Cobra Verde (West Germany/Ghana, 1987) * * * *
D: Werner Herzog
Herzog's last film with Klaus Kinski is a forgotten epic, a rewarding spectacle that's often misunderstood by those who've only viewed it once. A notorious bandit, "Cobra Verde" (Kinski), after impregnating the three daughters of a plantation owner in Brazil, is sent away on a suicide mission to re-establish the slave trade with a kingdom situated in Ghana, West Africa, around the fort of Elmina. The King has been deemed insane, and is said to kill any white man who sets foot on his land. Cobra Verde accepts the title of viceroy and sails across the ocean. At first he seems to meet with success; although the only white man he meets is a corrupt bishop tolerated by the locals (the slave-trading fort of Elmina has been sieged and abandoned), the fast-firing rifles he offers are highly valued by the local government, at war with a neighboring tribe. But his business venture is only briefly successful. The King orders Cobra Verde seized and brought to him, then orders his face painted black, since it's still considered forbidden to decapitate a white man. That night, Cobra Verde is rescued by men in service to the prince, who, it seems, is twice as insane as his father. His eyes always wild, he speaks in nonsense declarations, although we might be wary that when a leopard is heard roaring, he calls it "My father!"--for the royal family associates themselves with leopards. Soon after, he proves more wily than he seemed, double-crossing the bandit just before the slave trade itself is banned in Brazil. Cobra Verde, marked for death and finally abandoned by all, flees toward a hopeless fate.
Although the film has earned its place in cinema history as the last collaboration between the infamous savages Herzog and Kinski (for more on their troubled relationship, cut to the chase and rent Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend), Cobra Verde is also somewhat of the bastard child of that output, ranked below the more admired Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Though it is probably remembered more vividly than their Fassbinder-esque meltdown melodrama Woyzeck (1979), Cobra Verde is a difficult film: somehow both ambiguous and direct, morally complex but with a simple, straightforward narrative. The main dilemma is Cobra Verde himself, who is in almost every scene of the film but hesitates to reveal himself to the viewer. At the outset, in South America, he seems to be a Man with No Name from a Sergio Leone Western--a scowling rascal whom no one can defeat single-handed (although, this being a Herzog film, there are no duels, just lingering shots of desolate towns occupied by vermin and hogs). He is an outlaw, but he has no compunction about cornering a slave and ordering him back to the whipping-post. The narrative sets him with such an impossible task--not pulling a boat over a mountain, perhaps, but just as futile in nature--that he automatically is lent sympathetic qualities. He doesn't earn them, but he has them to a certain degree, because this is how the story is structured and he is, after all, our protagonist. When we're quickly reminded as to why he's there, and we see the almost taboo image of Africans bound together by chains at the neck, we're repulsed. Yet Kinski still marches through, overseeing it all, scowling, and Herzog's camera follows him in fascination. We want to think there's more to this man because Herzog believes there is, and we indulge. At one point Kinski plunges amidst the slaves to help them bear the weight of a giant trunk through Elmina's gates, and he shoves one of the slaves aside so that he can take the lead. It's like a parody of Jesus' march toward crucifixion, except that he doesn't relieve the burden out of empathy, but rather because he thinks he can do better. Like all Herzog heroes, Cobra Verde has his wild eyes fixed upon an insurmountable goal, and sets himself resolutely against all the forces arrayed against him in a manner that isn't noble but unnerving, frightening.
A simpler story might have had Cobra Verde find redemption once he leads his Amazon warriors to overthrow the King--the man would repent his crimes, and work to overthrow the slave trade. But he only works to build the slave trade up again; this, after a spectacular setpiece in which he trains the warrior women by hurtling himself into their midst, picking up a spear alongside them howling, and then, perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, he leads his female army to storm the walls of the King's court at Abomey, at one point hurling a venomous snake out of his path with bare hands in his frothing stampede. Cobra Verde's evolution, his character arc, is less obvious, and on the initial viewing it might be invisible. He's a cutthroat admirable only for his determination. On the other hand, a second viewing makes his progression more clear. The first major scene in the film is a long discussion between Kinski and a dwarf about the snow high in the mountains; the dwarf describes it as a wintry heaven, where the snowflakes fall like feathers and the ice glistens. Kinski listens expressionlessly, but for once he lacks his scowl. That's a clue. Later, while awaiting execution in the King's camp, lying in the dirt and with no one around to hear, he cries out in longing for that mystical snow. And amidst the quiet, lyrical scenes following the battle, he provides only one full glimpse into his psyche, in an aborted attempt at a diary or a letter (if the latter, presumably to his lover, a slave on the plantation in Brazil):
I cannot begin to describe this cretinous existence of mine, nor how lonely it is to be without family or friends, the only white man in this country, perhaps the whole continent. Meanwhile I have become the father of sixty-two children, but this gives me no satisfaction. Perhaps next year I shall come back and marry. I would live in the lands of ice and snow, anywhere to be away from here. The heat here is mean and inescapable. It courses through the bodies of the people like a fever, and yet my heart grows colder and colder.
Cobra Verde is damned, and he knows it. He is a prisoner and a slave to the existence he is pitted against, and although he fights against the odds as soon as he arrives in Ghana, to succeed in his almost insurmountable task strips him of his soul. After all, should Sisyphus finally push his boulder (or riverboat) over the hill after countless attempts, how much humanity would he have left, and would he be able to appreciate his accomplishment? Our bandit has been handed an evil task, and though he dutifully follows it, inspecting the teeth of his slaves, rounding them up for the slave ships--when he asks to ventilate their holding cells, it's only because he wants to cut down on the casualty rate--ultimately, near his end, hunted by the English and facing a life in in the shadows, he becomes sharply aware of his condition.
It was no misunderstanding. It was a crime. Slavery is an element of the human heart. [Toasting] To our ruin!
In Herzog's typically cynical fashion, he implicates everyone in the slave trade, including the viewer. We buy and sell each other. (Cobra Verde has been, after all, slave to the company that he sent him here, slave to the King of Abomey, and now he has been sold to the English.) But if that final exchange is atypically spelled-out, the final images of the film summarize the point more poetically. Cobra Verde has fled to the beach, approaching a canoe that he hopes will bear him across the ocean. When he sees one of Elmina's cripples following him, his stride quickens, and he seems panicked. He arrives at the craft and tries to push it into the water. It doesn't budge. Desperately, he grabs a mooring-rope and pulls with all his might, yet it still doesn't budge. Eventually, exhausted, he collapses into the sea, rolling with the surf until all of his movements finally cease, and the water rolls over his head, burying him into the sand. This might be considered Herzog's most existential moment. I see it as so pure and straightforward that it is almost devoid of philosophy. Here is our end; but here also is this man's specific end, as all his efforts have come to nothing. Why is it that although the viewer cannot fully empathize with him, and though he remains a deep mystery, this ending--in which he really becomes a pathetic wretch--remains devastating? We are in the realm of Shakespearean tragedy, the realm of Macbeth, but transformed and given a slightly different resonance. Herzog has once again touched an invisible realm, that ecstatic cinema he's always sought, and Cobra Verde deserves to finally be recognized as one of his best films.