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The feared bandit Cobra Verde (Klaus Kinski) is hired by a plantation owner to supervise his slaves. After the owner suspects Cobra Verde of consorting with his young daughters, the owner wishes him gone. Rather than kill him,the owner sends Cobra Verde to Africa. The only white man in the area, Cobra Verde finds himself the victim of torture and humiliation. Later, he trains soldiers in a rebel army. Far from home, Cobra Verde is on the edge of madness. Written by
Ken Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cobra Verde is the last time Kinski went mad for Herzog. He probably continued to be a raving lunatic to his end, but this was the last time something meaningful was siphoned through his madness. Herzog said that after the film was wrapped, Kinski was spent, he had given all he had to give. Kinski struggled with his delusions of grandeur in his own film Paganini, but for all intents and purposes this is the swansong. Strangely and fittingly this is reflected in the character he plays. There's colorful grim adventure in it but at its best Cobra Verde is a coming of age drama.
This slavetrader incarnation of Aguirre has matured, the waters are stiller and run deeper, he's more ambiguous, as though the delusions of grandeur have been melted away by advancing age and we're looking at a broken human being who is probably past the point of being able to be made whole again, a man who went mad at some point or other but has made his peace with his madness.
Here's a man who is a confessed criminal but not a raving monomaniac anymore like Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo; now he's the romantic who yearns "to cross over to another world". Perfect. Here's closure to a trilogy of sorts about different characters who could very well be the same person in different times.
Cobra Verde does that, it crosses over to another world, it's a glance stolen over the bulwark of a boat off the African coast and through the bushes of the savanna and now we're peering at a small village of huts and cabins and wild black men are dancing a feverish dance around a fire, they're waving sticks around them, bodies shining with sweat, their movements odious and harmonical with some of the spasmodic suspended quality of a coiled spring, and then Klaus Kinski has his face painted black by figures with horned headpieces, his face is framed by unruly blonde hair so that he looks like a demon figure straight from Japanese mythology - for the black man the devil is white. Cobra Verde is all that, it's like an ethnographic document of something that may be even partly fictional yet feels wholy true in its savagery and otherworldliness, of something that was lost and now found again, it's not Discovery Channel's version of black Africa, it's like something straight from the pages of a Joseph Conrad novel, a bit sensationalist but also very mystical, with traces of something at once horrible and wonderful.
We get echoes of Daniel Plainview at the beginning. Cobra Verde is digging for gold in Brazil, he's ruthless and vengeful. We enter an empty bar in a small pueblo owned by a midget and we get discussions about lost paradises on earth where the snow is light like feathers. Cobra Verde ambushes a palanquin and a mysterious black girl in a white dress gets out and dances a sensual dance.
Now we're on a boat off the African shore looking at a deserted slave fortress through an eyeglass, inside the fort a tattered survivor of the black militia of the fort cackles mysteriously and we enter rooms filled with bats and crabs. The movie is very stylized so far, when Kinski makes an appearance in the plaza of the pueblo with his poncho and a rifle, he looks like he stepped back into a spaghetti western for a shootout. But there are also residues of mystery and nameless rage and violence that seem to come from a different place, destruction and abandonment, and the first hour of Cobra Verde is among Herzog's finest work, because all that is kept just out of sight.
The African part of Cobra Verde is less, and maybe that is all Cobra Verde does wrong, that the mystery is peeled back and we're looking at things too much. We're looking at things too much like we're a visitor in a local tribe and the tribesmen are performing dances and chants for our benefit, they wave flags and stage fights, they crowd rooms and walk in lines. When the jungle showers down wooden arrows upon Kinski and his group in Aguirre, the attackers remain unseen. Here they're rushing out to meet us.
It's all a bit like Herzog's tribal docu Woodabe - Herdsmen of the Sun with a Kinski protagonist and a little bit of plot.
Another plot line is invoked at the last minute to make order out of the wild, something about the brother of the local king (one of the most fascinating movie characters of the decade, a man who constantly puts on a show for his people, he's parts cheeky badass, pompous buffoon, and stark raving mad) wanting to usurp the throne, and Cobra Verde leads his insurrectionist amazon army, but it's all a bit scattershot. The protagonist has matured but Cobra Verde the movie lacks Aguirre's the singleminded forward- pushing sense of a journey into the heart of darkness.
Like with most of his movies, Herzog saves the best for last - another unforgettable image of a desperate Kinski, now the alonest of the alone, trying to tug a piroge into the ocean to get away from that godforsaken African shore. A crippled black boy afflicted with polio walks towards him across the shore, then pauses and turns. Here's a tragic man alone at his end now, an outcast beyond help or reprieve or even vengeance, and now he's truly ready to cross over to another world. This is heightened reality, it is Herzog's ecstatic truth, or in his words, sometimes truth comes out clearer out of fabrication.
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