day. And I soon realized that it was almost always hopeless to ask him any direct questions; if he didn’t interrupt them, he argued with their wording or with their relevance, or would simply digress to another topic.
“You have to protect yourself, your body, your being. You cannot treat it badly; you have to keep it, not only to keep it but to make it sensitive, as sensitive as possible. Since I was born I have been like this, till today. Nothing changed. Even more, even worse. Once, about 25 years ago, I was in an apartment or somebody gave me a room to live in, I don’t know what, and next door, they put on the radio, so I struck the wall with my fist, but they did not put the radio down, so I took a tool and banged and banged until I made a hole through the wall. It was like a comedy movie. I didn’t laugh then. And then I left, of course, the apartment, because they didn’t let me live there anymore. When I come back here from the airport… most of the time, when I travel, I leave my car at the airport, even some weeks it costs me some hundreds of dollars; I don’t care. But once, I took a taxi. I hate those, what do you call them, limousines. They stink and their drivers have been driving dead people to the cemeteries. I hate those. OK, I took a taxi, and now this guy had a radio on. First of all, he had this thing EE-AAAH-UGGHH-ACHHHHHHGGG – these machines, how can somebody all day long hear this? He must be already deaf. I don’t know what. And then I say — Do you need this? I say — this machine? And he looked at me, like maybe I am crazy or whatever. I say, I just come from Tokyo, Hong Kong, long flight, I am exhausted. I said, look, just half an hour. Do I have to listen to that crap? Can you turn the radio off?. And he was even willing. He turned around, and he said — but it’s the news. I say, I don’t need this. I say, I don’t want to, I have never listened to it, never in my life,OK? I am almost on the border. I need to stop. I have to get out of your car. And he switched it off, but saying, as though really surprised and almost sorry for me. How can you know what’s going on?’ There, you see: THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I DON’T WANT TO KNOW!”
“No, no. I never said money is freedom! I said money buys freedom. BUYS! What does that mean, money is freedom? This is ridiculous: money is freedom. It means nothing. What do you think, that a dollar in a savings account is freedom? Maybe you have understood nothing I have said. You are trying to make me sound like an American average citizen.”
His arguments in response to my questions were often semantic. Kinski hates words; he resents having to use them to express himself, he finds them untrustworthy, confining, reductive.
“Experiencing the ocean is an experience of liberty. When you talk about the ocean, is it liberty? Even looking at the ocean is not liberty. It is like a wounded bird looking at the sky and saying, ‘Why are my wings broken?’ Or even worse: putting a bird cage near the window so that the bird can see the sky. But, of course, it’s much better to look than not to, even if it hurts. But words – words are not enough! It is true what Rimbaud said once; It’s absolutely true; I proved lt. He said, ‘If you think a book is strong enough, try it at the ocean, in the wind, at the waves. If the book can resist the ocean, the elements, then it exists. Otherwise, throw it away.'”
Afterward, I tried to write what he had told me when he’d started explaining this thing to me. He had given me examples, images that he thought I would grasp. The “thing” was comparable, by analogy, to the power of kung fu, he had told me. He had mentioned Bruce Lee, for example, and how it is possible to observe that the concentration, the energy that the kung-fu artist taps into begins long before the point of impact and continues afterward. He talked with me also about how this thing that enables you to create is the thing that makes you suffer, suffer so much that you hate your fate, which has driven you to it, because it is not a choice. You start doing it and then you cannot stop, and the more you do it, the more it makes you suffer. And you cannot get rid of it once you have felt lt. You cannot kill it, no matter how much you hate it for making you suffer. You try to kill it, but it is like the snake with 100 heads; there is always another head. “But you need a framework,” I said.
“You need a framework? What is this, a framework? You don’t need a framework. They told you you need this. You don’t need this. You need a painting, not a frame. You are going too slow. Just go.”
“It should not be necessary to explain things, I don’t know… maybe it comes from this fucking occupation that they call art. I don’t know what the meaning of that is. And they call me ‘actor’ and I know this is shit, OK, because it just means that some idiot, absolutely imbecilic, cretin, illiterate director can say what he wants to me, can even harm me. So I say to him — FUCK OFF! Or I go home or whatever. And then they say ‘He is mad, he just happens to be an artist.’ These people who do not see the terrible things and therefore do not see the beautiful things, either. But I cannot dump, dump this thing. They think you can dump all this and be an actor. Then they say ‘Good job.’ Do you say ‘Good job’ to an earthquake?”
“I don’t know. Why have I had this life? If I knew, I wouldn’t have done it. Do you know what I mean? You cannot even say, I cannot even tell myself, why did I do it? I shouldn’t have done it. It’s ridiculous. It wasn’t a choice? It wasn’t my choice.”
For the first time in his presence, I felt afraid. Not of him but of the furor of that younger self he was reincarnating in the small, cramped space where we sat, yet another cage to be filled with that power and rage that I finally understood to be his furor at his own fate. And I saw that same vein stand out on his forehead that I had seen on Aguirre’s, and the same intensity in the set of his jaw: It was not the rage of helplessness, it was the rage of defiance.
“So it means, the only thing I can say is — OK, shit! Just like saying — Shit! to yourself. You say SHIT ten times when you hurt yourself. You say SHIT. Nobody is there. You just say SHIT. So I could tell myself — Oh, shit, why, WHY, why did all that happen to me? Why was I not a bird on the ocean? You know? Instead of this, you know? This I could say, but just to myself. SHIT! It doesn’t even make sense after a while when you say SHIT from morning to evening, but there was a time when I could not stop. It was like a tic. I said SHIT all the time. SHIT!”
Kinski opened his eyes, which had been clamped shut, and then looked away at the ocean. In the car, the silence seemed new. Well, it wasn’t a silence. There was still the wind, the sound of a sea gull’s wings flapping. It only seemed like a new silence to me, because I had watched a man say “Fuck you” to his own pain. Kinski stared steadfastly at the ocean.
“Yes, love is the salvation. I didn’t choose to be alone. But I cannot explain this. I could be with a woman in a bed, for weeks even and it would seem to me like three seconds. Or 300 years. There is no time sense because of things that are going on in you. I don’t know, there is no explanation of this. But every time, even with someone I…. But whenever I was with a woman, I always sort of want another one. So there was always another one. I can’t explain this, but it means that these women, they were not sharing my solitude. I wanted to stay with somebody, but I couldn’t, it wasn’t possible, because of this thing moving in myself. I had to learn this. I didn’t want to be alone, but I had to learn that the dimensions of my feelings are too violent. I had to learn this. It is what I was just telling you before. Why? Why am I like this? It is the same as — why wasn’t I born a fisherman? This is not a choice. There is not a why. Look at this bird there. Why does he fly to the left? Why?”
We watched as the gull flew out of our sight, toward the mountains. A few hundred feet away, on the road leading to the beach, a truck pulled up and some men got out, carrying pneumatic drills and jackhammers. They set to work, and it was the sounds of the drills and the hammers that now reached the car.
“Look at them! They are not happy if they don’t hammer. They hammer, they hammer; it is unbearable. That is why you have to go away. It is not a solution, but you have to go away, to protect your feeling of life, where people won’t shock you and hurt you. They hammer everywhere! Everywhere they can possibly hammer! They hammer in your brain! Hell, these idiots, they come with their hammer, where people are sitting, to hammer, to hammer, to hammer! LET’S GO!”