A middle aged man stands alone on a stage, gripping his mic stand like an anchor, earnestly speaking of Jesus and persecution. A wide shot intensifies his isolation as he speaks, a small illumination in a sea of darkness. A single unshed tear clings to his eyelashes before beginning the journey down his cheek.
Then someone calls him an asshole and he storms off the stage for the 2nd time that night. It would be brilliant if it was planned; it’s brilliant unplanned, too, but not in the way Kinski intended.
To appreciate the 84 minute exercise in extreme schadenfreude that is Jesus Christus Erloser, you have to understand Klaus Kinski. To understand Klaus Kinski you have to accept a world in which nothing, and everything, is true. Allegedly. Probably not. Long before James Frey started toying with the definition of “truth” in true stories, Kinski wrote an autobiography that seems to have been at least half made up; everyone from his publishers to his daughter tried to sue him and it was pulled almost immediately (albeit posthumously re-released). The only reason I trust any of the biographical information I’ve found is that Kinski himself is not around to edit his Wikipedia page.
Born Nikolaus Nakszyński to a pharmacist (and failed opera singer) father and the daughter of a pastor, Kinski grew up in poverty. He was drafted into the German Wehrmacht as a teenager, and upon entering battle either deserted and hid in the forest for days or was quickly captured by British forces, depending on if you choose to believe Kinski or everyone else. He began acting in productions staged by the POW camp before finding out that sick prisoners would be sent home first and dedicating his time to standing naked in the cold, eating cigarettes.
He returned from the war to find both of his parents dead and his acting opportunities limited by his tendency to constantly get fired because of his behavior. He was diagnosed schizophrenic and tried to commit suicide more than once. While he was marginally respected for his talent, his instability kept him from steady acting work until the mid-1950s, when he began popping up in every war movie, spaghetti western, and generic crime novel thriller that you’ve never seen.
Notorious for his volatile relationships with pretty much everyone he met, Kinski painted a picture of himself as a deranged, detached nymphomaniac who hadn’t the patience or interest in anyone around him. He says as much in his questionably biographical autobiography All I Need is Love (reissued as Kinski Uncut), the book that served as the only real source of information on the man until frequent collaborator and ultimate frenemy Werner Herzog pieced together My Best Fiend, a documentary on his volatile relationship with Kinski. Herzog says most of Kinski’s tales were just that, and suggests a kinder, calmer man than the public saw. The documentary ends with a solid minute of Kinski smiling gently, playing with a butterfly. 
Despite expressing a desire to work with Steven Spielberg, Kinski turned down a role in Raiders of the Lost Ark and instead made a movie called Venom, in which a black mamba traps kidnappers and their hostages in a house and wanders around biting them (that’s the entire plot), because Venom paid more. He’s shameless about it in interviews, likening his choice of roles to prostitution, generally taking the jobs that offered the most money for the least work. In All I Need is Love, he explains with an anecdote:
“‘Why are you making such crappy films? You used to do better stuff,' the trashman calls over the fence of our villa as he picks up the trash barrel. I rub my fingers together to signify cash. He understands and smiles.” 
Whether or not the man actually asked this, or even exists, is of course questionable, but the sentiment is clear. Kinski had little interest in anything past the paycheck.
Rewind 10 years and you can start to see why. Before he spent the 1960s making cheap thrillers based on Edgar Wallace crime novels, Kinski made a decent living as a spoken word artist, recording and touring with readings of Brecht, Wilde, and Shakespeare, among others. Jesus Christus Erloser was set to be his comeback, his attempt at a legitimate career, an original monologue that would launch him back into the world of Being A Serious Actor. So he wrote the text and rented a theater.
Although this was 1971, years before All I Need is Love briefly hit shelves, it’s clear that Kinski was already well known and despised. Even before he hits the stage there’s an undercurrent of judgment running through the audience, laughter providing as much of a score as the actual score, which features something that sounds startlingly like a respirator under the melody. It’s fitting and makes me wonder if it was done on purpose to indicate that the next 84 minutes would chronicle the slow, painful death of a man’s ability to give a damn.
Appearing in a shirt attributable either to the decade or the schizophrenia, everything that makes Kinski distinctive in film is unsettling on the stage. His face is as dead as his voice is expressive, and he doesn’t get through the opening before the audience begins to heckle. He only lasts a few minutes before the yelling unhinges him and he exits the stage, yelling for his adversaries to leave.
He returns slightly calmer and starts from the beginning, speaking over shouts of, “I want my 10 marks back!” (FYI: in 1971, 10 marks was equivalent to just under $3. Before convenience charges, I’m sure). He’s quickly slipping in and out of the script, blending together his insults toward the crowd with Jesus’s admonishing of his would be captors. It’s a nice parallel, but again, clearly not what Kinski had planned.
The subject of the reading isn’t the problem. Nor, I would guess, is Kinski’s talent; German isn’t usually the most beautiful of languages but the script is well-written and the cadence has a hypnotizing effect. When they let him get get through it, that is. Every time Kinski hits his stride, seems to be winning over the crowd with his emotive performance, a particularly loud dissenter speaks up, or even crashes the stage, and he’s gone. When he leaves the stage after hurling the mic stand across it, it’s pretty obvious that the show is over, but after standing backstage ranting to anyone who will listen (his voice is blocked out and the opening song plays instead) he returns quietly to the stage, stands defeated at the microphone, and formally announces that the show is over. Credits roll.
But either Kinski’s ego can’t handle the defeat or the announcement was another ploy to get the hecklers to leave, because he’s soon back, jumping down into the audience, the crowd gathering loosely around him. He has the nerve to start from the beginning again, but he’s clearly exhausted; every noise, every flash of light distracts him and he screams even at this small, clearly supportive crowd, starting his recitation over multiple times. Where his voice was strong and defiant earlier in the evening, he mutters his way through now, speaking more to himself than anyone around him. A title card explains that he finishes up at 2am, and the camera pans over the focused, solemn faces of the crowd. It’s exactly what Kinski wanted, although for someone so focused on quantity and payoff over quality, these 100 or so people are nothing compared to the 5000 who started the evening.
In the 35 years that made up the bulk of his career, Kinski appeared in over 130 movies. They range from marginally respectable, like his collaborations with Herzog, to his last film, the universally panned Kinski Paganini (which he wrote, directed, and starred in), a biopic of violinist Niccolo Paganini that essentially turned into plotless pornography. He died of a heart attack in 1991, with Herzog attributing it to living “like a comet” in My Best Fiend.
We like to watch people break down; it’s the only way to explain the popularity of reality tv. We want to watch the good guy prevail, the bad guy get his comeuppance, the secret deals and public admonishments. It’s why the American Idol auditions are the best part of the season; over and over we watch some earnest guy lay it all out only to be met with a resounding No. We can only hope that he’s going to react poorly, to scream or cry. Kinski gave us all of that and a really hilarious shirt to boot.
Amanda attended the University of Michigan, majoring in English and minoring in Classical History, which means that outside of being really good at Jeopardy she has few marketable skills. She’s an unabashed vault of pop culture trivia and the parts of her brain that used to harbor math skills are now filled with song lyrics and peripheral character arcs from 90s sitcoms. An aspiring creative nonfiction writer, she spends her free time trying to make silly anecdotes relate to the world at large and explaining what “creative nonfiction” is to her family.
Amanda is 26 and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.