Of the five filmic collaborations between German auteur Werner Herzog and manic film star Klaus Kinski, three of them deal with egomaniacal men from a “civilized” country going into a wild, “uncivilized” country via a boat to tame the land, make their fortune, and become legends. Most critics and scholars name the first two of the three films, 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, as companion pieces without much of a nod to the third of these, 1987’s Cobra Verde which would also be the last time Kinski and Herzog worked together. But man oh man, it’s absolutely worth a look and offers one of Kinski’s great performances.
While it’s true that Cobra Verde is less technically remarkable than the other two, it is nevertheless the film that best exemplifies the director’s ongoing theme of a single man triumphing over adversity, only to be defeated by himself. The alternate title for this film could easily be: When Life Gives You Lemons, Do Any and Every Terrible Thing You Can Think Of To Get Back at Life, though surely that wouldn’t have fit on a marquis. It is the story of an unsympathetic man doing unsympathetic things, and yet somehow gaining the audience’s sympathy by the end. In this way, the film falls totally in line with every collaboration between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. In each film, Kinski plays the title character and anti-hero of the piece and with the exception of Aguirre, where the character of Aguirre is totally and completely reprehensible, each of them are successful at evil deeds while still being tragic figures.
Kinski plays Francisco Manoel da Silva, a Brazilian rancher who has lost everything in a drought. Kinski was adept, especially when working with Herzog, at playing a number of different nationalities, even though a more German-looking man cannot be found. Reluctantly, he goes to work for a gold mining company, but when he discovers he is being cheated, he murders his boss and goes on the lam to start a life as an outlaw. He adopts the moniker “Cobra Verde” (or “green snake”) and becomes notorious as the most feared bandit in inland Brazil.
During his nomadic life, he comes across and subdues an escaped slave, impressing wealthy sugar baron Don Octavio Coutinho. Don Octavio hires da Silva to oversee the slaves on his plantation and da Silva then promptly impregnates all three of the baron’s young daughters. Outraged, Don Octavio confronts da Silva, only learning then that he is, indeed, the legendary Cobra Verde.
As punishment, the Don sends da Silva on an impossible mission to Africa to reopen the slave trade. The bandit knows he is likely to be killed, but decides to accept the task regardless. Once in Africa, da Silva negotiates with the murderous King Bossa for the use of his people as slaves. These negotiations work, miraculously, and soon the slave trade is up and running again. Not long after however, the King accuses da Silva of a number of inexplicable crimes, of which the bandit has no knowledge, and sentences him to death. Narrowly escaping, da Silva then trains an army of African women to overthrow the King and reclaim his stranglehold on the trafficking of people. By the end of the movie, you’re left feeling decidedly bad about watching him succeed at horrible activities.
Cobra Verde is the ultimate up-by-your-bootstraps picture. Kinski’s character at the beginning truly has nothing. He was once successful, or at least stable, but then loses his livelihood via an act of God. He then is forced to take a nothing, low-level job and is cheated by his employer at it, precipitating his greater success as a bandit. Indeed, the more deplorable the task, the better Cobra Verde seems to be in performing it. He single-handedly jumpstarts the dormant African slave trade with nothing but sheer will and endurance. Then, when his needs suit it, he trains a massive horde of women to be warriors to get back at the king who double-crossed him, and he is supremely effective in doing that.
It’s perversely captivating to watch him do horrible things so astonishingly well. The same can be said for Kinski himself. Knowing anything about Klaus Kinski as a person and his penchant for flying off the handle into fits of uncontrollable rage, it’s a wonder A) that he could turn in anything resembling a sympathetic performance and B) that these movies got made at all. It speaks great volumes of Kinski as an actor, surely, but it speaks even greater to the patience and prowess of Herzog as a director. Kinski seemed right at home playing some of the most deplorable characters in screen history (see my earlier review of Il Grande Silenzio) and yet he always brings a distinct individuality to them. As Herzog himself has often said, no one but Kinski could have played these roles.
It’s incredibly rare for people to know while it’s happening that they’re doing something for the last time. One always laments it in retrospect, thinking there should have been more fanfare or hoopla to commemorate such a moment. Such is arguably the case with Cobra Verde. Kinski passed away four years after completing the film, meaning we’d never get another Herzog/Kinski collabo, nor a proper sendoff. For a last movie together, it’s fairly unceremonious. While not nearly as iconic as the others, Kinski has a much more realistic person to play, one whose delusions of grandeur reach only as far as his next battle. He is no longer “The Wrath of God,” but the wrath of man, one man, singular. For all his posturing and blustering, Francisco da Silva is just a simple creature who can’t even pull a boat into the water by himself. In Werner Herzog’s view, there’s no better metaphor for Klaus Kinski.
Image: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion