I’ve not read Bruce Chatwin’s novel ‘The Viceroy of Ouidah’, so I can’t comment on ‘Cobra Verde’ in terms of an adaptation. I have to consider it, then, purely on its own merits.
And, yes, ‘Cobra Verde’ has its merits, particularly in Herzog’s observational depiction of West African rituals, importance of dance and sense of ceremony. There are at least three excellent set-pieces, even though one of them is more effective in its build-up than its resolution. But more of that later. There are some good performances – although not Kinski’s; the actor was clearly on his way out (he died four years after the film was completed). Again, more of that later.
What is beyond debate is that ‘Cobra Verde’ is the least of the Herzog/Kinski films. Why? Well, I started this blog in order to celebrate the movies I loved, not to knock the ones that don’t come up to scratch … hmmm, six posts in and I can feel my mission statement straining at the edges.
Let’s pause for plot synopsis:
A feared Mexican bandit, Francisco Manoel da Silva (Kinski), is hired unwittingly by a landowner, Don Octavio (José Lewgoy), to oversee his slaves. He promptly gets Don Octavio’s three daughters pregnant. By now aware that he’s a feared bandit, the don dispatches him to West Africa to take care of his interests in the slave trade, quietly hoping that da Silva (nicknamed Cobra Verde by the locals) will be put to death as soon as he sets foot on African soil. What makes him so sure is that the recently appointed King Bossa de Ahadey of Dahomey (played by real-life royal, H.R.H. Nana Agyejfi Kwane II of Nsein) is a loose cannon who hates the sight of white men. Da Silva accepts the commission, sails to Africa, establishes himself at abandoned Fort Elmina, and trades rifles for slaves. Everything is going well until King Bossa has him seized and brought before him. King Bossa orders da Silva put to death (da Silva’s face is blacked up to get around the technicality of not killing white men!), but he is rescued by a rival faction. Da Silva trains an army of topless warrior women (I am not making this up) and leads them against King Bossa, dethroning him. Promoted to viceroy and returned to Fort Elmina, da Silva learns that Don Octavio, having taken delivery of the shipment of slaves, has double-crossed him and da Silva is now a wanted man. He drags a boat down to the shore, intending to set sail, but dies as he tries to haul it the last few feet into the waves.
To say the narrative jumps around a bit is like saying Oliver Reed took the odd lemonade shandy. Narratively and structurally, the film is all over the place. Normally this wouldn’t matter in a Herzog movie – the sheer filmic spectacle of it would be enough. And with its cast of hundreds and locations that included Brazil, Ghana and Colombia, it should have looked awesome. Instead, it’s curiously flat. Herzog’s frequent collaborator Thomas Mauch quit as director of photography after one too many run-ins with Kinski, and was replaced by Viktor Ruzicka. Mauch’s loss is clear in every frame of the film.
Plotwise, major developments are skimmed over or not bothered with at all. Villagers flee from da Silva in the opening scenes, but the biggest landowner in the territory hasn’t heard of him and casually hires him. We’re told he’s doing a fine job, but we never see him at work. He has his wicked way with Don Octavio’s three daughters, but there’s not a shred of sexual tension and only the briefest of scenes suggesting a liaison. I’m not saying acres of exposed flesh should have been the order of the day (although there’s plenty of that in the latter half), but like so many of the necessary plot developments of the first hour, this element of the film just doesn't convince.
The two main set pieces – the restoration of Fort Elmina and the attack on King Bossa’s residence – occupy the mid-section of ‘Cobra Verde’, the film then lapsing into a tedious, conversation-driven final act as da Silva realises the extent of Don Octavio’s betrayal. Only the magnificent death-scene, played out against the silvery patterns of light on water, recaptures what Herzog and Kinski were capable of.
Finally, Kinski himself must shoulder much of the blame. Wasted, crazed, his very presence on set generating a more negative atmosphere than ever before, his excesses behind the camera were, for the first time in his career, not mirrored by a galvanising performance in front of it. He drifts through most of the film in a daze, only coming alive to rant and snarl maniacally towards the end.
His best moment comes as he leads the rebel army. They enter King Bossa’s residence only to find a snake coiling languidly in front of them. “They’ve taken the sacred python from the temple,” someone warns him; “no-one who passes will live.” Da Silva rounds on the man: “They named me for a snake in my country. Attack!” And so saying, he kicks the serpent out of the way (a moment all the more crazily iconic for him being barefoot) and leads the charge … Only for the scene to end, abruptly and bloodlessly, just seconds later.
So what does ‘Cobra Verde’ have going for it? Well, Lewgoy is excellent as Don Octavio, hypocritically leching after his womenservants then lambasting his daughters for sluts when they fall pregnant. Likewise Peter Berling (returning from ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’), who also paints an acidic portrait of hypocrisy as a missionary whose interest in some of his parishioners (notably the bare-breasted “nun’s choir”) extends beyond touching their souls …
Mainly, though, there’s Africa. Its people, its customs, its rhythms. I can’t help thinking that Herzog’s cameras would have been better employed in filming a documentary.