Anyone who visits this website regularly will definitely have read the words, “As Christian David says in Kinski Die Biographie…” as I quote him left, right and centre. Christian David’s biography of Klaus Kinski is almost like a bible for me when I’m looking for information on the films and although my German is pretty bad I make a special effort and persevere with Kinski Die Biographie because it seems to hold just about all the information any Kinski fan could need. I just wish someone would translate it into English to make my life easier, but as they’ve not yet done that I’ve got the next best thing – an interview with Christian David, and a long one at that!
The interview is so detailed that I’m posting it in two parts: part one, a bit of background on Christian David and the approach he took when researching and developing the book; and part two, more detail about Christian David’s experience of “getting to know” Klaus Kinski through all the research.
I am so happy to have been granted this interview and I hope that you all enjoy it as much as I did:
DDS: Christian, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. You know how much I love Kinski Die Biographie, but I don’t know anything about your other work. Can you tell me a little bit of background information about you? Outside the Kinski biography have you written any other books?
Christian David (CD): I studied film, theatre, and media, and since very early on I’ve been active in the field of film and television productions, and have also spent some time working for the stage and as a journalist. This is, and has always been, an environment I love and know very well. Writing a book was a totally different world for me. I was very humble and reluctant in the beginning. But I knew exactly what kind of book I wanted to write; I had it in my mind, and that actually helped a lot.
Writing it down was quite often very tedious; it would have been great to simply project everything going on in my mind directly into the computer. I’ve always understood why Hitchcock enjoyed preparing his films much more than the actual shooting on a set. From my perspective, writing a book, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, is a thing one has to learn while doing it; it doesn’t come naturally. You have to understand what pace and language to take – and that is just the basis, not the building. It’s like having spaghetti and tomatoes, but lacking the recipe.
Of course, writing my doctoral thesis was helpful in that respect. From a certain point on you lose the fear of having to fill hundreds of pages. On the contrary, I started dreaming of writing about Kinski for the rest of my life, unable to ever finish the book, which was a real nightmare, Kafka could have invented it… Anyway, my familiarity both with the entertainment world, with actors, directors, scriptwriters and other professionals, and on the other hand with the academic world, with film and television studies, with the whole theoretical and critical approach towards films and stardom, all helped me in crafting this book. Without that, I would probably never have achieved anything I’d consider worthy; at least not in my view. And I’m my worst critic…
Whether I talk to actors, producers, or film scholars, I always feel at ease. And they never have the feeling of speaking to an outsider, thus they talk more freely. They know that I would never willingly or unwillingly misunderstand or misquote them. Another thing was, of course, talking to Kinski’s former lovers or acquaintances. At first, I was totally nervous and shy when approaching these people, while at the same time, of course, trying to conceal my unease. But nearly all of them were very open, friendly, and welcoming. They were pleased to remember Klaus Kinski, a man they still loved or at least respected. And that is something which tells us a lot about Klaus Kinski the man, not just the actor.
DDS: How did the Kinski book come about? Were you working on it anyway? Or was it commissioned by the publishers?
CD: Forget about any publishers. When it comes to non-fiction, biographies about actors are seldom what publishers are looking for. Especially if it doesn’t involve tell-all-books about Hollywood stars, their substance abuse or their mostly boring sexual escapades, in which case it starts getting difficult. Money is the issue, and I can totally understand that. Any topic that might be hot today could be a cold, rotten fish tomorrow. Thus, publishers need to be convinced. And under no circumstances are you given a carte blanche. So a lot of pressure is involved, but I like that; it’s kind of a stimulus. But to come back to your question… Actually it was very simple.
First I quite accidentally came to watch the wonderful Andrzej Zulawski film L’important c’est d’aimer in a small movie theatre. I discovered Klaus Kinski as the great character actor he really was. Until then I had only known him as the creepy German supporting actor in various genre movies. This made me read Kinski’s two autobiographical books in German, and I became very curious. I wanted to know much more about him. But unfortunately there was no real, serious biography on him. And on the whole not very much was known about who Klaus Kinski really was or under what circumstances his career had evolved. I thought this was very unsatisfying. And sad too, because Kinski was not just the ordinary, average actor, but a singular artist. And so I started digging, just for my own, personal pleasure. I didn’t think of writing any book at all.
From an actor I learned a few things about Kinski’s stay in Vienna. This made me even more curious. Kinski himself had mentioned this time in his book, even linking his idea of making a feature film about composer and violinist Niccolò Paganini with a shop window he claimed to have seen whilst in Vienna. Which meant that one of Kinski’s core ideas, which ultimately became the film of his dreams, was connected to the 1950s, to Vienna. Logically, it became my obsession to know more about all that. And I was fascinated when I found out that what Kinski had written in his autobiography was not a myth, but totally true. In fact he had already been fantasising about doing a film on Paganini in the 1950s; he had told this to his then friends, and they confirmed that.
Finally, I saw several stories that needed to be told, and not forgotten. And I had always longed for a real, objective, serious Kinski biography. This led to the decision that if nobody else had done it, I should be the one to write this biography; the book I had been longing for had to be written by me. And so this enterprise began…
But it’s revealing that quite a few publishers rejected my project. They didn’t explain this properly, they just expressed their lack of interest. I think that they simply underestimated Kinski and his continuing cultural relevance. Anyway, Aufbau showed great interest and was very supportive right from the beginning. Even in the end, it was Aufbau and their connections to Deutsche Kinemathek and Filmmuseum Berlin, which was extremely helpful in closing the last gaps regarding Kinski’s career from the 1970s to the late 1980s.
I know that some of those publishers who had rejected my proposed book later regretted their decision. But that’s life. The history of books, films, fashion, and marriages is full of wrong choices and missed opportunities.
DDS: You did so much research – I was massively impressed. It must have been hard work?
CD: The research for this book was sometimes easy and fun, I felt like a private eye peeping through other people’s keyholes. Sometimes it was complicated, difficult, and dull, and I didn’t know where to start and whom to ask. I had to do all of that myself; I wasn’t given the luxury of research assistants. I collected piles of data, ’phone numbers, email addresses, transcripts, notes, photocopies, resulting in numerous USB flash drives. This led to even more stuff, like transcribed interviews, and I spent a lot of time on the ’phone, and travelling. Don’t ask me how my study looked during these months. If a burglar had invaded my home, he would have thought some other housebreaker had already got there before him…
In some cases, I met dead ends and my research led to nothing. For example, I would have loved to learn more about Kinski’s female companions and lovers in the 1940s and 1950s, but this proved extremely difficult. I knew many names and addresses, but often people or their relatives seemed to have simply vanished; they were untraceable. Maybe with a much bigger budget I would have been able to find them, by hiring a private eye for example, and the shadier the better. This would have been very costly, so I did it myself, and the results ranged from great to depressing. Because even when you find the right person it doesn’t mean that you get him or her to talk…
DDS: Were there any problems along the way or were people generally cooperative and happy to share information with you?
CD: There was that woman photographer mentioned in Kinski’s book, who visits him in his Viennese hotel room and starts an affair with him. This actually happened – I found the photographer; I saw the pictures she had taken of him; and three of Kinski’s friends independently confirmed that she was the one from the book. Kinski himself had mentioned her in his private letters. However, she refused to talk about him. She claimed to have barely known him, and said she didn’t remember anything. As if Kinski had been just another artist she had photographed. Later she declined my wish to publish one of her Kinski portraits. To this day they haven’t surfaced anywhere, and I just hope that the negatives didn’t get lost. She was a very civilised, totally well-mannered lady, so it would have been fantastic to hear from her how she had experienced Klaus Kinski. But she remained silent, as if hidden behind a protective wall, and even my discrete offer to avoid mentioning her name and to never quote her directly didn’t help either. She kept smiling politely, and that was it. Which meant that all her memories were destined to be lost. Unless there is a secret diary, or a collection of letters, and provided that any heirs allow me to study them, her recollections will be lost forever.
This was also the case with a well-known German actor who was a prominent co-star in some of Kinski’s films. He didn’t even allow me talk to him; his wife was always on the ’phone. She was extremely nice and promised that she would try her best to convince him to agree to the interview. Unfortunately all efforts turned out to be futile. Then there was another actor and filmmaker, an absolutely intelligent, internationally renowned man, and an Academy Award winner. In that case a friend of mine happened to be the closest friend of the actor’s then girlfriend. My friend intervened on my behalf, and the girlfriend promised to do something for me. But nothing happened, and I never heard from him again. Maybe I missed his ’phone call, who knows… Thankfully, in other cases I was slightly more successful in getting people to talk.
DDS: How did you do your research?
CD: I find it quite difficult to describe the process… I had a very intuitive approach. Given how many gaps in Kinski’s CV still existed when I began my research, I often had to imagine certain possibilities of what could have happened. Using a working hypothesis as the starting-off point, I developed a scenario and proceeded to finding possible contact persons. Very often you start with one person, and then he or she leads you to another person, and so forth. It’s like being a spider and slowly but steadily building your net. And the net is only complete when it’s finished. Only then you may sit quietly and wait for the fly. This technique allows you to check the information provided by one person. I was very careful and suspicious; I didn’t want to write about anything that probably didn’t actually happen.
Of course there are sometimes cases where you simply have to trust your gut feeling, but in principle this is not sufficient and is unprofessional. So I had to leave out certain things I couldn’t get the proper confirmation for. It doesn’t mean that certain incidents didn’t occur; it’s just that the basis for claiming something was beyond the necessary documentation or credibility. Most of the time, people were very open and ready to cooperate. Although one has to be careful – average people not used to being interviewed must be dealt with specifically. Often they need much more time to warm up; they have to be asked the same questions repeatedly, because they don’t go into the details immediately. It’s a step-by-step-process. Which of course is also another way of checking what they said. If people deliver constant descriptions then there is a higher probability that what they’re saying is close to what they actually have stored in their memory. If people tend to change their stories a lot, it’s likely they’re inventing something, maybe trying to arouse your curiosity.
All in all, my interviewees were very cooperative, welcoming, and friendly. I owe them a lot; possibly everything. They’ve taken their time to talk to me, meet me, provide me with material, and answer even the most delicate and daring questions without getting angry. Especially those people working behind the scenes were of great help. My advice for everyone writing a biography about an actor would be to talk to the assistants, the script girl or the best boy, the costume designers, the directors of photography. They can provide you with real great insight as their egos are not involved. It may be more difficult with actors. Many actors are born egomaniacs; they rarely indulge in talking about fellow, probably more famous actors. The idea that there might be a guy writing a biography not about them, but about some other actor, is like an insult to them. But I knew that, and was prepared to cope with that. The solution is simply not giving up. If you get rejected, try again and again. Never give up. Wait, and try again. It’s basically like stalking, but with a rational motive as an excuse for your behaviour.
DDS: How long did it take to write?
CD: My basic research started around 2001, and I finished the first draft in December 2005. The actual writing was an on-off process beginning in 2004. I’d say it took me about a year to get to a workable manuscript. In 2006 I was busy with rewriting and correcting. I added one more chapter, took care of the footnotes, the filmography, and other stuff. My social life at the time suffered a lot. But it’s a good way of testing a friendship, or any relationship at all. Friends who tolerate that kind of behaviour are real friends; the others are merely ’phone numbers.
DDS: Peter Geyer (Kinski Estates etc) says that he likes to break the myths about Klaus and set records straight, he also says that Klaus used to go to the press with stories about himself in order to gain publicity, do you think this is true? Does your book try to break the myths and set records straight? (I think it’s very factual myself, so I’d say it is giving a true impression)
CD: Myths can’t be broken. They evolve and dissolve. Always depending on our society; our values; our morals; whatever. This makes us believe what we want to believe, and overlook what doesn’t fit into our vision of how the world should be. And in hindsight we always know better.
A good example is the re-evaluation of Klaus Kinski, the man and his work. He is better understood today than ever before. The passing of time changes our apperception. Yesterday’s tragedy becomes today’s anecdote. Now we can appreciate many things in Klaus Kinski which only ten or twenty years ago were dismissed. The so-called bad films of the 1970s became glorified cult movies; their once despised directors are hailed as artists. Hence quite a few of Kinski’s long forgotten 1970s films have gained a reputation they didn’t enjoy when they were originally released. Which also influences our perception of Kinski’s career.
Thirty years ago he was seen as a former film star forced to make money by appearing in second or third rate productions. Today we finally relish the unconventionally broad stylistic range of his roles and films. Times and opinions change, and with that also what we call knowledge undergoes a significant change; the myths of yesterday are obsolete, and new generations have created new myths. This is a process which can’t be controlled. It just happens. Thus myths even need not to be broken, as this only happens given the right, susceptible social atmosphere. And mostly old myths are replaced with new ones.
Kinski, the former “good-but-difficult-actor-making-bad-films”, is now the great genius appearing in cult movies. Which also shows us the relativity of tastes and critical judgements; they’re all made for the day, not for eternity. Given this very volatile context, I wasn’t interested in breaking myths. For me, creating a new myth was the challenge; I didn’t care about the myths of the past. So I simply set out to write about what I had researched about Kinski, and about my thoughts on him, his career and his life. Given that, I felt total freedom to write whatever I wanted, whether it matched old or new myths and tastes or not.
My new myth was Kinski the artist, nothing less. I wanted to understand him and thereby allow the readers to understand him. Which is why I didn’t shy away from contradictory statements on his personality. In my book you’ll find people adoring and praising him and others criticising and despising him. I did not try to create some dishonest harmony. Every human being’s nature shows different, partially conflicting qualities. Mitigating that would have been highly hypocritical.
Every reader has to create his own personal image of Kinski from what he or she can find in my book. This is something the readers themselves are responsible for, not me. It’s my book and it’s me and the readers who jointly break or design myths. It’s a shared experience, like in a movie theatre. The director is absent when the film is shown, but nevertheless the filmmakers and the audience are communicating with each other.
Being aware of all this, it was my goal to stick as closely as possible to the facts. I tried to exclude everything that wasn’t proven or documented. Only then was I allowed to push forward my new myth of Kinski the artist. And only by trusting the presented facts the readers will also trust me, allowing them to construct the Klaus Kinski they want or need. Kinski himself knew how all this worked. And he underestimated the heteronomy involved in this process. To a certain extent he was successful in establishing himself as a public figure. Already in the 1950s he was well-known throughout Germany. But he didn’t always choose the wisest of methods. Thus sometimes he had a high profile, but at the same time he gained notoriety. This later got in his way and impeded his career. He was overshadowed by the silly clichés he himself partially helped to establish.
For example, he became the sex maniac sleeping around with countless females, or the dictatorial barrater torturing helpless directors and lecherously groping helpless young actresses. Kinski considered this very funny and he entertained himself creating these clichés. But they became stronger than he had thought. They weren’t exactly helpful, as the public was lured by them to divert their view. They only saw the clichés and didn’t bother to discover the artist, not to speak of the human being, behind the anecdotes. It was crucial for me to destroy these clichés. I’m a big admirer of Alfred Hitchcock who once said in an interview: “The most important thing to do is to avoid the cliché.” In a novel or a feature you can do that. Writing a biography you have to be more extreme; you have to consciously destroy the cliché.
DDS: Among the persons you interviewed for your book, which ones were the ones you liked most?
CD: Of course I enjoyed and was thankful for all of them. But one of the first interviews I did after having decided to write the book was the one with the wonderful actress Judith Holzmeister. From the 1950s to the 1970s she was one of the absolute queens of the German language stage. She was also for some time married to the actor Curd Jürgens. When I asked for an interview about her experience with Kinski at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1956, she had already retired, and I was doubtful whether she would even respond. But then what kind of reaction came from her… a handwritten letter, full of praise for Klaus Kinski. It was incredible. Later I interviewed her, a fascinating experience which to me was like a time machine. And her praise for Kinski was really something like a seal of approval.
From that point on I knew he had been a great stage actor. We have no tapes of him; nothing documenting him on the stages of Vienna, Munich, or Berlin. So we can’t judge for ourselves, but to me Judith Holzmeister’s testimony is satisfactory; I don’t need any other proof.
Of the other interviews, the one with Bruno Ganz was wonderful. He isn’t just a fantastic stage and screen actor, but also a very decent, humble human being. Very critical of his own profession, and without any vanity or arrogance; a real treat.
And to show the importance of interviewing people who’re working behind the scenes, I’d like to point out the interviews with Werner Herzog’s long-time assistant Anja Schmidt-Zäringer, and with the costume designer Gisela Storch. It was Storch who, for example, had designed Kinski’s white suit for Fitzcarraldo, which I consider an iconic Kinski costume. Both were absolutely crucial in understanding what was going on when shooting with Herzog and Kinski.
DDS: Thank you for this, Christian, it’s really interesting for me to hear about the process of working on the book and how you went about it all. I also enjoyed the idea that we, the readers of Kinski Die Biographie, construct the version of Kinski we need from your work and words; it’s a bit S/Z with the reader interacting with the text you have helpfully provided! I think Klaus would love the idea of us all getting some kind of jouissance out of reading about his life and works. Anyway, it’s been a pleasure for me so far and I hope the visitors to Du dumme Sau! will find it interesting too.
In part two we’ll move onto Christian David’s thoughts on Kinski the man, the films and some of the intriguing stories that Christian unearthed when doing his research. More to follow soon but if you haven’t already bought a copy of Kinski Die Biographie, you know what you need to do!