Like more than a few Werner Herzog works, Cobra Verde makes me think that the director’s mission on this particular shoot was to orchestrate a collective madness. While the story seems disjointed at points, especially in the early going, the mind-blowing spectacle the movie presents overcame my initial doubts. Klaus Kinski plays Francisco Manoel da Silva, a.k.a. Cobra Verde, a bandit who roams 19th-century Brazil, his status as a legendary rogue preceding him wherever he goes. When he staggers into a town square, the locals flee in terror.
Manoel da Silva lands a job managing a sugar plantation, only to knock up the owner’s three fetching daughters. Naturally the owner is none too pleased about this, and he finds a way to get rid of da Silva: The plantation owners tell him he’s now in charge of furnishing them with new slaves, and order him to set sail for West Africa. Da Silva is no position to refuse.
Cobra Verde only begins to take off once it relocates to Africa, even though, paradoxically, the storytelling becomes more diffuse. Da Silva sets up shop, in a horrible sense of the term, by reclaiming a spectacular abandoned coastal fort to use as a way station for the slaves he’ll ship to Brazil. But amoral and fierce though he may be, da Silva is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. First he is enlisted to take part in a palace coup against a local tribal leader; the scenes of wild-eyed Kinski training an army of African women warriors to take part in the coup are as memorably strange and intense as anything in the Herzog-Kinski oeuvre. But da Silva soon discovers that he’s nothing more than a pawn in power struggles within power struggles, his colonial hubris unmasked as the ultimate form of cluelessness.
Much of this narrative is only sketched out in rudimentary fashion; Herzog’s real interest is in presenting remarkable set pieces featuring hundreds of extras. (One scene reportedly includes more than 1,000 extras.) When da Silva is first brought before the local tribal ruler, Herzog gives the royal procession that precedes the king’s arrival plenty of time to play out in wide shot. The king (Nana Agyefi Kwame II) is not humble about displaying his might, and as we take in this flamboyant 19th-century African display of bling, it’s easy to forget that the movie is a fictional feature.
In fact, any time Kinski isn’t within camera range Cobra Verde starts to feel like a documentary. Herzog’s ethnographic curiosity trumps his interest in narrative, as scene after scene expands to take in as much of the local spectacle as possible. This weakens the dramatic momentum, and the tension, yet it’s also what makes Cobra Verde a memorable, eye-popping experience.
The wide shots and extended takes continue as da Silva trains his fierce women warriors and stages the revolt, and here even Klaus Kinski is overwhelmed by the swarming, near-chaotic action going on all around him. After the coup occurs, Herzog pulls out a doozy of an image, a sweeping tilt upward on a vast floor made out of human skulls. Maybe it’s the sense of realism Herzog has established, but this ghastly, awe-inspiring sight feels like something the production team stumbled across, rather than a flourish conceived by a set designer.
All those skulls are another sign of how unsentimentally Cobra Verde treats this milieu. The corruption of the slave traders is presented as a given, but the film is equally blunt in showing the native Africans exploiting and killing each other in the struggle for power. Cobra Verde never received U.S. distribution in the late ‘80s, even in arthouses, which is surprising given the Herzog-Kinski track record. I wonder if the film’s unsparing treatment of slavery — grim and depressing, and also utterly unconcerned with political correctness; this isn’t the sort of movie that would win an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey — frightened off potential distributors.
Kinski, it must be said, occasionally looks tired and uninspired in this role. Herzog has stated that his collaboration with Kinski ended here, because not only was the actor too unmanageable, even for Herzog, but Herzog couldn’t find new aspects of Kinski to bring out on screen. The movie bears that out.
Ultimately da Silva’s squalid little empire collapses, and a viewer familiar with Herzog’s work can’t help but think back to the ending of Aguirre (1972), one more white, would-be conqueror reduced to wretchedness, the victim of his own delusions. But Herzog doesn’t leave us with the pathetic spectacle that da Silva presents. A marvelous on-screen title declares that “The slaves will sell their masters and grow wings,” and the film cuts back to a dance troupe of African women we’ve seen earlier, this time in a closer shot. The lead dancer’s smile and knowing, confident gaze take on greater meaning now. It lifts the spirits to see these women and hear their song again, and it’s the best possible way for the movie to end.