Karina's mother was a dress shop owner and her father was a ship's captain who left the family a year after she was born. She lived with her maternal grandparents for three years, until she was four. She spent the next four years in foster care when she returned to live with her mother. She has described her childhood as "terribly wanting to be loved", and as a child made numerous attempts to run away from home.
She began her career in Denmark, where she sang in cabarets and worked as a model playing in commercials. At age 14, she appeared in a Danish short film by Ib Schmedes, which won a prize at Cannes. She studied dance and painting in Denmark and for a while made a living selling her paintings. In 1958, after a row with her mother, she hitchhiked to Paris.
Karina was 17 when she arrived in Paris—poor and unable to speak French. Living on the streets, she got a break while sitting at the cafe Les Deux Magots. She was approached by a woman from an advertisement agency who asked her to do some photos. She became a successful fashion model, meeting Pierre Cardin and Coco Chanel. Chanel helped her devise her professional name, Anna Karina.
Karina performed, uncredited, in a 1959 soap advertisement that was included near the end of Guy Debord's On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (fr). The image was accompanied by Debord's voice-over: "The advertisements during intermissions are the truest reflection of an intermission from life."
Jean-Luc Godard, then a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma, first saw Karina in a series of Palmolive ads in a bathtub covered in soapsuds. He was casting his debut feature film, Breathless. He offered her a small part in the film, but she refused when he mentioned that there would be a nude scene. When Godard questioned her refusal, mentioning the supposed nudity in the Palmolive ads, she is said to have replied, "Are you mad? I was wearing a bathing suit in those ads — the soapsuds went up to my neck. It was in your mind that I was undressed."
In the end, the character Godard reserved for Karina did not appear in the film. The next year, however, Godard offered her a role in Le Petit Soldat (1960). Karina, who was still under 21, had to persuade her estranged mother to sign the contract for her.
Karina won the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1961 for her performance as Angela in A Woman Is a Woman. She also appeared in Godard's Bande à part (1964). But her acting career was not limited to Godard's films. Her role in The Nun (1966), directed by Jacques Rivette, is considered by some to be her best performance. She also acted in Luchino Visconti's The Stranger (1967).
Karina's other films include the George Cukor/Joseph Strick collaboration Justine (1969), Tony Richardson's Laughter in the Dark (1969), Christian de Chalonge's The Wedding Ring (L'Alliance, 1971), Andre Delvaux's Rendezvous at Bray (Rendez-vous à Bray, also 1971), The Salzburg Connection (1972), Franco Brusati's Bread and Chocolate (Pane e cioccolata, 1973) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Chinese Roulette (1976). Fassbinder wrote the film for her and her partner at the time, Ulli Lommel.
In 1972, she set up a production company, Raska, for her directorial debut, Vivre ensemble (1973), in which she also acted and which was released in 1973. She wrote and acted in Last Song (1987) and has since appeared in Haut, Bas, Fragile (1995), directed by Jacques Rivette, and sung in The Truth About Charlie (2002), the remake of Charade.
Karina has appeared on stage in Rivette's adaptation of La Religieuse, Pour Lucrece, Toi et Tes Nuages, Françoise Sagan's Il Fait Beau Jour et Nuit and Ingmar Bergman's Efter repetitionen.
Karina has also maintained a singing career. At the end of the 1960s, she scored a major hit with "Sous le soleil exactement" and "Roller Girl" by Serge Gainsbourg. Both songs are from the TV musical comedy Anna (1967), by the film director Pierre Koralnik, in which she sings seven songs alongside Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Brialy. Karina subsequently recorded an album, Une histoire d'amour, with Philippe Katerine, which was followed by a concert tour. In 2005, she released Chansons de films, a collection of songs sung in movies.
Karina wrote, directed and starred in Victoria (2008), a musical road movie filmed in Montreal, Quebec and Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean. Richard Kuipers's review in Variety praised it as "a pleasant gambol through the backwoods of Quebec...Given plenty of room to work off each other, the members of this fine ensemble keep pic on track...Big plus is the music and heartfelt songs by Philippe Katerine."
Karina has written four novels: Vivre ensemble (1973), Golden City (1983), On n'achète pas le soleil (1988), and Jusqu'au bout du hasard (1998).
She died on Saturday, December 14 in Paris, from Cancer.