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Kinski Speaks Villon: Literary Media and the Poète Maudit, 1952–1962

No one in Europe knows how to scream anymore.

—Antonin Artaud[1]

In the late 1950s, well before his association with Werner Herzog had made him the most internationally recognizable German screen actor of his generation, Klaus Kinski was a phenomenon. Between 1957 and 1962, his concert-style recitations and studio recordings of work by François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gerhart Hauptmann, Bertolt Brecht, and a range of other canonical figures, held out the possibility that literature—a literature associated with sexual and political transgression, moreover—might find its place in a commercially driven culture industry. Kinski had recited poems by Villon as early as 1952, in small venues in Berlin’s Charlottenburg. At that point he had a dozen or so stage roles behind him and a few minor screen appearances—enough for the press to fix on him as the enfant terrible of an otherwise respectable German theater scene.[2] Performances involving an epileptic fit in Jean Cocteau’s The Typewriter and syphilitic dementia in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts complemented his erratic public behavior to produce, or stage, the coupling of artistic genius and madness that would constantly threaten to dismantle the border between his theatrical personae and his private life. He seemed to literalize the kind of compulsiveness that Gottfried Benn, writing in 1954, would refer to as the “out-of-date perspective from the time of the poètes maudits,” by which Benn meant a commitment to aesthetic production so uncompromising that it necessitated the rejection of prevailing social norms.[3] Unable to locate himself, or to find happiness in the “normal world,” as Herbert Pfeiffer put it, Kinski gravitated to the morbid and the anomalous.[4] It was this impulse that would, paradoxically, transform him into a media phenomenon. In 1957, with his stage career flagging, he returned to Villon in a more concerted way. Almost immediately it was clear that these recitations were about Kinski himself: Kinski as the living embodiment of the anti-bourgeois ethos he claimed to find in the texts he read. For many critics his histrionic style, which moved between moments of intense pathos, rage and licentiousness, threatened to reorient literary culture to forms of personality and performance invariably bound up with compromised notions of celebrity. Some of these critics were perturbed by the suspiciously cult-like enthusiasm with which younger fans embraced Kinski. Others saw him as a curious echo of an older tradition of virtuoso performers like Josef Kainz and Alexander Moissi, yet one whose lack of self-awareness was constantly tipping him into travesty.[5] But critical censure didn’t obviate the public’s fascination. By 1961, according to Der Spiegel, a million Germans had heard Kinski’s recitations.

By this time Kinski had become much more ambitious in his claims to Weltliteratur—monologues from Goethe, Schiller and Shakespeare were all in the mix—and was also emerging as a star of West German commercial cinema by virtue of his enigmatic roles in films based on Edgar Wallace’s popular crime novels. It was the beginning of a notoriously mercenary career that would turn him into a staple of Italo-Western, sexploitation and low-budget horror films—the sort of cinema that Theodor Adorno described as the “dregs” of the culture industry.[6] Herzog was the only director of repute that he would work with on a repeated basis. He became one of the most recognizable faces of the New German Cinema as a result, but he was also a figure who seemed to confound the divisions between commercial and auteur production, and by extension between the culture industry and the modernist notions of aesthetic autonomy associated with the writers he had recited. As Georg Seeßlen puts it, “for decades Kinski was the shortest route between culture and trash.”[7]

The comment captures a good deal of what made Kinski such a compelling presence, and it provides the basis for the arc I want to trace out in this essay. In the early 1950s, Kinski was himself writing poetry and producing his own version of the poète maudit, the outsider whose martyred relationship to aesthetic experience involved his alienation from normative forms of social and economic legitimation. This alienation would also segue into a sort of moral unaccountability that reflected the supposed autonomy of art itself. The phrase—poète maudit—entered popular usage largely thanks to Paul Verlaine’s annotated anthology of 1888, Les Poètes maudits, which also insisted on the exceptionality of the figures it presented: the accursed poets were “absolute by imagination, absolute by expression, absolute like the Reys netos of the greatest centuries.”[8] But as numerous critics have suggested, such assertions of aesthetic exceptionality also have something illusory about them, in that they obfuscate the material basis on which poetry could attempt to preserve its claims to autonomy. When Baudelaire, at the conclusion of “Le Voyage,” announced the journey to the “new” he also grasped that the poet’s experience was itself subject to the logics of novelty that dominated the more quotidian aspects of nineteenth-century society.[9] As Walter Benjamin put it, extrapolating from Baudelaire’s poem, the “illusion of novelty” produced the phantasmagoria in which “the bourgeoisie enjoyed its false consciousness to the full.”[10] This idea of novelty emerges in a slightly different register, however, when we refer it not only to the conceptions of commodification that dominate critical theory, but to a cultural landscape defined by different media forms and the often agonistic relationships between them. As Klaus Theweleit has suggested, the challenge facing the modern poet is in fact to “gain a more promising position in the hard struggle to keep poetic production as close to changing realities as possible.”[11] What he means is the realities of a changing media environment. It is a comment that powerfully reorients notions of aesthetic autonomy to the media forms and technologies responsible for the public circulation of aesthetic experience. Kinski’s remediation of the written word as vocal performance and studio recording offers a very literal example of the struggle Theweleit identifies. It asks us to imagine, at least momentarily, the trajectory of the poet as one that approaches the border between different media forms in order to renew itself there. Kinski’s performances could literalize the drive to “the new” in the physicality of excessive and sometimes obscene vocal gestures that constituted an assault on the typographical bearings of literary culture. But while the border between text and voice emerges as one that could motivate or reanimate the figure (or perhaps it is the specter) of the poète maudit, that same border also enabled the compromised modes of consecration generated at the intersection of the cultural industry and the sphere of literary production conceived (or misconceived) as autonomous in relationship to it. In the context of the 1950s, with the proliferation of youth-oriented mass cultural forms that marked a generational divide, a refusal of local cultural insularity and the beginnings of the economic miracle that would catapult West Germany away from its recent past into the perpetual present of consumer culture, the prospect of poetry competing alongside the new forms of celebrity this market was generating was constantly underlined by Kinski’s apparent popularity with teenagers. Die Presse speculated about a new style of “literary rock ‘n’ roll,” but amidst the applause and the adulation, it also noticed a kind of topicality in Kinski’s turbulence. His “suspenseful alternation of antithetical states of mind,” evoked the “disruptions of our time, in which the psychologically homeless want to numb their misery with the shrill notes of saxophones and drums.”[12]

As the reference to “literary rock ‘n’ roll” suggests, the critical resistance that Kinski’s recitations aroused was undoubtedly grounded in a much broader anxiety about the impoverishment of the public sphere driven by new forms of commercial entertainment. What we can see here is a journalistic discourse, sometimes middlebrow in orientation, sometimes quite philological, that was deeply invested in canonical conceptions of literature and perturbed by their remediation. That this journalistic discourse often seemed to echo positions set out by theorists like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer reflects the deeply sociological character of popular cultural criticism in this period. At stake here was the relationship between aesthetic judgment and the more general forms of discernment that, according to Jürgen Habermas’s 1962 Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, model rational public discourse. By the early 1960s Kinski’s performances had become pretexts to talk about the relationship between mass suggestion and the confused temporality of an aesthetic impoverishment that seemed both residual and emergent. As the Frankfurter Rundschau insisted, Kinski’s charisma had something deeply irrational and thus politically dubious about it: he appears in a “habit that could have come out of Stefan George’s wardrobe and finishes his recitation standing there like some hallowed Gothic saint, with the gestures of an Elenora Duse. The hands folded and smiling benevolently, he receives the homage of the multitudes who gather around the master as if around the founder of a religion.” It was a thoroughly mystified kind of experience: the “invisible threads that bind the masses to him” are woven “out of the sublime material of kitsch” but they are also continuous with the “dangerous realms of consciousness that the great rabble-rousers [Rattenfänger] of the century knew and still know how to exploit.”[13] On the one hand, Kinski was an echo of a prewar culture in which expressionist iterations of the poète maudit stressed the autonomy of poetic production in regard to other forms of social discourse. On the other hand, he pointed to the most contemporary manifestations of popular culture consumption and their potentially authoritarian character.

These two tendencies, however, shouldn’t be seen as necessarily contradictory. That Kinski’s performances frequently generated a quasi-religious ambience underlines the fetishistic quality that informs both aesthetic autonomy and the culture industry. It also suggests the continuity between the aura of the artwork, the aura of the artist and the aura of the celebrity. This sense of the persistence of aura is, in fact, one of Adorno’s most powerful insights into the constitution of the modern culture industry. Reprising Benjamin’s comments about the waning of aura in “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” Adorno insists that the culture industry “does not strictly counterpose another principle to that of aura.” Rather, “it conserves the decaying aura as a foggy mist,” and in so doing “betrays its own ideological abuses” (The Culture Industry, 88). This comment, I think, provides a powerful framework with which to think about Kinski’s markedly auratic appearances in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. But at the same time it seems difficult simply to equate Kinski to the culture industry as Adorno describes it, because the tension between the figure of the poète maudit and its commercial incorporation generates a kind of remainder that exceeds the actuality of the performances and media forms in question. It is in this respect that it is possible to talk about Kinski in the same way that Susan Sontag talks about Antonin Artaud: as an artist without works, the artist whose “inexhaustible personal totality” exceeds anything he was capable of producing.[14] For Sontag this mode, which posits a disharmony between “the self of the artist and the community” and measures the artist’s effort “by the size of its rupture with the collective voice (of ‘reason’),” belongs to the phase of modern literature in which “a singular personality heroically exposes itself” (Sontag, “Artaud,” xix, xviii ). Sontag’s comment takes us deep into the mythology of the modern artist. What Kinski shows us is that this myth gathers a good deal of its contemporary force from the liminal space between media forms. As one medium seems to renew itself through another, the “rupture” with the collective seems to intensify in relationship to its public exposure. At the same time, however, the opposition between autonomy and incorporation becomes all the more difficult to sustain. Kinski’s mediatization of the poète maudit emblematizes this paradoxical situation.

Corporeal Media and the Breath of Poetry

“I personally do not consider modern poetry fit for performance [vortragsfähig],” Gottfried Benn insisted in his 1951 lecture “Probleme der Lyrik”: “A modern poem demands to be printed on paper and read; it demands black typeface and becomes more graphic or plastic with each glance at its outer structure.”[15] As Benn’s lecture makes clear, the materiality of the lyric emerges through the medium of writing and its autonomy from other forms of cultural and social production. It is hard to imagine a more unambiguous repudiation of the poetic voice as an expression of the body, or a more resolute statement of the insularity of the medium proper to poetry. This insularity, this autonomy, also involves accepting a certain sort of stigmatization through which we can trace the relationship between Benn’s conception of aesthetic autonomy and the figure of the poète maudit which, as the coupling of degeneracy and genius, reappears repeatedly in his prose.[16] Hence lyrical subjectivity is about warding off or insulating itself against what Benn calls the middle: “The lyrical I stands with is back to the wall, out of aggression and defensiveness. It defends itself against the middle [Mitte], which is advancing on it. You are sick, says the middle. This isn’t a healthy interior life. You are a degenerate.”[17] What Benn offers here is a version of what Marshall McLuhan calls “typographic man,” yet one that rests on the relationship between print culture and the idea of a resistant form of aesthetic autonomy.[18] But as Friedrich Kittler’s reading of Benn suggests, this insistence on the typographical stages a tense, and ambiguously combative relationship to forms of technological media that, since Edison, have been in the process of appropriating the sensual data flows that had hitherto been the domain of writing. “For more than three thousand years,” Kittler writes, “only writing could guarantee the European dead a memory amongst the living. In our days, however, all those ghosts and spirits have left the books to become radio waves, ectophotographs, or, as Roger Waters put it, ‘a gunner’s dying voice on the intercom’” (Kittler, “Benn’s Poetry,” 15).

In Kittler’s later work, an emphasis on the acoustic in particular is pitted more aggressively against the assumed monopoly of writing. Discussing Wagnerian opera as the first instance of modern mass media, he draws a distinction between the arts, which entertain “only symbolic relations with the sensory fields they take for granted,” and media, which “relate to the materiality with—and on—which they operate in the Real itself. Photoplates register chemical traces of light, and phonographs record mechanical traces of sound.” Wagner’s assault on the realm of classical theater is also an attempt to materialize “sensory data as such.”[19] The corporeality of performance is central to this: sound, song, the body of the singer, breath. The opera’s data flow depends on the “vital intensity of diaphragm, lungs, throat and mouth” (Kittler, The Truth of the Technological World, 125). This idea of an embodied materiality, of physicality, frames Kittler’s euphoric vision of the total work of art, in which affect depends on the incorporation, or sublimation, of the written text:

The text was fed into the singer’s throat, the throat’s output was fed into an amplifier called “orchestra,” and the orchestral output was fed into a light show: finally, all of the above was fed into the nervous system of the audience. Ultimately—when everyone had gone crazy—every last trace of the alphabet had been erased. Data, instead of being encoded in the alphabet of books and scores, were amplified, stored and reproduced through media (134).

The claims made here are large ones: ultimately what is at stake for Kittler is a return to the mythic, the cultic, but also to the creaturely, which appears as a materiality at once corporeal and chthonic: “The earth in its materiality—this givenness [Vorgegebenheit] that is unthinkable for Classical forms of art—dominates music drama as a whole. It reigns as Breath rising from the depths of graves and mineshafts, which all contain the bottomless abyss of the body” (135).

Breath rising from the abyss of the body: this is also how Kinski was imagining himself in the early 1950s around the same time that Benn was articulating his ideas about the typographical bearings of poetry. As Ursula von Keitz puts it, “the printed words of a literary text were for him dead things that waited for their invocation, their resurrection, through the voice of the speaker.”[20] As he incorporated the script of modern literature he also put his own creatureliness, the abyss of the body, at the center of a series of public spectacles that would allow his canon of poètes maudits to feed into him so thoroughly that he seemed to be possessed by their convulsions. The extraordinary nature of these recitations, in which Kinski would feel himself becoming one with Villon or Rimbaud, would subsequently produce recordings that attempted to preserve the anti-bourgeois bearings of the poète maudit through the translation of writing into sound. What is crucial here is the trace of the body—tempo, pitch, a tremulousness that displaces the text’s symbolic relationship to sensual data flows—but also the fact that this trace is audible only in the form of repetition. In speaking Villon, Kinski was involved in a kind of ventriloquism that both grounded and dissolved his own identity. It is a paradox that impinges constantly on his own understanding of his recitations. What we can see here is a fantasy of self-presence that is located in the voice, and a simultaneous acknowledgment of a sort of wounding in which a fascination with the voice is grounded. As Mladen Dolar has argued, the voice is in fact a “vanishing mediator”: “it makes the utterance possible, but it disappears in it, it goes up in smoke in the meaning being produced.”[21] Because the voice is the trace of a physiology, it is the “link which ties the signifier to the body,” but because it belongs to “neither language nor the body,” it is also curiously transitory (Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, 59, 73). It is for this reason, partly, that voice can become the source of a kind of surplus. For Dolar, it is the petit objet a, but it also conveys the “fantasy” of a kind of expression that might “cure the wound inflicted by culture” and “restore the loss that we suffered by the assumption of the symbolic order” (31). By this reckoning the voice derives its power to fascinate from this sense of wounding at the same time that it seems to “set itself loose from the word” and hence become “the voice beyond logos, the lawless voice” (45). It isn’t hard to see how this idea of lawlessness, a site of what Dolar also calls “degenerate jouissance,” can function as a way of actualizing the marginality that is already a constitutive part of the experiential paradigm associated with the poète maudit (52).[22]

In the early 1950s, when Kinski first began reciting Villon, commercial marginality and, relatedly, emotional vulnerability were central to a self-conception strung between expressivity as self-presence and as self-annihilation. Kinski styled himself as a lawless outcast at odds with official networks of cultural reproduction. This mode of stylization would increasingly concentrate in his identification as a spoken-word artist. That he understood himself as somehow wounded, and not without good cause, is a central part of this process. He’d returned from the war to find both his parents dead. Their bodies or burial places were unlocatable. His mother, with whom he was infatuated, was apparently killed by a low-flying Allied plane: she was shot in the belly, Kinski tells us, and bled to death in the street.[23] In an early autobiographical manuscript entitled “Leben bis Sommer 1952” he describes his capacity for sensibility as “like a seismograph” that reacts to everything and threatens to batter him with every breath of air he draws. It is a statement that grounds an incredible egotism, but also one that destabilizes an ego that always seems susceptible to influence and that is ultimately unable to protect itself not just from the roles Kinski played or the words he recited, but from a world of hostile stimuli. Kinski’s accounts of his own suffering are excessive and highly fictionalized. This becomes more obvious in the published autobiography that appeared in 1975, and then in a revised and expanded form in 1989, where he seems to surrender the truth of writing to a stylized vulgarity that performs his disregard for conventional autobiographical forms.[24] And yet there is an irreducible credulity in his insistence on understanding his own body as a switching point between input and output. It’s about truth, he insists, about martyring himself to truth, which is the “breath of life.”[25]

Breaths of air, the breath of life, Atemzug and Lebensatem; in the opening paragraph of “Leben bis Sommer 1952” breath is the figure that anchors the artist in the world, and mediates the relationship between stimuli and expression. Kinski has no choice in this. His existence is inseparable from his medial position, which also exposes him to a sort of nervous damage which, in other contexts, would be described as mental illness. In his subsequent autobiography this mediality stands between the text and expression, and the sense of damage it involves is clear: “The text comes by itself, and its meaning shakes the soul. Everything else is taken care of by the life one has to live without sparing oneself. You mustn’t let scare tissue form on your wounds; you have to keep ripping them open in order to turn your insides into a marvelous instrument that is capable of anything” (Kinski, Kinski Uncut, 72–73).

Kinski Speaks Villon

The dissolution of the boundary between representation and the real, the insistence that Kinski himself is an order, or organ, of representation and a component of the reality he represents, establishes the avant-garde bearings of a self-conception in which the distinction between aesthetic experience and the everyday breaks down. The echoes, probably not deliberate, of Antonin Artaud are fairly clear. “What you mistook for my works were merely the waste products of myself,” Artaud wrote in the revealingly titled prose poem The Nerve Meter, where he also claims that “all writing is garbage” (Selected Writings, 83, 85). Kinski’s avant-gardism, however, was also evident in more ordinary institutional forms and professional choices. These emerge clearly enough despite the layers of mystification that cloud his autobiographical writings. He had joined the Wehrmacht as a seventeen-year-old in 1944, and first acted as an inmate in a British POW camp in Colchester, Essex, where he volunteered for female roles. When he made it back to Berlin in 1946, he struggled to support and even to situate himself. It was the city in which Benn imagined “centaurs and amphibious creatures” being born of chaos, and in fact the way Kinski’s contemporaries describe him at this time evokes a wildness that is not far from this (Benn, Impromptus, 332).[26] There was also an element of vagabondage: literal and existential homelessness. In 1948, he spent several months in a psychiatric institution where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He ended up under the protection and patronage of Sascha Kropotkin in what Peter Geyer calls the “refined circles of Berlin’s homosexual nobility” centered in Charlottenburg.[27] According to Kinski, Kropotkin’s apartment on the corner of Ulandstraße and the Kurfürstendamm was a meeting place for “black marketeers, aristocrats, high-fashion designers, thieves, whores, hustlers, artists, murderers, and top-ranking French, British, American and even Soviet occupation officers” (Kinski Uncut, 63). It was through Kropotikin that Kinski met Otto Graf and appeared in his production of Cocteau’s The Typewriter in the Theater an der Kaiserallee. A subsequent meeting with Cocteau saw him cast in Cocteau’s The Human Voice, a one-person play for a single female character who experiences the breakdown of a relationship over a protracted telephone call and ends up strangling herself with the phone cord. The play only gives us one side of a conversation, and is thus punctuated by long silences (represented on the page by ellipses). It insists on the audience’s position in a structure that closes off a conventional horizon of meaning; a horizon that hinges on the omniscience that would have enabled us to hear both sides of the conversation. As a result of this insistence on the materiality of the medium, we are left with a voice, phone, that can never quite vanish, or resolve itself into logos, precisely because that sense of the signifier as a locus of meaning is withheld. What the audience hears is not a conversation, but fragments, often disconnected from each other. And yet it is precisely in this space of semantic absence that Cocteau imagines corporeal distress becoming tangible. His notes for the play, which Kinski reiterated in his own prose, tell us that he wanted to “give the impression of a woman who is bleeding, losing her life blood, like a maimed animal, that she is finishing the act in a room full of blood.”[28] Kropotkin, clearly infatuated with Kinski, leased the theater for the production at a cost of 20,000 marks, but three days before the planned premier the British administration cancelled the performance. Kinski finally attempted to perform the play in the studio of the fashion photographer Helmut von Gaza, another member of the Kropotkin circle, where it was registered as a performance of a private theater club, and thus exempt from censorship. But even then authorities objected and the opening night took place “as a completely private cocktail party, supervised by the police and without the press.”[29]

Kinski’s ability to play women seems to have been important in consolidating the patronage he enjoyed at the time. According to the journalist Will Tremper, who knew him during this period, Kinski worked as a hustler, without inhibition, when he needed to (Meine wilden Jahre, 351). His at times emphatic self-definition as a prostitute, not dissimilar to Baudelaire’s, grasps the logic of the market that was informing the increasingly sexualized culture industry to which Kinski would ultimately surrender. The performance of The Human Voice also established a position marginal to commercial channels of cultural production and an administered public sphere organized around recognized theaters and broadcasters. This marginality would be crucial to Kinski’s self-identity, at least until he gave up live performance, and it was inseparable from the physical intensity with which he performed The Human Voice. According to Ursula von Keitz, it is an early indication of his “obsession with embodying the suffering creature” (“Bühnen für eine maßlose Stimme,” 21).

Kinski’s Villon recitations bring these two things, marginality and a kind of creaturely life, together. He first read the poems in 1952, at Café Melodie on the Kurfürstendamm, and at a cabaret called the Hexenküche, also in Charlottenburg. He’d found it difficult to work and hold down long-term contractual engagements. The decision to read Villon had a ring of desperation to it, but also indicates the desire to work outside of established institutional frameworks. He writes, referring to himself in the third person, that he spoke as if he had “blood on his lips from his lacerated heart, because he had arrived at the outer reaches of his desperation, and every word of Villon’s was the avowal of his own soul” (Kinski, “Leben bis Sommer 1952,” 42–43). Afterwards people put money into a cap. The capacity to fold himself into the personae through which he was reciting is at once a claim about his cultural capital and about an integrity that depended on the simultaneous amplification and suspension of the personal. The act of reciting enabled him to distil the core of something that resisted established norms and circuits of socialization. He talks repeatedly about his identification with Villon, whom along with Rimbaud he considered his literary brother (43). But his prose also has a momentum that takes him to more extreme statements of the corporeal dimension of his recitations. These statements correspondingly reject instrumentalized notions of aesthetic production that reduce art to the status of a trade or an industrial practice (Handwerk). In contrast, creation (Gestaltung) for Kinski was like the “process of birth in which bodily and spiritual energy was used up in the renunciation of his own life, and the giving of himself to became a life and death contest over the birth of a new existence, a contest with the world of men, but in the unequivocal cry of a tormented creature” (44).

Villon’s life seems to have became a framework through which Kinski could see his own. The texts he read were largely based on Paul Zech’s Die lasterhaften Balladen und Lieder des François Villon, which first appeared in 1931.[30] Zech’s book consists of very loose German reworkings, free adaptations and a number of original poems apparently written in the manner of Villon. As Walter Widmer put it, Zech’s so-called Nachdichtung was in fact “pure invention” with no real relationship to the source.[31] In fact one of the main points of critical resistance to Kinski’s performances was his reliance on Zech and hence his lack of fidelity to Villon himself. Zech’s translation was “impudent,” according to the Arbeiter-Zeitung, and “miserable,” according to the Volksstimme, while Kinski’s attempt to present the French poet as a morbid, Hamlet-like character essentially falsified the life-affirming qualities of his verse.[32] Anachronism was also a common point of complaint, although there was little agreement about how, exactly, to locate it. For the Tagesspiegel it was the proletarian ethos of Zech’s translations that falsified the spiritual distress of Villon’s work: “a vocabulary that evokes in places the memory of Tucholsky and Ringelnatz, and the worker-lyrics of Dehmel, Lersch and Bröger, can’t transpose the dark, but never dirty invention of Villon.” Kinski’s gestural exhibitionism exaggerated this “modern-proletarian” ethos and reduced it to the status of sentiment. As so many reviews of these recitations would conclude, “much of it nauseates, because it is not the understanding of the poet presented by an adapter, but above and beyond that the forced and self-centered adaptation of the poet by an actor who knows no humility and who can move himself to tears with effortless virtuosity.”[33]

Paul Zech’s Literary Outlaws

Zech also wrote a biographical essay, similarly criticized by Widmer as wildly inaccurate, that accompanies post-war editions of Die lasterhaften Balladen.[34] In it he describes a nomadic life of vagabondage, opportunistic crime, imprisonment and judicial torture, but also one of aristocratic and courtly patronage. Villon emerges as a poet of the people partly through his own recitations. He also embodies a refusal of conventional moral categories: “He acknowledged no moral law. He stood outside of every social order”; “He had not only the courage of artistic revolt. He also asserted himself against all moral and social dictates.”[35] Kinski’s latter accounts of his Berlin childhood as a wastrel and a thief, and of his wanderings from theater to theater and from apartment to apartment immediately after the war, remind us of the Villon that emerges from Zech’s biographical essay. Zech, in fact, was insistent in his rehearsal of the myth of the poète maudit. His rhapsodic 1927 essay on Rimbaud reads like a blueprint for the way Kinski was imagining his own personal exceptionality in the early 1950s. And in fact when Kinski came to Rimbaud, it was again Zech’s version that he would read and record. Rimbaud’s face, Zech writes, “was like that of a wanderer or a primeval creature that has suddenly been shoved from a forest thundering with energy into the cage of civilization.”[36] This unease with the cage of civilization is of course bound up with the vocation of the artist which, Zech writes, is pitted against the market, the public and the complacent attitude of the non-artist who bends his will to the world and thus becomes little more than a merchant (Händler) (Zech, Rimbaud, 18–19). Art, by contrast, is the “dissolution of bourgeois law and the manifestation of an unshakeable sense of self” (19). This is what Rimbaud and Villon share, according to Zech: they both fled the poverty of the everyday into the darkness of an inviolable sense of selfhood. Giving into the “anarchy in their blood,” they both became outlaws (21).

Zech’s Villon text models an enunciative space around this sense of the self. At the same time, however, the self is being constantly displaced or emptied out. The poems often have a declarative quality in which the Villon persona speaks in the first person or refers to himself in the third person. These moments evoke the idea of presence, yet in a way that also highlights the absence of conventional markers of both filial and affilial identity. The subject declares itself, yet the declaration immediately gives way to a kind of liminality that undoes the possibility of stable civic or legal bearings. Just as the voice vanishes with its mediation of meaning, so too does Zech’s Villon dissolve into a creatureliness bound up with his abjection.

François Villon says: it is I

looming before you.

See how his eyes reflect

all things upended.


No one knows from where he came,

or claims him as their kindred.

As he took his dwelling in the wind

and a cold stone into his bed


he was done with his homeland

and preferred to be an orphan

uprooted and bare

like the trees in autumn.

[François Villon sagt: Das bin ich,

welcher groß und grade vor euch steht.

Seht, in seinen Augen spiegeln sich

alle Dinge umgedreht.


Niemand weiß, woher er kam,

will auch niemand hier Bruder sein.

Als er sich den Wind zur Wohnung nahm

und ins Bett den kalten Stein


hat er seine Heimat satt gehabt,

wollte lieber sein ein Waisenkind,

so zerfetzt und abgeschabt,

wie im Herbst die Bäume sind.] (Zech, Die lasterhaften Balladen, 40)

Kinski’s subsequent recordings make a lot of this tension between the intractability of the poet’s identity and the drama of liminality. His recorded version of the poem from which I have just quoted would change third-person to first-person pronouns, stressing the fervor of his identification with Villon.[37]

Fig.1. Kinski reciting Villon sometime in the 1950s. Photographer unknown. Sound link: “Villon, das bin ich.

At other moments a kind of verbal violence or force organizes the folding of the speaker into the personae. In Kinski’s recording of “Eine Ballade, mit der Meister Villon seine Mitmenschen um Verzeihung bittet,” we get a wryly controlled build up consisting of ironical apologies and gestures of supplication. Then the voice explodes in the final lines of the poem as Kinski screams Villon’s moment of self-declaration, which is also a moment of stunning verbal violence directed at the public.

One should smash this rabble’s mouth

into tiny pieces with a hammer.

And the rain would wash the refuse from my coat.

I am Villon! And for that I need no pardon.

[Man schlage diesem Lumpenpackdas

Maul mit einen Hammer kurz und klein.

Was übrig bleibt, das wäscht der Regen mir vom Frack.

Ich bin Villon! Das braucht mir niemand zu verzeihn.] (Zech, Die lasterhaften Balladen und Lieder, 72)[38]

Fig. 2. Kinski performing in the 1950s. Photographer unknown. Sound link: “Eine Ballade, mit der Meister Villon seine Mitmenschen um Verzeihung bittet.” 

If the poems are often about the liminality of these self-assertions, they are just as insistently situated on the cusp of a kind of creatureliness that melds dislocation, sensuality and abjection. When Dolar, drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, develops a “politics of the voice,” he suggests that the liminality of vocal enunciation, caught between body and language, but belonging to neither, can be redescribed in terms of the relationship between zoē and bios (Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, 121). By this reckoning the voice occupies a position analogous to the inclusive exclusion of bare life abandoned by the law, placed at its limit, but also fundamental to the law’s articulation. It is the moment at which the creaturely and the command structure of sovereignty are simultaneously audible in the assertion of a subject that, as Dolar puts it, both disavows its “heteronomic origins” and embraces the “‘foreign kernel’ of the voice which cannot be appropriated by the self” (122–23).

These comments are terrifically suggestive with regard to the sort of outlaw ethos that drives Zech’s version of Villon and Kinski’s recitations. What we repeatedly encounter is alterity ironically inserting itself into various public registers in a way that marks a kind of exteriority: hence the emphasis on testaments, apologies, apostrophes, and even tombstone inscriptions that literalize the relationship between self-enunciation and abjection.

On a grey slab of stone beside the field,

it should be clearly and concisely written

who rots away beneath and what he was in life.

Only not with golden letters, no, take tar,

and write it out with a broom handle.

Then in the year 2000 of Our Lord

the world will still know,

who Villon was.


Simply write: here, in his final lair,

resting in his own shit,

a poor devil, a vagabond

called François Villon.

[Auf einem grauen, nicht zu kleinen Stein

vom Feld gleich nebenan, soll kurz und klar geschrieben sein

wer unten fault und was er so im Leben war.

Nur nicht mit goldnen Lettern, nein, nehmt Teer

und schreibts mit einem Besenstiel daher.

Dann wird vielleicht im Jahr

Zweitausend des Herrn Jesu Christ,

die Welt noch wissen, wer Villon gewesen ist.


Schreibt einfach so: Hier ruht in seinem eigenen Dreck,

in seinem letzten heimlichsten Versteck,

ein armer Teufel, ein Vagant:

François Villon genannt.] (Zech, Die lasterhaften Balladen und Lieder, 74)

When the poems are erotic in nature, this sense of debasement and abjection is just as evident. Zech’s Villon constantly refers to the incorporation of a kind of animality that coheres in the blood. At times it sounds like a figure for disease: “I have a red animal in my blood [Ich habe jetzt ein rotes Tier im Blut]”; “Many animals with their red blood have swum through my veins [Viele Tiere sind mit rotem Blut / durch mein Blut geschwommen]” (98, 99). Kinski, notoriously, read some of these poems as if he were experiencing an orgasm.[39]

Fever, or a Poet in Paris

It is no coincidence that the poems Kinski himself was writing in the early 1950s (posthumously published in 2001 as Fieber: Tagebuch eines Aussätzigen) replay, albeit in a more extreme form, these dynamics. Like Zech’s version of Villon, Kinski’s writing is constantly asserting a speaking position that turns on its capacity to give way to the somatic anguish of its instability. Occasionally this emerges in a relatively controlled, discursive register—“I don’t know who I am or who I was / a stranger to myself [Ich weiß nicht, wer ich bin und wer ich war– / ein Fremder vor mir selbst]”—but more often it involves Kinski presenting himself as possessed or infected by something that is also inseparable from his own corporeality, and that clearly informs the delirious flow of his writing: “my blood is like an uncontrollable animal [mein Blut ist wie ein unbrechenbares Tier].”[40] In many of these poems “fever” is a figure that anchors the somatic in the textual. It is as if the poems are the side effects, or the graphic traces, of a psychophysiological condition that is constantly driving the process of writing into the delirium of abjection. These poems are, as critics would point out, adolescent, repetitive and self-indulgent. Their excess borders on parody. And yet the relentlessness of their assault on the sublimating function of the self suggests the limit at which writing registers the somatic in the pressure of the pen tearing the page or the fury with which fingers hit the keys of a typewriter.

The poem “Fieber,” one of several that are similarly titled (see “Farbenfieber” and “Fieberwut,” for instance), compresses a lot of what characterizes the writing in general.

I have the fever of the entire world in my eyes

and like the purulence of syphilis

it bites, naked and dying,

into the swollen berries of my heart.


I burn up in the froth of my fever

and my mouth is mangled with passion

like the womb of a hunted animal.

[Ich habe das Fieber der ganzen Welt in den Augen –

Und wie der Eiterstrahl der Syphilis

beißt sich das schwarze Fieber nackt und sterbend

in den geschwollen blanken Beeren meines Herzens fest.


Ich verbrenne an meinem Fieberschaum

und mein Maul ist von Leidenschaft zerfetzt

wie der Unterleib eines verfolgten Tieres.] (Kinski, Jesus Christus Erlöser und Fieber, 82)

Kinski’s condition is a reflection of the fever or the sickness of the world, which has infected him as if it were a disease. It consumes or lacerates him, but it also vocalizes itself through him. This undoing of the coordinates of a stable identity also drives him to the maternal. He is, at moments, both a mother and the object of a birthing process that merges maternity with images of light, black light, originating in the sun from which he is formed. He is a newborn. His mother swings him by the umbilical cord into the arse of the sun. He walks upright like a mother, raging till his mouth and eyes are drinking from the anger that is shooting through the sky. The black sun forms his body. Finally he is a “Mutterkuchen”—a placenta (Kinski, Jesus Christus Erlöser und Fieber, 82). In this process, self-assertion becomes abjection in a way that is inseparable from images of maternity, which seem to have become a way for Kinski to imagine the border between voice and logos, and perhaps ultimately its collapse.[41]

What Kinski’s friend Thomas Harlan tells us about the circumstances in which some of these poems were composed is, in this context, extremely revealing. “Fieber meant, originally, Bergell,” Harlan writes in a preface to the posthumously published collection. It is 1952, or possibly 1953, either shortly before or shortly after Kinski’s first recitation of Villon in Berlin. Harlan and Kinski are in Paris, sharing a room in the Grand Hôtel des Balcons in the Rue Casimir Delavigne. One night Kinski finds a sixteen-year-old Norwegian girl on a park bench and brings her back to the room. He names her Bergell. She doesn’t know why. Harlan thinks of the Bergell Valley in Switzerland. The girl is sick. Harlan describes her as if she were already in the process of becoming a corpse. He imagines being able to look through her cheeks at a network of veins, teeth, the glimmer of rose-colored flesh, a crimson-flushing, and an inflammation of the throat exacerbated with each breath she takes. Kinski cares for the girl. She is also, albeit in a way that is never really specified, his lover (Geliebte). The poems that emerged, Harlan tells us, were both text and enunciation. And they were inextricably tied to Bergell’s ailing body, to her breath. These poems poured out of Kinski, one after the other, Harlan writes. They were “often recited, in spite of my presence, in fevered surges, bedraggled, accompanied by screams and roars, and Bergell’s continuous breathlessness and the unabated heat of a fever that refused to change. It was a protracted state of uncertainty, two weeks long, the texts flying like blocks of cement reeling on the vapors of the breath that Klaus, lying next to Bergell, beside himself, breathed back into her, as if it were the light of life, the end of the cancers in her throat, as if he wanted to share with her, and with himself, the end.”[42]

In this account the drama of vocalization informs the drama of composition, which in turn is anchored to the scene of abjection and a corporeal presence that will be sublimated into the poetry itself. At this threshold between voice and text, or body and text, visual and sonic registers threaten to overwhelm the semantic altogether. When Kinski links jazz to both the “future of color” and the “immortality of the nerves” we get an acute sense of textual anguish searching for something beyond the limits of the typographical (Jesus Christus Erlöser und Fieber, 99, 100). In a poem titled “Nehmt meines Kuß” the displacement of the self into a range of familiar figures of illness, animality and abjection also alludes directly to the media process that turns sound into phonographic notation: “the sign in the cut-open groove [das Zeichen in die aufgeschnittne Kerbe]” (88). But while the delirium of these texts maps out the limit at which the typographical requires remediation as sound, or at which it demands to be bypassed altogether in the direct relationship between the somatic and sonic, there is also the suggestion of a theatrical referent at the moments at which Kinski evokes the rays of the sun filling him with madness. We are reminded here of Oswald Alving’s evocation of the sun/son when he succumbs to the syphilitic dementia passed on by his father at the conclusion of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The sun—the sun—has vomited into the pulp

of my brain—refulgence—black, brown, full of threat—

over me—under me—permeating as in the screaming

breast of a woman—like a dagger in my festering heart

[Sonne—Sonne—sie hat mir auf die weiche Stelle meines

Gehirns gespuckt—Strahlen Strahlen—schwarze drohend braune—

über mir—unter mir—in mich hinein wie in die schreiende

Brust einer Frau—in mein Eiterherz wie ein Kris] (83)

Kinski, of course, had already performed the role of Oswald on stage. The idea that his textual delirium was taking place in the form of an identification with a character suggests the ways in which he seized on personae in order to express, or expose himself, but also to contain the abjection that was quite clearly tethered to a destabilization of identity in which residual notions of the feminine as a locus of jouissance were playing a fundamental structuring role.

This capacity to identify with literary figures or texts enabled him to fold his own sense of nonidentity onto a series of doubles. It is a constant feature of the way in which Kinski narrates his life. His infatuation with Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment offers perhaps the most dramatic early instance of this. In hospital with hepatitis in 1949, before the performance of The Human Voice, he read Crime and Punishment and identified with Raskolnikov so thoroughly that he wrote out his own version of the character’s criminal confession, articulating “the psychological condition of the criminal in the act of committing his crime.” It was a piece he intended to perform (it is not clear that he ever did). He also says that he wrote out the letter Raskolnikov receives from his mother, but addressed it to himself. He would wake up in the morning relieved to recall that he hadn’t murdered anyone. And when he heard knocking at his own door he would stand before it with heart palpitations, expecting the old woman Raskolnikov murders to appear at the threshold (Kinski, “Leben bis Sommer 1952,” 60). As Peter Geyer explains, Kinski’s 1962 recording of Raskolnikov’s dream evokes a range of characters (seven in all) through modulations in tempo, pitch and expressive intensity, but without ever changing the timbre of his voice.[43] It is his obsessive identification with Raskolnikov’s empathy for the horse that perishes under the blows of its drunken owner, however, that anchors the piece to the wound. To talk about this as madness, on the one hand, or as method acting, on the other, misses the point entirely. Kinski folded a compulsive disidentification with established social norms and subject positions into performance in a way that created a kind of loop. The texts he recited gave form to what he understood as his martyred relationship with his empirical circumstances. He could contain himself in the voices he channeled. But at the same time the volatility of these performances reproduced a sonic assault on the sobriety of the text. What Kittler says of writing’s ability to contain delirium is suggestive: “As long and insofar as someone writes, his delirium is protected from the loss of the word. Distinguished from madness by a nothing named simulacrum, by a foil of paper, writing traverses the free space of eternal recurrence.”[44] Kinski’s identifications with authors and their characters evoke something like this relationship between delirium and the word. It is the proper name, the name of the writer and by extension the voice of a character, that contains the fragmentation of self, the loss of self, the opening of the wound that will have Kinski imagining his lips smeared with blood as he regurgitates the emotional damage that is both his and Villon’s.[45]

Conclusion, or What Remains

What Kinski invites us to read is the volatile relationship between text and voice, or voice and logos, in which a drama of nonidentity is both provoked and contained. In this context the transition from one medium to another is both symptomatic and constitutive of the moment at which the creaturely life concentrated in the figure of the poète maudit actualizes itself in a way that exceeds mere representation. There is no doubt that Kinski’s performances throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s would develop into a form of fetishism that reveals the passage from the relative autonomy of the literary text to the incorporative practices of the culture industry. And as this sense of incorporation became more obvious, so too did the travestying of the literary tradition he had initially seized upon. By 1962 all that was left, according to Wolf Jobst Siedler, was the “self-exploitation of a ruined and sickly talent whose hardly recognizable wreckage presented itself as misguided exhibitionism.” The stress on physical decay (ruin and wreckage) locates heightened theatricality not just in the excesses of affect but in the materiality of costume and prop: the stiletto-heeled shoes, knee stocking, tights, frilled shirts, powdered wigs and skulls that would accompany Kinski’s recitations of monologues from Goethe and Shakespeare. Whatever might have been vaguely auratic in the religious trappings of Kinski’s recitations had apparently given way to an ornamental extravagance, bordering on the grotesque, that, according to Siedler, subverted any claim to artistic seriousness or sobriety, and harkened back to thoroughly anachronistic forms of performance.[46] And yet simply to dismiss Kinski’s recitations in these terms also risks reinscribing the hierarchical distinction between the typographical and the realm of technological or performative media more generally conceived. When Benn, in 1930, insisted on the relationship between genius and degeneration, he also added that the coupling was subject to a kind of public mediation that enabled it to form a recognizable counterpoint (Gegenkomplex) to “the ideality of sociological and medical norms,” and thus become a locus of both fascination and decadence (Gesammelte Werke, 1.120). What he was offering was really a genealogy of the poète maudit, yet one that grasped how public exposure and circulation were central to the legibility of the figure. Kinski, at least for a time, represented an extension and an amplification of this idea. He ultimately immersed himself in the culture industry, yet his recitations mark a threshold, an interface, between a resistant kind of aesthetic autonomy and the possibility of its commercial incorporation. At this threshold we can still read an irreducible kind of nonidentity: the rage or the anguish of the voice, the convulsions of the body, an expressivity in excess of logos. This excess would linger around his subsequent cinematic performances, almost regardless of whether they appeared at the center of the New German Autorenfilm or in what is usually referred to as “trash” cinema. In this respect it is hard to find a figure who more clearly points us to the precarious relationship between the creaturely life of the artist and the media networks in which it was increasingly implicated during the second half of the twentieth century.


[1] Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, trans. Victor Corti (London: Calder Publications, 1993), 95.

[2] Klaus Budzinski, “Klaus Kinski—‘interessantester Schauspieler Berlins,’” Die Abendzeitung, February 22, 1951, 5.

[3] Gottfried Benn, “Aging as a Problem for Artists,” in Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, trans. Michael Hofmann (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 340–68, 357.

[4] Herbert Pfeiffer, “‘Die Schreibmaschine’ im Theater in der Kaiserallee,” Der Tagesspiegel, October 23, 1947, 6.

[5] For a summation of this hostility, see “Abende eines Fauns,” Der Spiegel, February 22, 1961, 62–71.

[6] Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 160.

[7] Georg Seeßlen, “Das Genie des Zusammenbruchs,” in Klaus Kinski. Ich bin so wie ich bin, ed. Peter Reichelt and Ina Brockmann (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2001), 130–56, 130.

[8] Paul Verlaine, The Cursed Poets, trans. Chase Madar (Los Angeles, CA: Green Integer, 2003), 12.

[9] Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans. James McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 293.

[10] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyrical Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1992), 172.

[11] Klaus Theweleit, “The Politics of Orpheus Between Women, Hades, Political Power and the Media: Some Thoughts on the Configuration of the European Artist, Starting with the Figure of Gottfried Benn. Or: What Happens to Eurydice?,” New German Critique 36 (1985), 133–56, 155. See also Theweleit, Buch der Könige 1: Orpheus und Eurydice (Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld Verlag, 1988), 102–04.

[12] A. B. M. “Neue Form des Rezitationsstils? Klaus Kinski spricht Villon,” Die Presse, March 14, 1957, 6. Peter Reichelt’s research has been immensely helpful in mapping the public reception of Kinski’s recitations. See Reichelt, “Der Deklamator,” in Klaus Kinski. Ich bin so wie ich bin, 82–106.

[13] H. R., “Das Genie in Versalien. Kinski-Matinee im Frankfurter MGM-Theater,” Frankfurter Rundschau, Feuilleton Section, February 8–9, 1960, 7.

[14] Susan Sontag, “Artaud,” in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, trans. Helen Weaver, ed. Susan Sontag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), xvii–lix, xix.

[15] Gottfried Benn, “Probleme der Lyrik,” bk. 1, in Gesammelte Werke, ed. Dieter Wellershoff (Wiesbanden: Limes Verlag, 1959), 493–532, 529. Quoted in Friedrich Kittler, “Benn’s Poetry—‘A Hit in the Charts’: Song Under Conditions of Media Technologies,” SubStance 61 (1990), 5–20, 7.

[16] See, perhaps most emblematically, Benn’s “Das Genieproblem,” Gesammelte Werke, 1.107–22.

[17] Benn, “Probleme der Lyrik,” 1.518.

[18] See Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: the Makers of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962).

[19] Friedrich Kittler, The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 122.

[20] Ursula von Keitz, “Bühnen für eine maßlose Stimme: Klaus Kinski als Theaterschauspieler und Rezitator,” in Ich, Kinski, ed. Hilmar Hiffmann and Walter Schobert (Deutsches Filmmuseum: Frankfurt am Main, 2001), 21–37, 32.

[21] Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 15.

[22] As Dolar also explains, however, this sense of lawlessness is only part of the story: “If the Law, the Word, logos, had to constantly fight the voice as its other, as the senseless bearer of enjoyment, feminine decadence, it could do so only by implicitly relying on that other voice, the voice of the Father accompanying the Law” (Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, 55).

[23] Klaus Kinski, Kinski Uncut; the Autobiography of Klaus Kinski, trans. Joachim Neugröschel (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 55–56. Kinski’s autobiographies are notoriously unreliable and largely fictionalized. The fact that both his parents died during the war years, however, is beyond doubt.

[24] See Klaus Kinski, Ich bin so wild nach deinem Erdbeermund (Munich: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 1975) and Ich brauche Liebe (Munich: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, 1989), translated as Kinski Uncut; the Autobiography of Klaus Kinski.

[25] Klaus Kinski, “Leben bis Sommer 1952,” in Kinski: Vermächtnis, ed. Peter Geyer and O. A. Kimmel (Hamburg: Edel Germany, 2011), 41–67, 42.

[26] For evocative first-hand accounts of Kinski in this period see Jean-Pierre Stephan, Thomas Harlan: Das Gesicht deines Feindes. Ein deutsches Leben (Eichborn Verlag: Frankfurt am Main, 2007), 52–53; Will Tremper, Meine wilden Jahre (Verlag Ullstein: Berlin, 1993), 231–36, 349–53; and Thomas Harlan, Veit (Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 2011), 59–60.

[27] Peter Geyer, Klaus Kinski (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006), 16.

[28] Jean Cocteau, The Human Voice, trans. Carl Widman (London: Vision Press, 1951), 19. Kinski echoed this in his own writing about the play. See Kinski’s “La Voix Humaine,” in Kinski: Vermächtnis, 32–38.

[29] “Umgedrehte Hosenrolle,” Der Spiegel, August 25, 1949, 28.

[30] According to Peter Geyer, Kinski also used the Villon translations of Karl Anton Klammer from 1907. See Geyer, Klaus Kinski, 71.

[31] Walter Widmer, “Zechs Prellereien. Villon, von einem Zupfgeigenhansl verdeutscht,” Die Zeit, June 25, 1965, 15.

[32] Kurt Kahl, “Ein Gesicht im Scheinwerferlicht,” Arbeiter-Zeitung, March 14, 1957, 7; fl, “Kinski ja—aber Villon?” Volksstimme, March 15, 1957, 7.

[33] E. M. “Frankreichs große Ungebärdige. Zu Klaus Kinskis Villon-Abend in der Kongreßhalle,” Der Tagesspiegel, July 2, 1958, 4.

[34] The 1952 publication of Die Lasterhaften Lieder. Die Balladen aus dem kleinen und grossen Testament (der Greifenverlag zu Rudolstadt) includes an abridged version of the biography. When the collection was republished by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag in 1962, this was significantly expanded. Kinski obviously couldn’t have read this expanded version in the 1950s; whether he did so subsequently is unclear.

[35] Paul Zech, Die lasterhaften Balladen und Lieder des François Villon (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2012), 170, 175.

[36] Paul Zech, Rimbaud. Ein biographischer Essay und die szenische Ballade “Das trunkene Schiff” (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Tachenbuch Verlag, 1990), 9.

[37] Klaus Kinski, “Villon, das bin ich” (1960), on Kinski spricht Werke der Weltliteratur, 16 CDs, Universal Music GmbH, 2003, disk 1, track 14.

[38] The recorded version omits the penultimate line. Kinski also rephrased the title into the first person. See Kinski, “Eine Ballade, mit der ich meine Mitmenschen um Verzeihung bitten möchte” (1959) on Kinski spricht Werke der Weltliteratur, disk 1, track 2.

[39] See Klaus Kinski, “Ich bin so wild nach deinem Erdbeermund” (1959) on Kinski spricht Werke der Weltliteratur, disk 1, track 1.

[40] Klaus Kinski, Jesus Christus Erlöser und Fieber—Tagebuch eines Aussätzigen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006), 65, 66.

[41] As striking as Kinski’s identifications with figures of the feminine and specifically the maternal might be, they also feel like part of a fairly conventional kind of experimentalism that sits uncomfortably with his notorious womanizing, the pornographic tone of his published autobiographies, and the accusations of sexual abuse brought against him after his death by his daughter, Pola Kinski. Untangling these contradictions is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that if the feminine could structure Kinski’s disidentification with hegemonic social and discursive norms, it could also become the object of a libertine impulse apparently synonymous with his rejection of bourgeois order and economy.

[42] Thomas Harlan, “Vorwort,” to Klaus Kinski, Fieber: Tagebuch eines Aussätzigen: Gedichte (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn Verlag, 2001), 6–11, 6–7.

[43] See Geyer, Klaus Kinski, 73.

[44] Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metter, with Chris Cullens (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 304.

[45] Of course Kinski’s Villon recitations and recordings were really just as much remediations of Zech’s work as they were of Villon’s. In the mania of his identification with Villon, the hauntings of literary history were interrupted by a second order of mediation that involves translation, adaptation, misattribution and the strategic deployment of canonical signatures. “Ich bin Zech” doesn’t have the same ring as “Ich bin Villon.” And yet Paul Zech’s story, a socialist who went into exile during the Third Reich and struggled to survive in Buenos Aires, while his lover Hilde Herb committed suicide in Germany, was every bit as urgent and perhaps a good deal more topical. See Donald G. Daviau, “Paul Zech’s Exotic Travels in South America,” in Exiles Traveling: Exploring Displacement, Crossing Boundaries in German Exile Arts and Writing 1933–1945, ed. Johannes F. Evelein (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), 115–31, 118, and Jean-Michel Palmier, Weimar in Exile: the Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2006), 135, 579, 604.

[46] Wolf Jobst Siedler, “Hamlet im Sportpalast. Kinskis große Monologe,” Der Tagesspiegel, October 17, 1962, 4.