Sep 10, 2013

Cobra Verde

The fifth and final cinematic collaboration between what is easily one of the greatest, if not mutually deleterious, actor-director partnerships in film history, Cobra Verde (1987) aka Slave Coast directed by Werner Herzog (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo) starring Klaus Kinski (Zoo Zéro, Nosferatu the Vampyre) also happens to be one of the weirdest and mystifying films about the African slave trade, making it sort of a nice arthouse epic companion piece to Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971) aka Addio Zio Tom directed by marvelous Mondo Cane maestros Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. A doomed film production from the get go, Cobra Verde marked the height of the already well known hostility and hatred between Herzog and Kinski, who was more interested in his own pet project Kinski Paganini (1989), which would ultimately be both the actor’s directorial debut and the last film he starred in before his death via heart attack at the age of 65 in 1991. In fact, as Herzog described in his documentary My Best Fiend (1999) aka Mein liebster Feind - Klaus Kinski, Kinski wanted the Bavarian auteur to direct Paganini (but Herzog ultimately found the script to be “unfilmable”). Herzog felt that Kinski’s obsession with the Paganini project was so all-consuming that it caused him to have an “alien air,” which affected his performance in Cobra Verde. Based on the novel The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) by British writer Bruce Chatwin and filmed in Africa, Brazil and Colombia, Cobra Verde was so acutely accursed by Kinski’s menacing and megalomaniacal wrath that original cinematographer Thomas Mauch, who previously shot Herzog classics like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) and Stroszek (1977), quit the project after facing too much abuse from the pathologically petty and pissed Polish-German actor and was replaced with Czech cinematographer Viktor Růžička. Herzog himself was no less disillusioned with the project, stating regarding Cobra Verde, “the production was, simply, the worst in my life and I publicly swore after filming that I would never again work with Kinski. At the time I thought to myself, ‘Will somebody please step in and carry on the work with this man? I have had enough,’ There was something about Kinski’s presence in the film that meant a foreign stink – his stink – pervaded the work we did together there, and Cobra Verde suffers somewhat because of this.” An unwaveringly unflattering look at the white man, black man, and humanity in general, Cobra Verde is essentially the dark continent equivalent to Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), albeit nowhere as ethereal and hallucinatory but certainly more depraved and (unintentionally) hilarious in its depiction of such unsavory things as an unpleasantly plump Portuguese plantation owners who defile African slaves and collect mulatto progeny, Catholic priests that pimp out Negro preteens, and savagely sadistic African kings of the tribal sort who exterminate every single man who has the same name as him as he wants to be the ‘one and only’ with the name.

 Featuring ‘trout pout’ lipped crazed kraut Kinski in the role of a degenerate and deadly Brazilian bandit who literally makes women, children, and priests scatter with his mere presence, I, for one, think that the actor’s real-life mental derangement contributed greatly to his uniquely unsettling and intimidating performance as a curious career criminal of the loony lone-wolf sort who is the only white man willing to physically work with Negroes doing degrading slave labor. Francisco Manoel da Silva aka “Cobra Verde” aka “Green Snake” (Klaus Kinski) is best at being a bloodthirsty bandit in the Brazilian sertão so when he makes the mistake of performing honest work for a gold-mining company and is not paid by the foreman, he kills said foreman and goes on his merry maniac way. After screwing a random aristocratic Negress he spots while wandering to seemingly nowhere, Cobra Verde subdues a runaway slave by his mere penetrating glance and poetic words, which impresses a lardo sugar baron named Don Octavio Coutinho (José Lewgoy) so much that he gives the bandit a job overseeing the slaves on his 600-negro strong plantation. While Don Coutinho loves banging black broads himself as demonstrated by the fact he has three young mulatto daughters, he does not tolerate Cobra Verde’s mania for miscegenation after the bandit gets all three of the Don’s half-caste debutantes pregnant. After confessing that he not only impregnated all three of Don Coutinho’s high yellow honies but that he is also the infamous Cobra Verde, the bandit is sent on a suicidal mission to attempt to re-open the slave trade in Dahomey, West Africa, where a killer tribal king named Bossa Ahadee (real-life African king Nana Agyefi Kwame II) rules who had previously exterminated the entire white population. When Cobra Verde arrives in Africa, he states, “Thus far, Africa’s quite a disappointment” and soon runs into the only white man, bloated and debauched Catholic priest Bernabé (Peter Berling), who gives holy communion to goats and pagan Negroes that wear devil horns and who moonlights as a pimp of nubile African girls. Cobra Verde befriends a black ex-soldier named Taparica (King Ampaw, who previously worked with Wim Wenders and Ulli Lommel), who sets the bandit up in a ruined Portuguese castle (shot at Elmina Castle in Ghana) and who helps him gather slaves by trading guns to King Bossa via a middleman.

 To his enemies’ surprise, Cobra Verde manages to make slavery profitable and successful again, but on his second mission, the bandit and his pal Taparica are captured by the King Bossa's men for the unsubstantiated crime of greyhound-poisoning, which they will assumedly be executed for as expressed by the wishes of the maniac monarch. Cobra Verde is put in blackface by his captors as a white man can apparently only be decapitated while looking like Al Jolson and King Bossa, who dually rules with an imaginary yet pampered fellow named the ‘Bush King,’ taunts the defeated bandit with the remark, “The devil is white. The devil is white. All whites are ½ dead.” Luckily, King Bossa’s bug-eyed renegade nephew saves Cobra Verde and Taparica at night before they can be executed as the young buck wants the bandit to lead a revolution against his unhinged uncle and the two make a multicultural blood alliance to demonstrate solidarity. Cobra Verde absurdly trains a giant army of topless female warriors with spears and ultimately topples King Bossa, whose personal concubines ritualistically strangle him after being defeated by a white devil. Bossa’s nephew initially gives Cobra Verde a noble title and makes him rich with the slave trade, but the bandit eventually falls out of favor with the new king, who one day sends the white men polio-stricken cripples as opposed to the healthy black bucks he typically sends him to sell. Somewhat surprisingly, Cobra Verde is given a shade of hope after the Portuguese outlaw slavery and seize his assets, and the British put a price on his head, as it gives the bandit a chance at a new beginning of sorts, remarking “Finally something’s happened.” As for his disillusionment with his life in West Africa, Cobre Verda writes, “I cannot begin to describe this cretinous existence of mine. Nor how lonely it is to be without family or friends. The only white man in this country…perhaps on this whole continent. Meanwhile I have become the father of sixty-two children…but this gives me no satisfaction. Perhaps next year I shall come back and marry. I would live in the lands of ice and snow…anywhere to be away from here…The heat here is mean and inescapable. It courses through the bodies of the people like a fever – and yet my heart grows colder and colder.” In the end, Cobra Verde attempts to leave Africa in a small boat to start a new life, but collapses and dies in the process. As a man who states quite unsentimentally of the Africa, “In this place, the dead are more alive than the living,” Cobra Verde's unexpected death is nothing short of a blessing. After an abhorrently allegorical scene of a disfigured native who apparently was stricken with polio as a child as he crawls on all fours across the beach and a group of nude nubile native nun women chanting some silly song, Cobra Verde concludes with the quote, “The slaves will sell their masters and grow wings.”

 In one particularly symbolic scene featured in Cobra Verde, the bandit’s business partner gives a toast to human bondage, stating, “To slavery…the greatest misunderstanding in the history of mankind.” Indeed, if Cobra Verde depicts something new in cinema history that Hollywood has gone to great measures to consciously ignore and totally obfuscate, it is the fact that black Africans played an imperative and central role in the African slave trades and without their help, the capturing, enslaving, and importing/exporting of blacks around the world could have never have run so smoothly.  In another particularly telling scene in the film, Cobra Verde remarks, “Slavery is an element of the human heart… To our ruin!,” thus reflecting not only the innate greed and inhumanity of humanity, but also the fact that slavery did no favors for the white world in the long run as demonstrated by the racial chaos that pervades today not only in Africa, but also the Occident, where every European nation is facing a sort of reverse-colonialism where people from the Third World are illegally immigrating to and slowly but surely turning first world nations into crime-ridden multicultural hellholes. In the film’s depiction of real-life African tribe kingdoms where the king himself is adorned in gold-chains and other ‘bling’ like a pimp and the tribesmen are engaged in a sort of pompous savage-like pageantry, including 'twerking', that is typical of modern day rap ‘music’ videos, Cobra Verde also demonstrates that wherever they may be—be it in rural West Africa or once prosperous European cities like London or Paris—blacks display the same sort of behavior just as the age-old saying goes, "you can take the African out of the jungle but you can never take the jungle out of the African." Notably, while demonstrating a deep respect for them and their culture, director Werner Herzog even goes so far as describing the Africans featured in his film as “savages” in the audio commentary for the Anchor Bay DVD release of the film.

 In the interview book Herzog on Herzog (2002), Werner Herzog stated in reference to Cobra Verde and the African slave trades, “The fact is that in Ghana, where we filmed, slavery is still something of a taboo subject, unlike colonialism. In the United States and the Caribbean there is much debate about slavery, in Brazil too, but in many places in Africa the wound of slavery is so deep and painful that hardly anyone speaks about it in public. It is an almost untouched subject. I have always suspected that one reason for this is the well-established fact that African kingdoms were involved in the slave trade almost as much as the white traders. There was also a great deal of slave trading between the Arab world and black Africa, and even within African nations themselves.” While thought of by many people, including fanatical fans of the Bavarian auteur, as the least impressive film of the five cinematic collaborations between Herzog-Kinski, I would argue that it is the most overlooked and underrated and certainly an immensely superior work to Woyzeck (1979). Undoubtedly, compared to Herzog’s sentimentalist Zionist propaganda flick Invincible (2001), Cobra Verde seems like an unsung masterpiece and certainly one of the most honest cinematic depictions of the African slaves trades ever made. With Hollywood constantly pumping out black-inciting films like 12 Years a Slave (2013) directed by Steve McQueen, Cobra Verde is undoubtedly a rare voice of reason and relative objectivity in a Semitic sea of pseudo-suavely stylized ‘slavery porn’ of the stupidly sentimental Spielberg-esque persuasion. Like a Spaghetti Western (in fact, Sergio Leone's stuntman Benito Stefanelli acted as a stunt coordinator for the film) meets an Italian cannibal exploitation flick meets Africa Blaxploitation as if created by Leni Riefenstahl for National Geographic but with a Mondo Cane flair for not pandering to the pussified and pathetically politically correct, Cobra Verde reminds the viewer that not all ‘magical negroes’ are nice and not every cracker slave trader gets a kick out of selling, buying, or blasphemously boning negresses.  Undoubtedly, engaging in slavery and colonialism was one of the biggest mistakes Europeans ever made that led to the cultural chaos that plagues the Occidental world today and even though Werner Herzog stated, “Cobra Verde is about great fantasies and follies of the human spirit, no colonialism,” the film does a better job than any Hollywood film I can think of, especially when compared to Spielberg's agitprop fantasy flick Amistad (1997), of portraying the macabre beginnings of the multicultural virus that has proliferated so strongly and so brutally ravaged the world in which we live today.

-Ty E

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