THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
By the time the 80's rolled around the gigantic collaborations of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski were starting to look like dinosaurs. Even though Fitzcarraldo was released in 1982 it had been in development for years and had more of the feel of earlier triumphs like 1972's Aguirre: The Wrath of God. That is why it is so shocking that their final collaboration, the bitter and acidic Cobra Verde was released in 1988. For such a monstrous production to have been mounted in the post-Heaven's Gate era seems unthinkable now. Just ponder the logistics: Kinski, in one of his maddest roles ever plays the bandit Cobra Verde who leaves the hellish Brazilian gold mines to seek out the ocean. He finds work as an overseer to six hundred African slaves on a sugar plantation. After impregnating all three of the plantation owner's daughters he is sent on an unbelievable suicide mission: To single-handedly reopen the dormant slave trade with a west African king. In Africa he discovers a society as difficult to understand as the one he just left, but through his maniacal dealings manages to get the job done. He eventually discovers that he is being cheated from all sides and decides to help a rebel movement overthrow the mad king in exchange for total control of the slave trade. To do so he trains an army of thousands of women who attack the kings palace in a sea of screams. The film ends with the spent Cobra Verde collapsing on the beach trying to pull a boat into the water to escape the madness he has helped create.
A complex film that deals with huge issues and ends on a somewhat opaque note, Cobra Verde has been derided as the least of the Herzog - Kinski collaborations. While it may not live up to the lyrical depth of Nosferatu or Aguirre it is hardly a clone of the earlier epics. Kinski's amazing performance is as different from Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo as can be. He may seem like yet another insane tyrant but the demons that drive him here come from a disgust with all those around him, instead of from greed and megalomania (Aguirre) and unachievable vision (Fitzcarraldo).
The larger scenes in Cobra Verde are as astonishing as any big budget film: a line of thousands of Africans relaying a message from one village to another by waving white flags, a endless army of tribal woman training for battle, first as a formless mob, then with total precision. There are scenes of great intimacy as well: Early on Cobra Verde shares a meal with a young cripple by candle-light. The lack of big film lighting makes the scene seem so personal and unusual that when Cobra Verde tells the young man "I've never had a friend before," the gesture is unmistakably real.
Some may consider the film racist for its depiction of the slave trade, but the traders are not spared any criticism. It's just that this ultimately is not a film about slavery, like Amistad, but rather about one man's journey for peace and the impossibility of ever finding that. A few moments near the end where Cobra Verde dismisses slavery as a huge crime almost seem out of place, since he has seemed so apolitical to that point. He may glower disapprovingly at a slave owner, but he is also quick to inspect the teeth of his chained slaves as if they were horses.
A powerful early scene keys us into this side of Kinski's character: When a slave about to be flogged in a Brazilian town square escapes and runs through the crowd Cobra Verde blocks his way and, with piercing eyes, freezes the man in his tracks. He advises him not to run, that running will only ultimately make the persecution worse. The man, stock still, stares back at Kinski, almost as if under a spell. Then, as guards violently seize the man Kinski works the same mind control on them. He tells them to let the man go and that he can find the whipping post by himself, essentially restoring a drop of the slave's dignity by allowing him to make his own path. This complex moment, which defines a lot about the dynamic of the film, is key in understanding a rich and deep performance by a unique master.
The picture is amazing. Crystal clear images really help capture the hugeness of the production. It is anamorphic and really shows off some stunning cinematography. The film was filmed entirely on location in Columbia, Brazil, and Ghana and really uses the locations expertly. There is no way to mistake the scenery for a sound-stage. Herzog's searches for authentic locations are legendary and it's easy to see why.
The audio is also quite good. The German track is in Dolby Digital 5.1 and that's the one to watch. There is also an English 2.0 track and a director's commentary track. Popol Vuh's score is subtle to the extreme. There are just touches of music that really help accentuate some key emotional moments.
The only notable extra is Herzog's commentary track. It is presented in interview form, but is scene specific. Herzog is always fascinating to listen to and even though there are some lags in the commentary, his stories about life on location are priceless. By now Herzog has amassed volumes of discussion of his working and personal relationship with Kinski, between his commentary tracks and the documentary Kinski: My Best Fiend. These tales are so fascinating that I could just listen to them all day.
Other Herzog / Kinski reviews:
Cobra Verde is not necessarily for everybody. The characterizations are dark and there is always a palpable air of danger. Kinski's sneering performance is as effective as ever, but these qualities that I seek out in the films by these men are exactly the qualities that may turn some off. The portrayal of the slave trade is often brutal and may be misinterpreted, but I'm sure they only scratch the surface of a sickening period in world history. Unlike recent Hollywood pap like The Patriot, which practically denies that slavery was all that bad, Cobra Verde pulls no punches.
My Best Fiend
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org