By Peter Lester
April 13, 1981 12:00 PM

Nastassia, raves one critic, is ‘the thinking man’s Brooke Shields

A few years ago the German-born Nastassia Kinski seemed just another teen trinket in Roman Polanski’s notorious collection of Lolitas. A precociously worldly 5’7½” stunner, she appeared doomed to make only the columns—never a career—with the unrepentant director who had fled a California morals charge. But today her ravishing performance as the avenging innocent of Polanski’s Tess has charmed even Moral Majoritarians into viewing a film once expected to play only a few art houses on the coasts. Indeed, at 20, Nastassia is being compared to the young Ingrid Bergman. The astute Francis Coppola, casting her in One from the Heart, his upcoming $23 million romance, calls her simply “the most beautiful woman in films today.” Then, to top it all, last week she achieved the ultimate Hollywood validation. Though not herself one of Tess’s six nominees, Nastassia was a presenter at the Academy Awards.

She credits everything to Polanski. “I fell in love with him at the beginning,” says Nastassia, who met Roman at a party in Germany when she was 15. “He was really a gentleman, not at all like the things I had heard,” she continues. “He introduced me to beautiful books, plays, movies. He educated me.” Part of the course was Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which Polanski had planned to film with wife Sharon Tate before her grisly 1969 slaughter by the Manson gang. So in 1978 Roman sent his new protégée to London for five months of dialect study and weekending in the Dorset countryside to prepare to play the tragic farm girl. The film itself was shot mostly in France, because Polanski was subject to arrest in England on his U.S. statutory rape conviction.

“I don’t care who says what,” declares Nastassia, rising angrily to his defense. “I know he wouldn’t do that.” Their own affair wrapped about simultaneously with Tess. “It was just a romance,” Nastassia says now. “I fell out of love with Roman after a while because something bigger grew—a real understanding. He’s like from my family.” A subsequent relationship with Milos Forman, another East European expatriate director, was strictly business, Nastassia admits. It ended after he dangled the plum role of Evelyn Nesbit in his upcoming Ragtime, then gave the part to Elizabeth (Ordinary People) McGovern. “I don’t know whether it was my accent or me,” says Nastassia, obviously hurt.

She found solace in L.A., her home since last June. Her glittery European life, she recalled, was “very intense, nights and days going out, out, out, people, people, people, and I got fed up.” It was then that a California friend gave her a Bible. “In the beginning I couldn’t accept it at all—Jesus, the devil, what’s that?” she says. But when she went to church a few times, Nastassia says, “It was incredible.” Kinski, who remains religiously devoted only to acting, previously had tried and felt much less awestruck by the rites at L.A.’s Strasberg Institute. “There were all these people sitting and screaming,” marvels Nastassia, who dropped out after a few disconcerting months. “I had never had to hold anything back. That’s the way I grew up.”

Born in West Berlin to Polish-German actor Klaus (Nosferatu) Kinski, veteran of 175 European films, and his wife, Brigitte, Nastassia grew up traveling all over Europe and mastering four languages. Then, at 9, her parents joltingly divorced. She moved to Caracas, where her mother had a painter boyfriend, and seldom saw her dad again. “He’d been a great father when I was a kid. Then they separated and that was it. Now our relationship doesn’t exist.” Klaus, 54, shoulders the blame: “Nastassia suffered terribly, which I didn’t realize.”

Meanwhile young Nastassia grew closer to her mother, now 40. “We’re like the best of friends, she’s great,” beams the daughter. “She always trusted me. When I was 12, she let me loose like a wild animal. I needed that. She knew I had good instincts and would not go into drugs or wrong roads.” One byway was film. German director Wim Wenders cast her, at 13, in The Wrong Move, and her nude scene with Marcello Mastroianni in 1977’s Stay as You Are caused a small furor, foreshadowing her real-life affair with Polanski a year later.

Her move to L.A. has brought Nastassia closer to her father—at least geographically. Klaus is there filming Buddy Buddy with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, which could be his American breakthrough, but there’s been no reconciliation. “We just don’t get along,” shrugs Nastassia, who shares a rented two-bedroom Beverly Hills home with her mother. She relaxes by swimming in their pool, riding, dancing and taking a daily rubdown for back problems caused by the tight corsets she wore in Tess.

A small scar on her left cheek—the result of horseplay with a boyfriend at 15—is the only other mark of her turbulent youth. Neither her parents nor her own experience has totally soured her on marriage. She likes men “older than myself,” and her latest is an Italian-American lawyer whom she’s been dating for more than a year. They keep a Paris apartment. “But we hardly meet there,” complains Kinski. “I’m always here.” Instead, they phone often and exchange “endless letters.” But Nastassia, who begins filming Paul Schrader’s Cat People this month, now seems to have as little need of a Polanski-esque mentor as of a homeland. or a mate. “My country is not Germany but wherever my suitcase goes,” she shrugs. “Being an actress is what enables me to breathe. That makes me express myself more than a relationship with a man.”