After a spell in the wilderness, Nastassja Kinski is back in two movies. She talks to Cameron Docherty about films, fame and father figures
If there is a single image identified with Nastassja Kinski, it is not from Tess or any of the 30 other films she has made - it is Richard Avedon's photograph of a python draped around her naked body. The snake is doing its manful best to embrace her; she wears the thing as insouciantly as if it were a feather boa. Clearly this wild child will do anything for the camera.

The sexual challenge, childlike arrogance and mischievous humour of that famous picture are qualities that Kinski has brought to the big screen for years. Now, after several years raising children, divorcing her first husband, falling in love with Quincy Jones and separating again, the 37- year-old German is back in the spotlight with two new films.

In Father's Day, Kinski plays a distraught single mother who enlists the help of two former boyfriends, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, in an attempt to track down her missing teenage son. In One Night Stand we see a different side of Kinski as a female temptress with whom Wesley Snipes deeply regrets getting involved in director Mike Figgis's sexy new thriller.

"The woman she plays resembles a star," says Figgis, "With one look, she lights up Wesley's night. She is fragile and yet a hunter, dominating and perhaps dangerous. Nastassja was perfect for the role. I was completely seduced by her. I caressed her face on my editing table. But I found that she requires a lot of care, love and work. She makes great demands - and woe to the director who cannot satisfy them. You have to be strong with Nastassja. Otherwise she will devour you."

Werner Herzog, the maverick German director, said: "To understand Nastassja, you must look at her parents.. Her mother is a poet, her father was possessed." Klaus Kinski, who died in 1991 at age 64, was modern cinema's great eccentric.

Nastassja searches carefully for the words to describe him. "He had eyes like hell and the sky at the same time," she says. Life with Klaus sounds more like hell for his young wife Brigitte and their infant child 30 years ago. "Living with him was like being on stage, every day and night, in Kafka," recalls Brigitte, now 54. "He was extremely jealous. It was as if he had built a private religion around us: Madonna and Child."

Nastassja concurs: "My mother wanted to work in movies but he just wanted her to be a mother, be a wife, be this Venus, a planet he could land on anytime." When Nastassja was eight, her world fell apart: Klaus left for good and the pair only saw each other occasionally before his death in 1991.

She dealt with her grief abruptly and forcefully, though the scars run deep. "I always thought maybe later, maybe later he'll come back, and later never came," said Nastassja. "When he died I had a moment of grief that lasted about five minutes. It was very intense, then never again. Not because I forced myself, but I think it was because he caused us too much pain.

"My mother and I built this strangely close relationship," She's like the sun coming up to me. In this jungle around us she protects me, like the lion's mother. When we talk it's total ecstasy."

Brigitte says: "I always felt Nastassja would become an artist. Her father filmed her when she was two years old, and already she was a child-woman, with such sensitivity and such pain in her face."

Little Nastassja danced, she posed and painted. And as she studied her art, she began working her charm. "All of Munich was after her," recalls Brigitte in helpless admiration. "All day long: `Is Nastassja there?' Boys, girls, it doesn't matter, they all wanted something from her. I loved her too much to try to keep her."

Then as now, she wanted to be watched, and then taken. Her first beau was 15, she was 14, and, she says, "He waited for almost a year, just watching me, before he dared to say hello. It was the most romantic love story. We were two children in love in our own world." At a party in Munich, she met Roman Polanski. He was 42, she was 15. "It started out as a light romance," she recalls, "but he became demanding and possessive."

Nastassja has set a pattern for her affairs: love beautifully, leave quickly. "I always used to fall in love while I was working on a film," she says, referring to affairs she had with, amongst others, the actor Marcello Mastroianni and the director Milos Forman.

"It's such an intense thing, being absorbed into the world of a movie. It's like discovering you have a fatal illness, with only a short time to live. So you live and love twice as deeply. Then you slip out of it, like a snakeskin, and you're cold and naked and alone again."

For her, each new film is a fairy tale with her as the sleeping beauty, and her director as the prince whose talent and passion will convince her of the dream's reality. It is no coincidence that within those loving environments she created her greatest moments on screen, most notably as the tragic heroine in Polanski's Tess.

Sensitive to her failings and disillusioned with her craft, she quit the business in 1986, returned to Europe, and settled into a life of domesticity with husband Ibrahim Moussa, an unassuming Egyptian producer, with whom she has two children. "When I fell in love with Ibrahim and had my first child, everything paled in comparison and family life consumed me.

"But the break up was inevitable," she says. "Our relationship was rather strange, in the way we went from being close friends to lovers. I think we were better as friends than husband and wife. "

She is much more forthcoming about Quincy Jones, who she lived with for four years until 1995. "For me, Quincy was someone who told me what to do and what was right," says Nastassja, emphasising the 28-year age difference between them.

"He was always there when I needed him and someone I could talk too and argue with. In a Freudian way he was the father I never had. For me, partners were like father figures most of the time.

"It is a bit of an obstacle because you want to grow together in a healthy relationship. Basically, I grew up very fast, and yet part of me was always a child longing for that father figure. But I'm grateful for the time we had. I'm sure being with Quincy helped me become a better mother, a better human being."

She relishes the challenge of being a single mother, juggling the demands of her children and her career with great dexterity and a steely resolve. "I live for my family and for us to be together and stay together, even if there are obstacles and the road is rocky," says Nastassja.

It remains to be see if Hollywood will return to Kinski and if her fascinating aura can attract the mass of cinema-goers. The odds are against her, on three counts. Even at 37, she is regarded as a veteran, too old to play opposite hot young stars like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt; actresses these days have fewer options, fewer succulent roles offered to them, than actors; and American films are in a period of relative indifference towards the very notion of stardom, instead putting their faith in big-budget special effects and no-name sex comedies.

Kinski may have to settle for her current status as a celebrity commodity, for whom each film is not so much a vehicle as an expensive fragrance. "Nastassja No. 1 ... Share the fantasy." It's also possible that Kinski's own fantasy has little to do with stardom, at least of the Hollywood variety. Though she is about to embark on another movie with Gabriel Byrne, her primary concern and main starring role will always be that of a mother.

"I try to be attentive and understand how intense their feelings are," she explains. "That was something I lacked with my mother, although she was only 19 when she had me, and she really tried. There were times when I wanted to please her so much by being what she wanted me to be, until I realised that I had to be myself. It was hard for her, it was hard for me. But kids have to stand up for themselves and live a life they can believe in."