Danzig claiming its rightful place in the sun

Cobra Verde (Werner Herzog, 1987)

So I was invited to a friend’s house for lunch + a big walk, but told to bring a DVD in case rain stopped play (which it did). For all my conversionary tendencies, I was in one of those moods where I thought it only polite to bring something I hadn’t seen either; after ransacking my collection, I came away with the one film from the Herzog/Kinski boxset that I haven’t seen yet.

We all know and love Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, obviously, and I think I’d put off watching this one because I feared the law of diminishing returns. Kinski as a bounty hunter in South America? I felt like I’d already seen it. This was very much the sensation I had for the early sequences of the film, but when the action moved to the coast of Africa, we had something new to look at. More than any other Herzog film, this is one where the narrative is secondary to the striking images he can conjure up.

To be honest, if you know your Herzog you probably have seen this film already. Monologues from inbred-looking locals who don’t seem to know what they’re saying, check. Ambient music, native music and angsty poetry over panning shots of an alien-looking landscape, check. Wild, mysterious, off-the-wall, but rather impressive one-liners, check. And of course, Kinski doing his thing.

All of which is actually very watchable. Kinski is very obviously a one-off and couldn’t phone in a performance if he tried. Just unleash him, roll the camera, and you’ve got magic. If you’ve not seen it before go on youtube and see how Jason Robards and Kinski play the same scene from Fitzcarraldo. In this one, I love the fact that a deathly pale blonde from the Baltic coast is playing a native Brazilian and nobody finds it incongruous- magic of the movies for ya.

Where Cobra Verde might fall short is that this time, Kinski’s character doesn’t have a dream, which could have propelled the story along. Aguirre had his fanciful megalomaniac aspirations, Fitzcarraldo was doing it all for opera, but Cobra Verde is a jaded veteran who seems to accept assignments as a way of killing time. Nor do we feel that Herzog particularly identifies with the lunatic quest of his hero this time around; perhaps a consequence of the notorious fights getting too much for the pair.

One aspect of this film I appreciated was its frank, this-is-what-people-did depiction of the slave trade. I hate to admit it, but with the champagne Marxism of my beloved Losey this film would probably have got suffocated in “slavery is bad, okay?” dialectic. With his lack of sentimentality and his ‘stuff happens’ indifference to political posturing, Herzog’s take is off-the-wall oblique. If he walked into a room and saw Johnny Depp deep in conversation with Jack Nicholson, he’d probably look behind the radiator and train his camera on a spider weaving a web. Long stretches of his films can be dull, but you’re guaranteed at least half a dozen images that will fascinate and delight.

Ok. Cobra Verde. A toothless violinist plays and tells us about the legend of Cobra Verde. Panoramic views of a desolate desert, focussing on of the cracks and fissures in the dried-mud ground. A close-up of Kinski’s wispy fringe and psychotic eyes. We zoom out. We hear the noisy buzz of flies. He’s standing before a makeshift crucifix. The titles appear over an extremely slow 360-degree pan across sandhills, a mountain range, carrion bones and a dying cow. Mystical humming. All very Herzog; it’s a hostile world.

Now Kinski is covered in mud, on some kind of chain gang and carrying sacks over a pile of corpses. The mercenaries queue for their pay and Kinski is turned away. His first tantrum; “Wo ist das geld?!”. Cut to darkness, illuminated by a candle. “I want you to be awake when you die”, hisses Kinski.

The square of a small town somewhere in Brazil. They see him coming and understandably everyone runs for it, taking sanctuary in the church. The camera lingers on a barrel left to roll over the cobblestones, pigs roaming the square. Kinski takes his time and drinks from a fountain. We see the doors of the church pulled shut. He enters a bar with a hunchbacked dwarf barman. The boy has spunk and stands up to him, earning his respect. Over a candlelit dinner, he entertains Kinski with tall tales about snow on the moon.

Next morning Kinski plays highwayman. In the wilderness we see slaves carrying a sedan chair past a ruined church. Inside the ruins, the view of a trained gun. When the gun fires and the slaves scatter, the girl in the sedan saves her neck with a seductive dance. As they tumble together, Kinski tells he’s barefoot because he “doesn’t trust shoes”.

The sound of screams in the town square. Slaves are being flogged and there are lots of spectators; we see bored-looking white men in carriages, wearing panamas and linen suits. One slave tries to run for it and we see his POV as the camera darts through a crowd of blurred faces, until Kinski stands in his way and tells him he’ll be much better off going back to face the whip. One of the rich men is impressed. He just happens to be looking for a foreman to oversee his sugar cane crops.

Herzog shows off the beautiful grounds of the boss’ house, his giggling daughters hiding behind a curtain as Kinski is received. The boss boasts about how successful he is in a voiceover, whilst we see hundreds of slaves toiling in the tall crops. The vehemently anti-slavery English, we are told, are his biggest customers. Demonstrating the various processes of sugar manufacture to Kinski, the boss sees a man get his arm caught in machinery. “Someone get a machete!”

Kinski sits on the terrace with his back to the three girls. The only sounds are birds, parrots and the giggles of the girls, as they pour him tea. The girls throw coy looks and questions Kinski’s way; we can see that they’re hot for this Noble Savage. When he storms off into the flamingo-filled gardens one of the girls follows. Kinski seizes her and Herzog cuts to still shots of tropical foliage.

It’s the calm before the storm. In the next scene, an agitated handheld camera  swerves around the room as the boss throws a tantrum of his own. All his daughters are pregnant by Kinski. Our amusement is augmented by one of them being called Valkyria. The rich men dine in their ostentatious uniforms and discuss what is to be done. The King of Dahomey has gone mad and stopped doing business with us; if Kinski were sent to Africa he would be sure to get himself killed. We glimpse Kinski in the garden, listening in. He accepts.

Off the African coast, a ship is rocking wildly in tall waves. They row ashore, where a crowd of astonished boys surround and follow Kinski (sporting a three-cornered hat and looking decidedly unimpressed at what he sees). A huge procession arrives at the beach. Amongst it is a fat white priest giving communion to men and goats. Very Heart of Darkness.

The chief asks Kinski where his gifts are. No gifts, Kinski tells him, until you reopen the slave trade. The priest shows Kinski into an empty castle, the camera circling our hero as he takes it all in. It’s an abandoned garrison with peeling paint and wild sheep wandering about. An African man meets him and laughs hysterically; he was a drum major and the sole survivor when the inhabitants of the place were raped and slaughtered. Now the scores of bats in his bedroom are his “brothers and sisters”. Close-ups of crabs dancing across the floor. Why have you turned up without any troops, he asks Kinski? Do you want to get yourself killed?

Kinski wakes in a hammock to the sound of multitudes at the castle gate. They use ladders to scale the walls, and start repainting the place. Kinski mucks in with the heavy lifting. We see the Brazilian flag flying. It looks like he’s actually pulled it off. A singing chain-gang enter the castle, joined at the neck by interlinking tree branches. Kinski inspects their gums. “They’re lucky,” Kinski’s new sidekick tells him, “We’re saving them from human sacrifice”. 

One of the Brazilian generals shows up- he’s baffled, but fairly pleased to have 300 slaves to bring back. Kinski is plain and businesslike, urging him to send more rifles. From high above, we see men in turbans chivvying along the chain gang and pushing tearful women out of the castle. Far removed from this, Kinski paces up and down on an upper platform.

Soon the mad king is desirous of an audience with Kinski. His men bring a letter that the King has dictated to his scribe. It reads, “I am Portuguese and have been kept prisoner here for 15 years. If you come you are a dead man.” Kinski is evasive, telling the men he must always keep one foot on the sea. They overpower him and his drum-major, wrap them in sheets and tie the sheets to poles. Kinski’s foot is placed in a jug of sea water; nice of them.

Whooping and shrieking, the King’s men carry their quarry all the way to the capital of Abomey. All wrapped up, they do not see corpses hanging upside down and heads on spikes (again, we think of Conrad). The locals perform a ceremonial dance with beaded skirts and umbrellas. A big gold crown on his head, the king boogies as he is carried out on a sedan. His subjects cheer as he declares that all dogs are to be killed for trying to talk like humans. He drinks from the skull of a rival king and he has an empty stool to his left for his invisible friend, the Bush King.

Kinski will, of course, die. His face is painted black as men dance around him. By nightfall he’s still tied and dyed, however; the King is clearly savouring the anticipation and the power of holding a white man. Which is his trouble, as during the night Kinski and pal are rescued by the Prince’s men. The King has gone north and the Prince is planning a coup. We’ve noticed this chap at court; he has a pop-out bulging stare and his speaking voice is a little camp. Right in front of him, the Prince’s aid tells Kinski that he’s “quite insane”.

Back on the coast, Kinski is attempting to train hundreds of women warriors. It’s chaos but it’s the first time we’ve seen him in his element, really enjoying his work instead of brooding. Gurning with exertion, he demonstrates how to attack with spear and sword. He rages when the women stop drilling; they want to march on Abomey now but he doesn’t think they’re ready. The women get their way.

The ground is burning outside the city gates. Sonorous music and a shot of the king on his throne, then the plains filling with smoke. Kinski leads his troops through the gates. The camera glides over a carpet made from hundreds of human skulls- this is the floor of the king’s chamber. The insurgents rush in, the King steps off the throne and heads into the back room. His wives will strangle him, Kinski is told. The Prince and he take the two thrones and Kinski is appointed Viceroy.

We see Kinski and the new King communicate by semaphore; from the shore to Abomey, a line of subjects waving flags. Kinski walks amongst a bare-breasted singing troupe, towering above them. The girls look about 14; the lead singer grins suggestively at the camera. She has star quality and in her one or two appearances she rivals Kinski. By now he has fathered 62 children -we see him looking down a well to pick out his next partner- but it’s cold comfort. He sits in a bare room to write of his dissatisfaction and his wish to leave. The camera pulls back and a shaft of light comes in from the doorway.

Inevitably, the wheel of fortune turns against Kinski; he is made a scapegoat but doesn’t appear any more moved or affected by it than he did by the times of prosperity. The generals con him, defaulting on their payments. Brazil abolish slavery and confiscate Kinski’s bank account. England put a price on his head. The King’s men come round and tell him “You used to be the Viceroy”.

The famous final scenes have that drastic and mystery-tinged Herzog touch, as Kinski tries and tries to pull the rowing boat to sea, before collapsing exhausted into the surf and being buffeted around the waves. Hopping on all fours, a polio-ridden onlooker moves like a kangaroo. Powerful, poetic stuff. Looking for a less downbeat ending, Herzog returns to that fantastic, mannered performance of the girl singers.

Perhaps a jaded film, but Herzog’s roving eye is always capable of plucking the diamonds from the rough.


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August 2009
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