Written and Directed by Werner Herzog
Based on the Novel by Bruce Chatwin
– Klaus Kinski
Yes, of course, the final collaboration between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski is going to receive praise from me. Quite deservedly so. While not as masterful as Aguirre, as epically grandiose as Fitzcarraldo (though it is quite close), as moving as Woyzeck or as stylized and outright beautiful as Nosferatu, Cobra Verde stands upon it’s own powerful legs and really, up to any of the other Herzog/Kinksi films. Furthermore, it is without doubt Kinski’s most unhinged performance. Honestly, he is a literal screaming bat-shit madman in about one third of the scenes. You know that picture where Kinski has a sword leveled against Herzog’s throat? That’s from Cobra Verde. In fact, in My Best Fiend, Herzog claims that Cobra Verde was so intense that it broke Kinski’s spirit and led to his death by heart attack just four years later. For sure it destroyed whatever was left of their legendary working relationship. Kinski did go on to make two more films; the oddball Nosferatu in Venice where he was supposed to reprise his role but instead kept his lion’s mane and refused to get into makeup; and the disastrous, “unfilmable” Kinski Paganini. However, since both the films themselves and Kinski’s performance in each film has been harshly panned by every thinking critic, it is probably safe to assume that Herzog is correct. To summarize: you are watching the death throes and valediction of one of last century’s most dynamic, powerful and important actors.
The story concerns the life of Francisco Manoel da Silva, better know to the people of a certain province in Brazil as the vicious bandit, Cobra Verde. Puffed up like a peacock complete with coins braided into his inexplicably unkempt-do, Kinski strolls into a town square–rifle in hand–and sneers in satisfaction as a few dozen people scatter, so violent and vile is his reputation. He wakes a man up before killing him (“I want you to be alive when I kill you!”), refuses to wear shoes because like women, he “doesn’t trust them,” and his only friend is a hunchbacked, lazy eyed dwarf bartender. I swear it; I was waiting for Tom Waits to pop up at any moment and start crooning. Cobra Verde stumbles upon a slave plantation and just by the force of his expression stops a fleeing slave dead in his tracks. Don Octavio, the master of all the slaves (the magnificent Jose Lewgoy) is impressed; he needs a man like Cobra Verde because he has 600 slaves and his current capo is a pushover. Cobra Verde accepts and is good at his job, but Don Octavio soon becomes furious when he learns that the bandit Cobra Verde has gotten all three of his young daughters pregnant. A meeting is convened where Don Octavio and his henchmen discuss what is to be done with Cobra Verde. The idea of “just killing him” is floated; Don Octavio nixes it because, “Verde would take out three or four of us before he died.” It is finally decided that Cobra Verde will captain a ship to Africa to procure more slaves for the sugar plantation. They decide on this because A) the British have been cracking down on the slave trade as of late and maybe the ship will be sunk, and B) the King who Cobra Verde will have to deal with is quite insane and no white man has returned from overseas in ten years.
Immediately apparently to me, was the unusual narrative structure of the film. Scenes tend to abruptly stop and maybe a day or a week or years have passed. You could never say for sure, and really, what does it matter? In one scene Cobra Verde is covered in filth; the next he is sipping tea on the veranda. In one scene he is hours away from being beheaded. Two scenes later, he is leading an all female (and all topless) slave revolt because the women are braver than the men and the fucking King must simply die. But surprisingly, it works–though I should learn by now not to be surprised by Herzog. He can do what he wants, how he wants and there is always force of vision behind it. To quote him, “ecstatic truth.” The film itself feels as if it were out of time; not constrained by it in any way. Very airy and free; liberating even. When we need to know where Cobra Verde is, titles on screen let us know, but that is rare, and instead we are free to follow a man on a journey. In fact, it could be argued that like Fata Morgana, we really do not need to know where the action is taking place. What is on screen simply is. And by and large it more than just works–it is mesmerizing. To me, it seemed as if we were following a string of diary entries or vignettes more than your standard formulaic script. And, hey, why not?
Once Cobra Verde gets to Africa, Kinksi simply loses it. There are at least a dozen times when he makes that face. The unbridled, unhinged, off-the-motherfucking-tracks grimace of shear mania that only Kinksi could conjure up. Almost instantly he is installed in a massive abandoned and supposedly haunted fortress just yards from the beach. He is given command of hundreds of slaves and shown how you can tell their age by the quality of their teeth. Kinksi the actor, as well as Cobra Verde the man, seems to absolutely relish grabbing the random slave and prying open their mouth as you might do to a dog. Simply brutal. One of my more favorite scenes has the slaves constructing something at the behest of the King. Cobra Verde decides to help out, even though he is warned that white men simply do not help slaves. With a roar he dismisses that convention and helps about a dozen slaves carry a giant log. Perhaps I enjoyed that scene so much because it was reminiscent of the part in Aguirre where Kinksi is commanding the troops and the Indian slaves to move the cannon through the muck. In both scenes, he is all fury, all venom. Here, he has his shirt off and is shouting at the slaves to work harder, to lift higher! He throws a man out of the way so he can take the lead, for the front simply must be held up sufficiently high, not so much because he is Cobra Verde, but because he is Klaus Kinski. Truly a masterful, physical performance. And this might be the nostalgia bug biting me once again, but when the hopping mad King (who forces his people to worship his imaginary friend) has Cobra Verda tied up and explaining that not only are all dogs to be killed, but Cobra too, Kinksi’s expression is as nervous, awkward, rebellious and wonderful as that part in Fitzcarraldo where the tribe is discussing whether or not he is a god. Just fantastic.
I remember years ago reading a Quentin Tarantino interview, back when people thought he actually had something worthwhile to contribute to the cinematic canon, and he was asked if there were any directors he admired. Tarantino mentioned Spielberg, because to him, nobody directed a large cast better. Think the beach invasion in Saving Private Ryan. While Spielberg is no doubt good at that particular rudiment, Werner Herzog is much better. When the topless slave revolt starts, Kinski is showing all the woman-warriors how to fight. Think R. Lee Ermy screaming about war faces at Joker times 600 more actors. With no shirts. Kinski was just a wrecking ball, screaming “Higher! Higher! HIGHER!!” while striking his opponent with a spear. Let’s just say that if the particular actress didn’t have her shield in place, Kinski would have killed her. And not cared. The attack on the King is a marvel, and even more impressive was the flag-signaling scene where hundreds and hundreds of slaves are spinning white flags around sending a signal from Cobra to the King and back. The flags were breathtakingly great, and far beyond anything Spielberg would ever envision. Having watched My Best Fiend I already knew the ending to this one. In Fiend it was during the climax of Cobra Verde where Herzog explained how broken and spent Kinski was as a man. Rest assured, it most definitely came through on celluloid. I know I’ve mentioned all the other Herzog/Kinski films in discussing this one–and that is appropriate as there collaboration is a definite happening in the film world–but I want to leave you with the impression that Cobra Verde is its own film. Never is it beholden to their past achievements, never is it derivative. Rather, Cobra Verde is an intense, passionate movie about another world; one that is horrifically not so different from our own.