DVD Review Of Cobra Verde
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/25/08
Twenty years ago saw the release of the final Werner Herzog-Klaus Kinski collaboration, Cobra Verde. It is a good film, but not nearly on par with such classics as Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night, nor Fitzcarraldo, and it is a film even Herzog has expressed dissatisfaction with. The film was written by Herzog, who adapted it from a novel by Bruce Chatwin, The Viceroy Of Ouidah; but it’s probably the least affecting screenplay of the major Herzog-Kinski films, as well as the film the two made together that has the least for Kinski to do- i.e- strut his stuff and dominate whole scenes. Things move far too quickly and illogically, there is little explanation of scenes and events, and little in the way of character development, in either the lead character or the few minor characters that say anything. The cinematography is- as usual, excellent, and there are often quotable snippets of dialogue, but, as a whole, the film fails to capture the imagination the way the above named films do. Cobra Verde (the character as written- not Kinski’s superb acting) is simply not that compelling a figure, for he has no grand divide within him. He is a brute and a scoundrel, and little more. After this film, Kinski and Herzog had a final falling out, and Kinski died a few years later.
The film opens with a Brazilian folk fiddler singing The Ballad Of Cobra Verde- a real life 19th Century Brazilian legend. Then we see an extreme close-up of Kinski’s forehead and uplifting eyes- quite a scary shot, and a 360° shot of a desert with skeletons of cattle. The man seems to be a living manifestation of death. We then see Cobra Verde- the alias used by Francisco Manoel da Silva, working in a Brazilian mine. He is cheated by the overseer, quarrels, then takes off, and intimidates a whole town into hiding when he arrives- in a scene that both parodies and emulates scenes from the great Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. There is then a long and pointless scene with a bar owning dwarf, Euclides da Silva (Guillermo Coronel)- a distant relative of Cobra Verde’s, who tells the thief that he has seen snow, and spins a yarn that endears him to Cobra Verde. He is then hired by a wealthy sugarcane plantation owner, Don Octavio Coutinho (Jose Lewgoy)- who does not recognize the infamous bandit, to oversee his own slaves, but soon impregnates all three of the man’s daughters, in counterpoint to the owner’s impregnating his female slaves. In order to rid himself of the bandit he conspires with other plantation owners to reopen the slave trade in Brazil, and send him off to the African nation of Dahomey, where no white man has come out alive in a decade. Cobra Verde knows this, but goes anyway, as if he has a death wish. The reason they don’t kill him is because the Don says he would take out three or four of them before he died.
Once there, Cobra Verde somehow succeeds in befriending the insane king, who sends him captured slaves. Just as quickly, the king turns on him, captures the thief and his black assistant, Taparica (King Ampaw), and prepares to kill them. Taparica is a leftover from the garrison that was overrun, where all the white men were killed. His appearance is reminiscent of a similar character in Fitzcarraldo. They are freed by rogue elements in Dahomey, for reasons unknown. Cobra Verde then leads an army of women warriors who end up helping him send the king to his death. The slave trade resumes until Brazil bans slavery- setting that portion of the film in 1888, thus making Cobra Verde a man out of time. The film ends with him struggling on a beach to get a huge rowboat into the sea, to evade capture, for the British have placed a bounty on his head. Whether or not he dies in the surf is a matter of personal interpretation. I think not, for there is something indomitable about the character, even as one dimensional as he is.
The film is interesting, despite its flaws, for, despite Herzog’s well known ‘eye level realism,’ even in such big films as Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, this film has a more conventional feel to the cinematography, yet Herzopg shows he can master that, as well- even if he eschews truly widescreen shots. There is less eye to eye filming, and more sweepingly classical panorama shots by cinematographer Viktor Ruzicka which are astonishingly beautiful. On the plus side, the film has another great soundtrack by Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh- his last for Herzog, and eschews a PC interpretation of the slave trade- compare it to Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. There is little soul searching for these avaricious characters, and the black king and his slavers are every bit as despicable and power hungry as the white men. One character, Taparica, tells Cobra Verde that the young black men brought to him in chains are lucky, for were they not going to be slaves sent to the New World, they would have been ritually killed by their king. In short, the Scylla of slow death by slavery is justified by their not having to endure the Charybdis of immediate death in their homeland. And this sentiment is spoken by a black man!
Of course, there are elements in this film that no other filmmaker would include, such as the catching of a slave’s arm into a sugarcane crushing machine, as the plantation owner and bandit simply watch, or the final shipment of slaves Cobra Verde receives- all cripples; including one man who walks on all fours, ruined by polio. That this character later appears in the background of the scene on the beach where Cobra Verde tries to flee is an example of the innovative use of symbolism that Herzog employs, even if it is a reminder of his own earlier film, Even Dwarfs Started Small- just as the Euclides digression was. In this case, the crippled man is all of Africa, and his stooped ill represents the genocide and slavery inflicted upon that continent, which continues to this day. Of course, Herzog does not state such a thing outright, for this is art, not a PC bumper sticker. This is what makes one of the last scenes a bit of an anomaly, especially for Herzog, and a bad filmic moment. When he gets word that he has been cheated of his earnings and slavery in Brazil is banned, a Brazilian cohort of Cobra Verde’s says that slavery was ‘the greatest misunderstanding of mankind;’ to which the amoral thief intones, ‘It was no misunderstanding, it was a crime.’ Earlier in the film, he had stated, ‘Slavery is an element of the human heart,’ so the moment does not ring true, and seems something that is crudely shoehorned in to show some character development. Unfortunately, there are no scenes before that which would suggest Cobra Verde has changed his mind about his profession.
There are also a few other scenes that seem out of place- both in sentiment and chronology, such as when Cobra Verde has to send a message to the king and does it by having hundreds of tribesman stand in line, signaling for miles with white flags there and back to him. As well, there are many disjunct scenes that seem to never quite fit together, for they have no unity that gives insight to the overarching tale, nor its protagonist, and often leave not mere narrative ellipses, but gaping canyons in the tale. Weeks or months pass, but there seems to be no way of telling how long- much less why the ellipsis has occurred, such as when, in a few moments, Cobra Verde goes from nearly being killed to leading the Amazon warriors against the king. That said, perhaps the best scene in the film is when Cobra Verde refuses to visit the mad king and says he must always have one foot in the ocean. So king’s men tie him up, fill a jug with seawater, and tie it around his foot for the trip to see the king.
The DVD is put out by Anchor Bay, part of the Herzog/Kinski boxed set, and is of great quality, in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio. It comes with a single trailer with three ways of viewing it: in German, German with subtitles, and in English dub. It also includes talent bios and an audio commentary by Herzog and Anchor Bay’s Norman Hill. Herzog is not as interesting as he is on other commentaries, something that may be reflective of the film’s lesser stature, as well. The film seems to not have been as memorable an experience, for much of it has Herzog silent, telling tales on how much he liked this or that actor, that the film cost only $2 million to make- and all of it is onscreen, that he feels that Cobra Verde dies at film’s end, and his usual schtick on how crazed Kinski was. Thankfully, the film is dubbed into both German and English, for parts of it were filmed in both languages. Kinski’s voice was dubbed by another actor for the English version.
Yet, Kinski shows he is a great actor throughout the film. Cobra Verde declares that he does not trust shoes, women, horses, and little else, and has that glower that only Kinski could do. That alone is mesmerizing enough. Had only there been more such moments in this hour and fifty minute film the film may have achieved greatness, but as the main character is never fully realized and the narrative is patchwork- at best, the film is merely a good but uneven work of art. Yet, despite this, a little perspective is needed, for a flawed film by Werner Herzog is significantly better than most any other film a lesser filmmaker will make. By mortal standards, this is not a bad film, at all, but from this great filmmaker and his legendary star- who together left three indisputable masterpieces: Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night, and Fitzcarraldo, as well as the excellent and enigmatic Woyzeck, it is a bit of a disappointment. Too often it steals the best ideas from earlier and better Herzog films, and never reinvigorates them adequately to suit their inclusion in this film’s cosmos. Perhaps it is this knowledge that is behind Herzog’s final disappointment with his own film. If so, he is correct in his assessment, and that very awareness is the reason Herzog is such a great artist, for understanding greatness is a deeper and rarer thing than achieving it, for, as I have said, ‘Greater than transcendence is its recognition.’ Herzog has done both in his career, although only one shall have to suffice in Cobra Verde.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Feel The Word website.]
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