The slaves will sell their masters and grow wings.
After collaborating on Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo in South America, as well as Nosferatu and Woyzeck in Europe, director Werner Herzog and his nemesis/partner Klaus Kinski moved to West Africa to film Cobra Verde (1987), an epic that traces the dying groans of the cross-continental slave trade.
Facts of the Case
In 19th Century Brazil, the sugar barons thrive despite the drought, thanks to the bone-grinding labours they exact from thousands of imported African slaves. Through the cracks of this morally corrupt society slips a barefoot, gun-wielding bandit named Francisco Manoel da Silva, better known as Cobra Verde. When a sugarcane plantation owner hires da Silva to supervise his slaves, he gets more than he bargained for, as Cobra Verde impregnates all three of his daughters.
To get rid of the bandit, the Brazilian aristocrats send Cobra Verde to Elmina, West Africa, with orders to re-open negotiations with King Bosso, a black monarch who until recently supplied the white man with slaves from his own kingdom. He arrives to find the slavers' garrison deserted, and the King, apparently, gone mad. But Cobra Verde is a special kind of diplomat, and before his Brazilian bosses know what's happening, he's training an army of amazons to launch a rebellion against the King.
Like all of Herzog's films, be they fiction or documentaries, Cobra Verde devotes its energies to presenting the viewer with images they've never seen, or even dreamt of. Herzog based Cobra Verde on the novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, by Bruce Chatwin, but as he admits early on in the disc's commentary, he changed the structure and the story to make the world of the film his own. The result is a surreal, hypnotic journey into morally ambiguous territory, led by an increasingly dubious tour guide.
This was one of Kinski's last films—four years later, he would die of a heart attack—and you can see him unraveling slowly in front of the camera. His intensity is unsettling, and in the moments when Herzog has him face directly into the camera, you start to wonder if he isn't going to lunge out of the screen and try to throttle you. Herzog populates the film with a wealth of fascinating actors with memorable faces, but Kinski commands your attention, even when he's in the background. It's a one-of-a-kind performance that goes beyond Oscar consideration and demands a whole new scale of comparison.
Filmed on location in West Africa (and in Colombia, for the first act), the movie brilliantly creates a sense of physical and temporal space, often plunging kilometers into the background, thanks to Viktor Ruzicka's magnificently textured cinematography (another sign of Kinski's insanity: the original cinematographer, Thomas Mauch, was forced to leave after only a few days of shooting because of Kinski's ceaseless verbal abuse).
Anchor Bay's DVD treatment of Cobra Verde is as reverent as it should be. The transfer is clear and sharp, capturing the full depth of Ruzicka's camerawork, from wide, panoramic shots in broad daylight, to detailed nighttime shots lit only by natural candlelight. The sound is also excellent; Anchor Bay is able to offer Dolby 5.1 Surround on the original German track, and Dolby 2.0 Surround on the English dubbed track. Not bad.
For extras, they've got a trailer (in German with or without subtitles, or dubbed in English), plus talent files on Herzog and Kinski (the latter contains the colourful quote: "I absolutely despise the murderous Herzog…Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes, gobble up his balls, penetrate his asshole and eat his guts!"). There's also a wonderful commentary featuring Herzog and Anchor Bay's Norman Hill. It provides many impressive insights into how Herzog managed to shoot a full-sized epic film for just under $2 million. It also details his working relationship with Kinski, his conversations with novelist Bruce Chatwin, and even his opinions about aspect ratios (he says he'll never do a film in cinemascope because he doesn't think in a broad band like that).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it is an artistically and technically masterful film, Cobra Verde didn't have the same impact upon me as the earlier Herzog/Kinski collaborations did. Like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, they centre on impassioned but misunderstood men trying to pursue their dreams in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Cobra Verde, which owes its heritage to folk tales of superhuman anti-heroes like Zorro and Robin Hood, has the same themes, but not the same intensity. The single-minded passion of its protagonist intersects early on with the moral turpitude of the moribund slave trade, and never disentangles itself long enough to regain momentum.
The slave trade, and particularly the idea of black monarchs selling off their own people (which Herzog maintains actually did happen), is an important issue which deserves the attention of more filmmakers. I like the way Herzog unapologetically portrays the sugar plantation owner at the film's opening, scarcely batting an eye while yet another slave gets an arm crushed in the machinery. Contrast this with the desperation of the aristocrat at the end of the film, who calls slavery "the greatest misunderstanding in mankind's history," and you've got a thematic arc that would make Spielberg jealous.
But is the film about slavery, or is it about Cobra Verde? You get the clear impression that neither Verde nor Kinski give a damn about the slave trade, or the questions it provokes. This makes Verde's response at the end of the film-"It was not a misunderstanding. It was a crime"-ring false, as if Herzog felt he had to place those words in Verde's mouth to make his personal journey tie in with the tide of the film. Hearing this admission of guilt from a man who just led a hundred topless Amazon warriors on a raid to slaughter an insane king seems, well, misplaced.
I also have a minor quibble with a few scenes in the latter half of the film where the camera suddenly becomes abrupt, as if the shots were done in 16 frames per second and then sped up. Norman Hill asks Herzog about these moments on the commentary track, and while Herzog attempts to explain them as an "optical effect" which appealed to him and added to the unreal tone of the scenes, he later seems to suggest that they might have been accidental. Nothing unusual there; many of Herzog's greatest triumphs were happy accidents of one sort or another. But these jumpy moments don't ring true for me, and it occurs to me that Herzog could have used the DVD transfer as an opportunity to clean them up, or remove them.
In spite of these concerns, I recommend Cobra Verde to foreign film buffs who have yet to savour the intensity of Klaus Kinski unbound. The final scene, where Verde struggles with his waning strength to haul a longboat into the sea, is a miniature masterpiece of human energy and natural forces in collision.
Herzog once said, "We live in a society that has no adequate images anymore, and if we do not find adequate images and an adequate language for our civilization with which to express them, we will die out like the dinosaurs." While it lacks the soul-stripping intensity of his earlier work, Cobra Verde indisputably contains some of the most "adequate" filmic images of its decade. It is also a fitting testament to the uncontrollable genius that was Klaus Kinski.
Cobra Verde stands acquitted. Anchor Bay is congratulated for yet another fine addition to their Werner Herzog library; we look forward to further additions (may I recommend Heart of Glass or The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser next?).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailer
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