Wild at Heart

Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 147 minutes. Jane Henderson (Nastassja Kinski).

AROUND THE TIME that Francis Ford Coppola cast Nastassja Kinski as a circus performer in his swoony, romantic reverie One from the Heart (1982), he proclaimed her “the most beautiful woman in films today.” Many noted the actress’s uncanny resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman; Paul Schrader, who directed the German-born Kinski in Cat People (1982), was certain that she would replicate the Swedish Bergman’s immense crossover success in the US. She did, sort of, but for an epoch-defining image, not for a movie as canonical as, say, Casablanca: Richard Avedon’s notorious 1981 photograph of Kinski, lying on the floor in a Zen-like trance, with a Burmese python, its forked tongue tickling her ear, coiled around her naked body. The shot distills the qualities that define Kinski’s best performances from 1979 to 1984, the apex of her career: deep wells of serenity and stillness behind a feral sexuality.

Kinski was born in 1961 in Berlin, the only child of Brigitte Ruth Tocki and Klaus Kinski, the volcanic actor best known for his collaborations with Werner Herzog. Of her father, Kinski said in a 1999 profile in The Guardian: “He was a very exaggerated person, very dramatic, and he hurt my mum a lot. I was glad when he was gone and it was just the two of us.” Assuming financial responsibility for both her mother and herself, Kinski made her screen debut in The Wrong Move (1975) by Wim Wenders, her first of three movies with the New German Cinema notable. The following year, at the age of fifteen, she met Roman Polanski at a party in Germany; he cast her in the title role of Tess (1979), his deeply sympathetic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), a project that the director had originally hoped to make with his wife, Sharon Tate, who had introduced him to the novel shortly before her gruesome murder in 1969.

Tess would become Kinski’s breakthrough film, her performance as the proud, innocent peasant girl destroyed by Victorian double standards intensely moving despite at least one significant incongruity. Although she completed, at Polanski’s insistence, several months of dialect study in London before filming began, Kinski never quite sounds credible as a Wessex milkmaid; her untamable Mitteleuropean vowels, in fact, dominate all of her English-speaking roles. Yet for extended periods during the three-hour-long Tess, the heroine remains silent, Kinski conveying through her endlessly expressive eyes her character’s ever-diminishing, though never wholly extinguished, fortitude during increasingly abject events.

Kinski plays another innocent in the highly ludicrous Cat People: a virgin named Irena newly arrived to New Orleans, unaware that she is part of an “incestuous race” that originated with an ancestral mother who engaged in sexual congress with a black panther. As she transforms to her feline shadow self, Irena’s appetites—for human flesh, for sex—become unslakable, a metamorphosis made even more potent by Kinski’s sinuous ferocity. Introduced wearing a bear suit, the actress would have another animal alter ego in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)—in which incest is also a dominant theme: Kinski’s Susie enjoys separate romps with the hot-for-each-other siblings played by Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe.

In Paris, Texas (1984), Kinski’s second pairing with Wenders, we wait nearly two hours for her pivotal scenes, her character’s absence the source of the deep melancholy in this tale of a couple rent asunder. As Jane, a worker at a strip club, Kinski reencounters, through a one-way mirror, her much-older husband (Harry Dean Stanton) after no contact for four years. She patiently listens to him narrate the history of their love’s unraveling, of his being undone by his ardor for her before she fully realizes who’s doing the talking. Kinski’s subtle reactions in this segment suggest those of a woman well acquainted with the destabilizing effects of her extraordinary allure.

“Nastassja Kinski: One from the Heart” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center November 27 – December 3.