NASTASSIA Kinski lunges forward, eyes white-rimmed and wild, claws poised for attack.

"I'm going to strangle you," she says to a woman who has asked her acting coach to compare the 22-year-old Kinski to other actresses. "Compare and compare. Why do you ask these questions? You cannot compare one person to another person anymore than you can compare a tree to a daisy. Each one is simply itself."

She is touchy with reason. Since age 15, when the international press pounced on her affair with film director Roman Polanski, Kinski has been likened to a seemingly endless array of leading ladies.

The contradictions of Nastassia Kinski. Is she Audrey Hepburn or Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren or Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh or Marilyn Monroe? Splashed across the covers of Vogue, Time, Playboy and a variety of other magazines, she has been touted as heiress to their screen fortunes.

But the one person who seems unconvinced is Kinski. "What people see in you," she said last week, "is what they want to see, not what you are.

"What men see in me is a thing I don't think at all I am. Many times their image of you says more about them and their fantasy than it does about you and reality. Of course I know I'm not ugly, but I am just starting to realize that I am beautiful, and that I can do many things."

Over the course of two days last week--beginning at a New York press conference to promote her new movie "Moon in the Gutter" through a day in Brownsville, Pa., where she is filming "Maria's Lovers"--Kinski displays a rapid-fire barrage of contradictory personas.

One moment she is a delightful little sister, tugging playfully on your arm. The next minute she is a wild-eyed prima donna, shrieking at the presence of an uninvited person on the movie set.

She is awkwardly graceful, seductively innocent, reluctantly gracious, revealingly private, coldly warm.

Billed as a sensual superstar, she appears unconcerned with--or deliberately plays down--her appearance off camera by wearing unflattering clothes, uncombed hair, no makeup or jewelry. Then, like a true camera animal, she lights up in response to a photographer, arching her spine, extending her neck, staring through wide, sultry eyes.

It could, of course, be a clever act--the calculated performance of a master artist portraying a vulnerable, sensitive young woman grappling with the cursed blessings of early stardom. Molded by directors, she struggles to become an adult amid the realization that she can never live up to the larger-than-life legend others have created for her.

If this is just an act, she is every bit as talented as those around her contend.

Kinski bolts into the Manhattan conference room like a skittish colt, flaring sensuous nostrils beneath a tousled disarray of shoulder-length, sun-streaked hair.

The dozen or so journalists waiting in Columbia Pictures' New York headquarters eye the slightly disheveled young woman curiously. She wears a gray Christian Dior suit that might be stylish on someone else, but looks severe and oddly wrong on this wild child. Her forthright face is free of cosmetics, her hands are small and childlike, her bare legs are dotted with bruises and mosquito bites. Her left shoe is fastened with a large safety pin.

Could this thin, pale youngster possibly be the Eve-esque model who wears nothing but an ivory bracelet and a python in a photograph picked by Life, Time and Newsweek as one of the finest of 1981? Is this the enigmatic temptress Rolling Stone magazine dubbed "the biggest sex symbol of 1982?"

The exotically accented lilt of her "Hello, everyone" quashes any doubt. Kinski marches to the chair of honor at the large oval table and parts lush lips in a regal smile to her interrogators. Amid the palpable air of confusion, someone blurts out:

"Miss Kinski, what drew you to this film?" He is referring to the movie the group has just previewed--"Moon in the Gutter"--a luridly stylistic new offering by the director of "Diva," Jean-Jacques Beineix. "Moon" caused a near-riot at this year's Cannes Film Festival and opens in Washington tomorrow.

"The pain and the need and the struggle and the transcendent vision this Loretta has, I have," Kinski asserts in an impassioned voice about the character she portrays, a desperate, uninhibited playgirl in a red Ferrari. "She thinks if she can combine her pain with the man's pain, maybe it would vanish and they could live. And if they had to die, fine.

"I think the question is not how we die or when we die . . . but the fear of death for myself is 'Am I going to get my point before I die?' We all look for the same things, to survive, to understand 'What am I?' 'Is this it?' That's what I saw in this character."

There is a long pause as the reporters digest this ardent philosophical monologue. Finally a gray-haired man speaks: "Your hair was different in the movie."

Kinski flashes green light-saber eyes on him and wails, "Oh, you haven't listened to what I've said!" Her voice is vibrant with emotions--frustration, rage, embarrassment, disgust. His comment has touched off a sensitive skirmish in Kinski's battle to develop internally in a world fixated on her exterior.

She takes a deep breath, turns her back on the questioner and says to the others, "All right, you want me to explain this again better? I want you to understand."

The daughter of one of Germany's most flamboyant bohemian couples--demonic-looking actor Klaus Kinski of "Nosferatu" fame and writer-poet Ruth Brigitte--Kinski has lived a gypsy life. Born in West Berlin, she moved to Italy, then England and Venezuela; she speaks fluent Italian, French, German and English. Her parents separated when she was 8, and after their divorce she lived with her mother in Munich. There, at age 13, she was discovered dancing in a rock club by film director Wim Wenders. A minor part in one of his movies led to several other roles and changed Kinski's life ambition from ballerina to actress.

At age 15, at a Munich dinner party, she met Roman Polanski, the film director who fled the United States in 1978 for France after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl (a situation Kinski calls "ridiculous . . . a loss for America"). Some say her mother introduced Kinski and Polanski. She posed for the Christmas issue of French Vogue, which Polanski was guest-editing. They became lovers.

"I don't deny that I fell in love with Roman," she says of the mentor who starred her in his 1980 film adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles." "He traveled with me, he took me to the theater, he gave me books."

Before filming "Tess," Polanski sent Kinski to Los Angeles to study acting with the late Lee Strasberg, then to Dorset, England, to live on a farm for four months like her fictional counterpart. Their romance was over by the time her performance earned her the Golden Globe Award for the Best New Female Star of the Year.

"Roman is like family," she says. "We don't see each other much, but the quality is very good when we do. If there is anyone who I care what they think about me as an actress, about my development, it is my parents and him."

Kinski's reputation for having after-hours relationships with her directors is "not true," she says emphatically in the limousine that whisks her from the press conference to the airport. There she will take an hour-long private plane ride to Pittsburgh, then a 20-minute helicopter hop to the small, depressed mining town of Brownsville, Pa., where she is filming "Maria's Lovers" with Robert Mitchum, John Savage and Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky.

"You think people thought "Moon in the Gutter" director Jean-Jacques Beineix and I had an affair?" she asks with a shocked expression, pausing abruptly in a famished foray into a pint of blueberries. "In fact we always come to each other when we have heartache. To sit for hours together would feel just like medicine."

She sinks back into the plush gray seat, exhausted. She has been up until 4 a.m. for the past two nights, she says, "filming the most difficult scenes . . . where Maria's husband cannot make love to her because he loves her too much. He stayed alive through the war because of loving her. She is a virgin, and she waits and waits. They become crazy from this."

This cinematic situation touches her own frustration at being placed on a pedestal. "Men get intimidated by me," she says. "That is very bad."

She tries to bridge the gap, she says, "by accepting myself more so I'm not as distant. It's the distance that draws them . . . It's exactly something they cannot have is why they're fascinated."

Kinski reaches down to scratch her ankles, apologizing, "I got so many mosquito bites," then dives back into the blueberries. "Oh no," she cries. "They're not washed." She stares aghast at a dirty berry, then shrugs and pops it into her mouth. "I'm so hungry I don't know what to do."

This nonstop pace has become a way of life for the actress who has filmed six movies in less than three years: "Exposed," costarring Rudolf Nureyev; "Spring Symphony," in German, for which she won that country's equivalent of an Oscar; the soon-to-be released "Unfaithfully Yours" with Dudley Moore; the movie version of John Irving's "The Hotel New Hampshire," where she met and became friends with actress Jodie Foster; the French film "Moon in the Gutter" and now "Maria's Lovers."

"At my birthday in January," she says as the limousine cruises into the shadow of the Goodyear blimp at the small airport, "I will take off a year. It's too much. I'm becoming worse, I'm becoming empty. Then, in 1985, I want to do a play."

One reason Kinski accepted so many projects in such a short time, she says, is that "they all touched something deep in me." The part that touched her most centrally, she says, was Suzy the Bear in "The Hotel New Hampshire."

"Suzy is a girl who wears a bear costume because she doesn't like herself," says Kinski, hopping out of the limousine and heading for the plane. "She is hardened and tough and doesn't think she can love or be loved. What is reality and what she sees about herself are two different things."

Kinski climbs aboard the small plane, settles into a seat and removes her gray jacket. She drapes it over her legs and rummages through a crimson leather purse for her "lucky stone"--a plate broken into pieces and distributed to cast members by "Maria's Lovers" director Konchalovsky. She clutches it briefly and drops it back in the bag, which she stashes at her feet.

"Something melts inside Suzy so she can take off the bear suit," Kinski says. "This happened to me. There is a beauty about myself that I never saw, or I rejected, until recently. Other people tell you that you have this beauty, and you think it just might be in their minds.

"So many people said this to me, and I told them to shut up, it's not true. The truth is that I don't have it, that I don't feel it, that I don't, I don't and I don't. Then suddenly something opened up, and I melted."

What caused this change? She stubbornly refuses to say. "Don't even ask," she warns, tucking her chin to her chest so her hair falls over her face like a curtain.

She crosses her arms, leans her head against the window, tucks her knees to her chest and falls fast asleep.

The pilot is worried about thunderstorms. Kinski is worried about blue fingers.

"The visibility is too low for the helicopter," the copilot warns as the plane touches down in Pittsburgh. "I think you better drive to Brownsville."

Kinski stops trying to wipe blueberry stains off her fingers and says urgently, "But I must be there on time."

The helicopter pilot pokes his head into the cabin and confers with the plane pilot. "Piece of cake," says the chopper captain.

Once, she admits as the helicopter buzzes skyward, "I thought I would die young. Now I don't know. But I do believe in reincarnation. I believe you come back to the Earth as many times as you need to until you've reached the whole circle that a human being must make in order to become enlightened."

While she thinks she has lived before and will live again, she refuses to discuss these other lives. "You think I will tell you everything?" she says with her fierce stare. Then she smiles and rolls her eyes. "You guys. I used to think I was obligated to answer everything. Now if I don't want to say, I don't say."

She will, however, say, "I am religious, but not in a normal way. I'm just about to read the Bible. Buddhism, Zen and eastern religion I'm very much into. Also yoga. We live so much in our head; we neglect the body. But every cell has a soul, and when you bring the spirit and the mind together into one stream the power is limitless."

Where is she in the cycle of reincarnation? "Sometimes I feel like I'm right in the middle," she says, "and sometimes I feel I'm at zero, the beginning. It doesn't matter. It takes what it has to take. You cannot hurry nature."

Soon the helicopter hovers over a star-struck crowd gathered in a field near a Brownsville estate where the city is sponsoring a reception for the cast of "Maria's Lovers." Kinski is nervous, not because she must address the townsfolk, but because she will be meeting her costar Robert Mitchum for the first time.

The movie's producer rushes up to escort her from the helicopter and she sweeps across the field through a storm of popping Polaroids, the crowd held back by police officers. At the estate she is introduced to Mitchum, who arrived that morning. He smiles from behind pink-tinted glasses and a grizzled beard. She jumps up and down and giggles, clapping her hands in delight.

Her colleagues on Kinski:

"She is magical," says director Beineix.

"She is very frail," says director Konchalovsky, "yet very strong."

"You couldn't find someone who tried harder," says "Maria's Lovers" screenwriter Marjorie David, "or cared more."

"People talk about her looks," says actor John Savage, who plays her husband in "Maria's Lovers." "But I think she's one of the best actresses I've worked with."

"She's good people," says actor Vincent Spano, who plays Maria's lover. "We have a lot of fun."

Walking her Chihuahua outside the Uniontown Holiday Inn the morning after her hectic New York jaunt, Kinski is animated. She is dressed in a shapeless gray sweat-shirt dress and electric-yellow jazz oxfords. Her just-washed hair hangs lank against her neck.

"What I like in men," she says, scooping up Paco and snuggling him to her chest, "is if they feel good within themselves and don't go around proving to me or to anybody else that they are what they are not. That nervous kind I can't stand.

"And funny. They have to be funny. And unanchored, you know, free."

She won't talk about her boyfriend in Germany, a man she described on a recent late-night talk show as a 25-year-old architecture student.

She will talk about her favorite book, Dostoevski's "Crime and Punishment." "It's about this man who is driving himself insane by his own brain," she says. "He is creating hell for himself. People do this all the time."

Her favorite movie? " 'Frances,' because it was about standing up to your own life even if the world turns against you. It scared me that someone who wanted to get their point across would have to pay such a hard price."

Were she not an actress? "I would be a veterinarian, or a nurse who travels around the world."

The hardest part about becoming an "overnight" sensation? "To keep friends with yourself. To know how to stand up and survive."

An hour later, as a makeup artist transforms her face from lively to lovely, Kinski likens movie-making to a terminal illness.

"You let go a lot between one another," she says, "because you feel you have a short life to do and say and give everything. You have a very strong and personal relationship. Then when it's over, it's over."

That this end is depressing, she says, "is only a proof that it was something important. It's normal. You must get used to the fact that things have an end and not be sad about it. Because when one thing ends, another begins."