Screening Log #12: Cobra Verde (1987)

Cobra Verde PosterWritten by Werner Herzog based on the novel by Bruce Chatwin

Directed by Werner Herzog

Starring Klaus Kinski, King Ampaw, José Lewgoy




The final film collaboration between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski returns to many thematic and visual leitmotifs that accompany the peculiarly singular body of Herzog’s work. Herzog employs, in places, a pervasive and oppressive natural crush, whether it is the verdant greens of Brazil, the goats in the courtyard of a dilapidated fortress; bats inundating a room and a horde of floor-bound crabs that call to mind both Nosferatu‘s rats and Aguirre‘s raft monkeys. In a particularly personal Herzogian touch, Kinski’s character walks wherever he goes and does not wear shoes, stating that he trusts neither horses nor shoes nor people.

Kinski is cast, once again, as a Herzog’s liminal figure, an outlaw, Francisco Manoel da Silva, who refuses to conform to the norms of society, existing as a bandit before being taken in by a sugar manufacturer to watch his fields. Laid against the backdrop of slavery, the amoral de Silva merely trades a personal life of crime for an institutionalized one. Following his impregnation of all three of his boss’s daughter (“in short order” the back of the DVD helpfully informs), de Silva is given the terminal task of reigniting the slave trade between his Brazilian boss and west Africa.

Once in Africa de Silva improbably succeeds in his mission without losing his life. He is then subsequently captured and betrayed on several occasions both by the African king and his own people. The film ends with de Silva – then dubbed Cobra Verde by the new king he aided in taking the throne with an army of Amazonian warrior women – placeless, removed from the king’s favour, with a bounty on his head and slavery finally outlawed unilaterally. He is not afraid, de Silva Struggles Against the Tidebut rather relieved that something has finally happened. de Silva is not painted as naive to the cruelty and horror of slavery; he corrects a ship’s captain who had betrayed him that the slave trade was not “Mankind’s greatest misunderstanding” but rather “a crime” and that it will be their ruin.

The penultimate scene of the film poetically expresses de Silva’s state as he impotently strives to take to the sea with a ship that cannot be dislodged from the beach sand; he pulls and strains in the tide, as caught in the space between ocean and land as he was between the binary sides of morality in the slave trade. As he struggles the silhouette of a young African man ravaged by polio lopes along the beach toward him, his deformation explicating the perversion that was slavery and how its spectre will haunt de Silva. de Silva rolls in and out in the spume of waves, hearkening back to an earlier image of him standing in a more peaceful ocean, gazing into the sunset or sunrise. In cases such as these Herzog’s implicit understanding of the power of the image to relate meaning comes to the fore; this visual representation powerfully states a position that would lose its breadth of scope and beauty in a coarse line, or paragraph, of vulgarly expositional dialogue.

The credits roll following this sequence, overlaying the nun’s choir who sing and stare confrontationally into the camera. I find it hard not to read this, intentional or not, as a similar warning against the subjugation of women, that these less explicit slaves, will one day ride up against the men; de Silva states as much when he remarks that the women he keeps as cattle to be sold, having his way with sexually as he likes, are his “future murderers”. The liberties taken by all men with the female slaves is not concealed or shied away from; at one point de Silva states that he has sired 62 children while in Africa and still has no solace or company in his “cretinous existence”.

A Solitary and Cretinous ExistenceWhile I am certain that a post-colonial reading of this film would yield interesting insights, I am entirely too unformed to broach the subject. As it rests in my understanding, Cobra Verde hangs as a dimmer star in the Herzog/Kinski constellation, a re-purposing of familiar tropes, strategies, and characters to both tell a story and interrogate the nature of slavery, its cycle of violent resistance and reprisal and whether or not it is truly, as de Silva states, “an element of the human heart”. That Herzog’s film can articulate this question is, perhaps, the first step in repudiating Cobra Verde’s claim.


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