Berlin, Deutschlandhalle, November 20 th 1971. Kinski emerges into a lone spotlight on an empty stage. Shoulder length hair, plain jeans, a shirt with flower and polka dot patterns. No set, no stage effects, no costume. By reciting his own version of the New Testament's “Jesus Christ Saviour”, he realizes a project well over 10 years in the making.
It is the time of the Hippie movement, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” is celebrating a sensational success in Germany as well. It is also a time of nonviolent resistance.
But Kinski's JESUS is not some Hippie Happening. It is to be a highly emotional, highly personal recount of “mankind's most exciting story: The Story of Jesus Christ…the freest and most modern of all men, who prefers to be massacred rather than fester alive with all the others. About a man who is the way we all would like to be. You and I”.
Klaus Kinski's reputation in Germany is that of an eccentric provocateur. As his last theatre performance was back in 1962, most people only know him as a quirky film actor with his best days already behind him. The theatre managers fear a blasphemous program and hesitate making a commitment. Many believe that Kinski identifies himself with his protagonist and wants to present himself as the new Jesus, the spokesman of a youth movement.
The film “Jesus Christ Saviour” by Peter Geyer shows the nightlong struggle of an actor to get to speak his lines. The performance in Berlin's Deutschlandhalle was to be the start of a planned worldwide tour. The intro features the posters all over town, the audience streaming in, full of expectations, and the police overseeing their entry.
When Kinski appears, his voice quiet but intense as he recites his first lines in the form of a ‘wanted poster' (“Wanted: Jesus Christ”), it takes all of five minutes before the first interruptions start. Kinski reacts – he appends his line “he never wears a uniform” with “ and doesn't have a big mouth ” directed to the heckler - and the first commotion begins.
There is resistance against the Kinski sermon, doubt as to his authority to embody Jesus. Scattered and derisive remarks can be heard throughout the audience (“He already made his millions from the movies”). Very few of the 3000-5000 spectators have come to listen to him. They want to provoke him, to discuss with him and to bring a street fight into the hall. They cannot tolerate someone standing on stage and proclaiming “eternal truths”. They merely perceive the artist as some self-proclaimed leader or messiah.
After several interruptions Kinski leaves, comes back and is interrupted again, invites someone on stage whom he then cuts off and insults as a “stupid pig”. Finally, after numerous false starts, he calls off the show with great regrets but not before having hurled more and more bible quotes at his audience.
Just as his spectators believe that Kinski wants to be Jesus, he too transforms them into the Pharisees whom Jesus must defend himself against. “Whichever one of you not only has a big mouth but is really without sin, he shall throw the first stone” or “If only you were hot, or at least cold, but you are lukewarm, and I spit you out!”, these are just two samples of this breathtaking, verbal meltdown.
Among improvised “shut up” commands, “woe unto you…” threats with pointed finger, appeals to the troublemakers not to ruin the evening for those who are interested, Kinski attempts to speak his “30 typewritten pages”, becoming increasingly more emotional and exasperated under the building tension. The event manager pleads with the audience: “Please let Mr. Kinski speak his text, then you will be able to speak!” Provocations can be heard from the audience such as “phrase monger!”, “you spread hate!”, “asshole!”. During intermission a spectator grabs a microphone and calls Kinski a fascist, while another comes on stage and preaches with a quote “You shall recognize them by their deeds!”.
Kinski later writes in his autobiography “All I Need is Love”: “ This is just like 2000 years ago. This riffraff is even more fucked up than the Pharisees. At least they let Jesus finish talking before nailing him to the cross”.
But there is an epilogue.
After the Deutschlandhalle is almost empty, save for a hundred some dedicated holdouts, Kinski appears in their midst and finally speaks his complete text, exhausted and in a quiet but hoarse voice, from beginning to end. A rapt and devout mood takes hold, with some in the half darkness folding their hands.
“My exhaustion seems to have ebbed away”, Kinski writes later. “I don't feel my body anymore. At 2 a.m., everything is over”.
Peter Geyer's film is a unique document, not only about an era that questioned authority and had a difficult relationship with the arts, that did not want to listen but instead discuss - but also about an artist in his creative process. Kinski's recital, his constantly new approach to his lines, his improvised reactions to the disturbances, his almost physical commitment to speaking his text till the bitter end, the ever varying voice, the tears appearing twice during his performance – all of this is a frozen snapshot of the highest tension, concentration and poetry.
The film shows the progression of the evening– as a fully closed, dramatically and emotionally self-sufficient document.
The art of the text imparts itself similar to the commotion in the hall, and the atmosphere becomes as palpable as Kinski's stage presence and inner conflict. The live performance is intercut only with some quick impression shots from inside and outside the hall, as well as several quotes from Kinski's autobiography.
And so November 20 th , 1971 will become “An evening with Klaus Kinski” in cinema as well. After years of only having an audio track of the evening available, we finally have the opportunity to witness in its entirety this terrific failure of a stage-sermon. Peter Geyer, administrator of the Kinski Estate, has reconstructed a fascinating piece of history in the making with the audiovisual material at his disposal.
“Shut up and follow me!” (Klaus Kinski in the Deutschlandhalle, 20.11.1971)