Werner Herzog Season – Cobra Verde (1987)
He certainly gets around doesn’t he, air-miles wise? In this season we’ve weaved all over the glove, from the fetid jungles of South America to the burgeoning sun of the Sahara, from the Bavarian foothills to the prairies of the mid-west of America. In our final movie we’re travelling to the 18th century Caribbean, for Herzog’s fifth and final collaboration with Klaus Kinski, their partnership irrevocably broken by one of the most difficult shoots of his career. The film is based upon Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, opening with a distinct Jodorowskian vibe, as Francisco Manoel da Silva (Kinski) is physically framed by pestilence, disease and suffering. His Brazilian ranch has blighted by drought and famine, leading this debauched, venal and vengeance driven sort to reluctantly goe to work at a local gold mining company. Not being keen of the wretched pay and exploitative conditions da Silva murders the exploitative boss and flees the authorities, starting a new career as the vicious outlaw Cobra Verde (translation: Green Snake), the most venomous cut-purse of the sertão. Eventually da Silva slithers into the orbit of Don Octávio Coutinho (José Lewgoy), a wealthy sugar baron who offers him a job as his new slave wrangler, controlling and mustering his stock of 600 souls on his fertile and expansive plantation. Naturally this being Kinski he can’t keep it in his pants, and he knocks up not one, not two but all three of the Don’s daughters, his transgressions causing the Don to sentence him to a suicidal mission – to purchase and deliver some new slaves from the mad king of Dahomey, his hostile realm situated on the West coast of Africa.
Another disaffected loner, wearily wrestling and brawling with life on his own indiscriminate terms – I don’t know about you but I’m beginning to sense something of a theme here? Cobra Verde was shot in the cosmopolitan climes of Ghana, Brazil and Colombia, another glimpse of some infrequently inspected cultures and societies, again proving Herzog’s ideological support for the forgotten stories of our species past. Colonialism, imperialism and the wounds of slavery are all big, weighty historical subjects, but Herzog seems more fascinated with the physical environment and etymology of his Atlantic spanning tale, leaving the historical grievances to quietly fade into the background. There is nothing redeeming in da Silva’s conduct, profession or behaviours, and he is little more than a vessel to observe these scorched lands rather than a hero through which to fight a liberating cause, a snarling anti-hero that is not permitted a modicum of sympathy or pause. These rarely seen locations are beautiful and exotic, with the shimmering landscapes of the west African coast and South American veldt harbouring a cornucopia of flora and wildlife that would make David Attenborough grin in glee, the human trappings of civilisation so much doomed sand in the tide compared to the populous forces of nature. Apparently the beatific background didn’t allay Kinski’s temper, as after almost twenty years and five collaborations cameraman Thomas Maus threw in the towel after yet another violent and extended tirade, and stormed off the set never to return. It was the last straw for Herzog as well, as he used to take a long-term view of enduring the pain for the good of the film, for leveraging a memorable performance from his wild-eyed demagogue for the sake of future potent prosperity. Still, I think while it lasted this is one of the all-time great screen avatar collaborations, up there with Scorsese and De Niro, Mifune and Kurosawa, Doinel and Truffaut, Carpenter and Kurt. On the disk there is an audio only BFI hosted interview with Herzog from 1988, a year after this film was released, where he amusingly wished Kinski an imminent death as ‘he will not age well’. Kinski died four years later, after a very poor catalogue of Z grade horror and exploitation films, his horrific reputation preceding him. He was 65 years old.
The spectre of Joseph Conrad hangs over the film, of the cultivated white devil subjugating and leading a supernaturally awed native people as a heaven sent deity. Like Heart Of Darkness or indeed Apocalypse Now Herzog’s tale is similarly forged in a land where the western ethos of liberty, modernity and enlightenment inflected rationalism have smouldered and shrivelling under a molten African sun. If that sounds like the film is belittling and sneering at the ‘primitives’ then I’m being misconstrued, the veneer is more of an ideologically neutral National Geographic piece rather than any politically charged commentary when it comes to the traditions and customs of the indigenous Brazilian Indians or the Dahomey peoples delirious dancing. I haven’t mentioned much about the Blu-Ray up-scale of these films have I? Well, they all offer a significant improvement on previous box-sets, with the specialised correction of colour tones and image clarity, making this the ultimate version of these films for the cultivated connoisseur. As I cast my mind over this long journey, across the continents of land and mind it’s only just occurred to me that Herzog shoots all his films on location. Nothing, or at least virtually none of his entire 18 fiction, 27 non-fiction or 14 short films has been studio sourced, except perhaps for a handful of process shots for some of his Hollywood partnerships such as Bad Lieutenant or Rescue Dawn. Even then the vast majority of his coverage is captured in the jungle, in the cities or out on the wind blasted steppes, harnessing in all his films a sense of intimate immediacy, a realism and fidelity which is also mirrored in his charismatic court-jester characters. He also only uses local people as extras and in speaking parts, non-professionals for the most part, with some sort of star or marketing casting as a marketing hook as he does understand the film business he works within has the truth within the title – it’s a business with a commoditised value and economic weight. Claims of exploitation have dogged his career by the ignorant and gutter press looked for a salacious angle, all of them venomously denied by Herzog throughout his career, when every indication is that he was always deeply reverential to the cultures he entered, collaborated with and crucially learned from, from the Peruvian Aguaruna to the Tibetan Kalachakra monks. Visually Cobra Verde has its memorable moments, one early interior scene is shot only by candlelight with superfast lenses, as da Silva is set upon his rocky and doomed path to foreign climes, a similar marshalling of aesthetics seen in Barry Lyndon a decade earlier. For me the film works best as a melancholy mood piece, a glittering slurry of ideas and images, illuminating a feverish serpent in da Silva’s deranged dreamscape, yearning for horizons beyond.
A quick aside from yet another passage in the biography which gave me the giggles, when asked about living in Los Angeles and the general Californian climate, Herzog responded thus ‘whenever someone wishes to pass on their ‘good vibes’ to me I look for the nearest elevator shaft’ – what struck as particularly brilliant about that reply is that it remains opaque whether Werner wishes to throw himself, or the radiating star of positivity down to their certain, bone shattering doom. Anyway, I digress, the film is presented with both English and German language options, and suffice to say you should always opt for the original shooting language, especially so here as the English dubbing is atrocious. On the commentary Herzog is somewhat subdued, chiefly reminiscing on Kinski’s horrendous behaviour and the wonderful and fascinating indigenous people he met and enlisted into his film, as naturally many of the African and South American extras were locally sourced, and which bless the film with a localised authenticity. Once again Popol Vuh complement the visual perspectives with another seething and lyrical sonic-scape, and speaking of musicians it is revealed in a disk-extra BFI interview that Bowie had originally intended and optioned the rights and play da Silva, a marriage of image and part which simply would not have worked. So where next? Well, after two German directors in a row I did think we needed to get as far away as possible from Europe, maybe a pilgrimage to the ancient Orient, perhaps? Well, we will get there eventually to honour the Sensei of modern action films, probably in 2016 after a Christmas acquisition of this, but before then I think we need to carefully prowl some dark Parisian streets, mostly driven by my recent embezzlement of this. But let’s close the Herzog season with appropriately enough the final images of the final film of the BFI boxed set, and also the final shot of the last days shooting of Cobra Verde, the last time Kinski and Herzog worked together after their long, volcanic yet rewarding collaboration. It’s a haunting image of a grotesque and isolated figure fighting the inevitable, framed within the beauty of the elements, of the landscapes, a Herzogian precis of the human condition if ever there was one;