As a former model and the daughter of a well-known actor, Nastassja Kinski entered the business with a background that might meet with skepticism. How does an actress already under the dual burden of these two prior roles come into her own? In Kinski’s case, it’s by imbuing each performance with a keen emotional intelligence. At just 14 years old, with the help of German New Wave actress Lisa Kreuzer, she landed her first role, as a mute girl in Wim Wenders’s The Wrong Move (75). The next year, she starred as a nun in the poorly received British horror film To the Devil a Daughter but only won recognition in the U.S. in 1979 with Stay as You Are, an Italian production in which she played alongside Marcello Mastroianni. Roman Polanski’s Tess followed, and that film, along with others featuring the roles for which she is best known, is part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Nastassja Kinski retrospective, spanning 15 years with a particular emphasis on the early Eighties. The nine films in the series showcase a variety of roles and performances, from sad poppet to sensual provocateur, but with none of the superficiality those labels might imply.

Tess Kinski Polanski


“Very grown-up and very childlike at once” is how an ogling 1982 Rolling Stone profile described Kinski, quoting her mother, Ruth Brigitte Tocki. One need only watch a scene from Tess or Maria’s Lovers (84) to see this quality in action. In both, Kinski plays beautiful young women hemmed in by stifling societies and ill treatment at the hands of men, during the late 19th century and 1940s, respectively. During early scenes in Polanski’s Thomas Hardy adaptation, her frilly bonnet, pale clothes, and soft features practically turn her into a baby, inviting our sympathy from the outset. Over the course of the sprawling story, we see, in painterly compositions, the trials and tribulations that force her to grow emotionally, until she commits a terrible but understandable act that costs her her life. Her changing outfits alone chart her trajectory: from virginal whites, to elegant lace, to grey, tattered rags, to a scarlet dress complete with a veiled hat befitting a femme fatale. Her vulnerability wavers, but it’s always close to the surface.

In Maria’s Lovers, Kinski plays a World War II veteran’s wife in Pennsylvania mining country, and she looks childlike even when she is with child, her delicacy all the more striking in contrast to the brutishness of her partners. When she goes to her husband to announce her pregnancy, she wears light, prim clothes and holds an ice cream cone, walking tentatively and standing out in the industrial setting. You can feel her hesitation in the way she says “This baby needs a father” and then her teary resolve in the face of the cruel response. As she cries outside, one of her husband’s colleagues comes up to her, offers her an apple and asks if she needs any help. She half-smiles as she takes the apple, and bites into it, considering what she’ll do next. In most of her films, Kinski’s character is, tragically, far too good for most of the men she’s paired with. Like the man with the apple, we feel the urge to protect her, and she doesn’t win this trust from the audience with overacting, as many actresses have tried to, but by suffusing her characters with sadness and mystery, in a way that makes us want to know what she is thinking. When Tess’s baby dies, and later, when her husband callously rejects her, Kinski isn’t showy but rather something much rarer: sympathetic.  



Lest this childlike nature imply a lack of power, Kinski has other, more seemingly sophisticated roles, and this chameleonic quality ensures her a sense of agency. She performs memorably in more lurid fare as well. James Toback’s Exposed (83) is by no means the strongest film in the series, with its flimsily constructed plot about a small-town-girl-turned-model who gets mixed up with terrorists, but she still gives a strong performance and is able to deliver a line as cliché as “I’m not like most people” with sexy intrigue. As an older model at a glamorous New York gallery party puts it, she has “the mystery of Garbo, the wit of Lombard, and the sensuality of Monroe,” and her simultaneously confused and satisfied look as she flips through a magazine with her face on the cover shows her awareness of her fantasy object status. Paul Schrader’s Cat People (82) is the better of these two titillating films, with its sweaty Reagan-era music-video aesthetic. Despite Kinski’s claim in the very pages of this publication (Sept/Oct 82) that she didn’t like the film, she is well suited to the role of someone not quite human—she gets to play both overwhelmed and dangerous.

Cat People is obviously a long way from Tess, but her distinct features unite all of the roles on display in the Film Society series. There’s that voice: soft, slightly accented, again almost childlike and vulnerable, but capable of imbuing her lines with emotional power. In Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (84) a classic American road film as envisaged through the eyes of a European director, Kinski plays Jane Henderson, the mysterious, missing wife of Travis (Harry Dean Stanton). Her absence makes her a mythically alluring figure and shapes the film’s plot. She first appears in Super-8 footage, and when we see her in the present tense, at the strange Americana-themed peep show where she works, her presence feels hard won and we hang on to her every word. She speaks in a measured Southern accent that endearingly wavers: she sounds a bit like a child, but has lived a full life, one whose decisions haven’t always been fully explained. With her pink sweater and blonde bob, sitting behind glass, she is an apparition of feminity, composed yet nebulous.

Paris, Texas Kinski

Paris, Texas

Then, of course, there’s that pout. Surely Kinski has one of the most expressive mouths in the movies. Accented with pink lipstick in Paris, Texas, or with a whistling scene in Tess, the smallest upturn or downturn of her lip is filled with nuance. As a circus performer in Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart (82) she enchants in stylized close-ups, clad in sparkly makeup, her lips forming a perfect smirk. She’s an idealized woman, yet the film is so over the top, and her distinct appeal in such full force that she’s more of an actual pixie than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Moon in the Gutter (83), Kinski is a vixen in red lipstick and a red dress and, driving a red car, a beacon of femininity in contrast to the seedy world around her, accompanied by backlighting and a classical score. 

Kinski is one of those actresses who even in a not great film is inevitably interesting: surely the highlight of The Hotel New Hampshire (84) is Kinski, clad in a comical bear suit, playing a sullen (and, surprisingly for her, unlikable) woman of ambiguous sexuality. Here and in her other roles, Kinski isn’t just a naïf—she’s more mysterious and can play more tortured characters than the prototypical gamine, and she’s never simply “cute”. She taps in to a subtle sweetness and sadness that can take us by surprise, putting us in thrall to her, our emotions hinged on the quivering of her lips and her expressive, slightly sleepy eyes. In Paris, Texas, Kinski’s Jane Henderson says: “I don’t mind listening. I do it all the time.” And we don’t mind watching her.

Nastassja Kinski: From the Heart runs November 27 to December 3 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.