Cobra Verde Review
By the time Werner Herzog came to work with Klaus Kinski again, the actor was in a seriously unhinged condition, making working with him on location in Colombia and Africa even more difficult than usual. Kinski was already working on his own film – writing, directing and starring in the deleriously insane Paganini and his mood there carries over into Cobra Verde, not always to the film’s advantage.
Francisco Manoel da Silva (Klaus Kinski) goes on the run after killing the overseer in a Brazilian gold mine in an argument over money and becomes known as the outlaw Cobra Verde. Colonel Octavio Cotinho (José Lewgoy), the wealthy owner of a large sugar plantation, unaware of his identity, hires him to manage his 600 slaves. Cobra Verde wastes no time in raging havoc, impregnating all three of the Colonel’s daughters. It is deemed too dangerous to risk disciplining the man, so it is arranged to have him sent to West Africa as Viceroy, to re-establish slave trading links with the dangerous and unpredictable King of Dahomey – a commission that is sure to lead to his death. Unexpectedly, even though he knows what they have planned, Cobra Verde agrees and is soon caught up in a revolution.
What is good about Cobra Verde is that it feels authentic. The characters seem real, their actions are unpredictable and individualistic and don’t conform to western or typically cinematic conventions. Herzog plays to his strengths here in using the right people for the right parts, regardless of whether they are professional actors, locals or just one of hundreds of the extras in the film – they all lend colour and authenticity to their roles and the situations. However, the film as a whole suffers from this lack of strong focus and structure – Herzog’s instincts for what is working and what is not seem to fail here, unbalancing the film, with too much time spent on apparently irrelevant situations and not enough detail on what significantly moves the story forward. As such, the film fails to cohere into anything regarding a theme, a mood, a strong story or even a moral position on the subject of slave trading.
It’s more than likely that Kinski’s disintegrating grip on reality over the course of the making of the film contributed in no small way to final outcome of the film, which must be regarded as the lesser of all the films Herzog made with the actor. Kinski, by all accounts, caused even more trouble on the set than normal, coming to blows with the director and being the cause of Herzog’s regular cinematographer, Thomas Mauch, being dismissed from the film. Herzog, in the commentary track of the film says that Kinski was “totally crazed” and “completely bonkers” by the end of the film and it shows. The famous Kinski fury can be seen on the screen, but less controlled and less focussed in favour of the film.
The DVD is released on Region 2 in the UK as part of Anchor Bay’s Herzog Kinski Collection. Also included in the boxset are Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo and Herzog’s documentary film about Kinski, My Best Fiend.
There are no problems with the colour, brightness or contrast in the film’s DVD transfer nor are there any marks or scratches, but the picture quality, like most of the other Anchor Bay releases in the Herzog Kinski Collection, isn’t perfect. It’s not sharp and there is a slight haziness about the image, with a lack of detail in anything but close-ups. While the colour and black levels are fine, there is no great detail or definition to the colours. Combined with the hazy quality of the image there is blurring in movement (other than the deliberate effects used by Herzog), giving all the appearances of an NTSC to PAL transfer.
Again, a variety of soundtracks to choose from, but the English dub should really not be considered. It’s no less authentic than all the Brazilians and Africans being dubbed into German, but the performances and voices really don’t work in the English dubbing. Either of the two German soundtracks will do - the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is fine and doesn’t take any liberties with the original stereo mix, which makes you wonder if it is even at all necessary. Any problems with the soundtrack are again more to do with the overdubbing performances which are necessary in a multi-national production like this. Kinski’s voice seems to have been overdubbed by another actor, certainly in English, and I’m not sure about the German, but that could also be a contributing factor to his performance not really convincing here.
Once again, the Commentary by Werner Herzog in conversation with Norman Hill is well worth listening to, as Herzog provides lots of interesting information about what is going on in the stranger parts of the film, about Bruce Chatwin, whose novel ‘The Viceroy of Ouidah’ the film is based on, and more anecdotes on Kinski’s increasingly unhinged behaviour during the course of the film’s making. The Trailer is also included in various guises, but I couldn’t get any of them to play properly with the sound matched up to the image. Biographies are included for Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski.
As with every film that Herzog made with Klaus Kinski, where they aren’t simply brilliant there are at least a few moments that make them worth viewing. Though there are perhaps less of them in Cobra Verde, what is there – the sight of Kinski in a frenzied state with hundreds of half-naked African female warriors must be one of them – is certainly unlike anything else you have ever seen. A good commentary on a fair DVD release certainly adds to further appreciation of the film.