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COBRA VERDE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Klaus Kinski, King Ampaw, Jose Lewgoy, Salvatore Basile, Peter Berling
Director:  Werner Herzog
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1:77:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  October 24, 2000

Film ***1/2

Cobra Verde marked the last of the five collaborations between German director Werner Herzog and star Klaus Kinski, and in many ways, it has the appearance of two talents going for broke, as though they somehow knew it would be their last shared hurrah.  The resulting film is striking and powerful.  It lacks the hypnotic, unsettling quality of Aguirre or strong character motivation of Fitzcarraldo, but it still manages to pack a potent punch with Herzog’s fantastic sense of visual style and Kinski’s ferocious performance, which may be the most passionate and unrestrained in his long history of acting in that mode.

He plays Francisco Manoel de Silva, who comes to be known as the bandit Cobra Verde.  Who is this man and what is he about?  Unlike their previous films, Herzog and Kinski left the characterizations a little unclear.  We first see the man as the camera focuses in tightly on his red, weeping eyes.  A slow pullback reveals he is squatting before a makeshift cross in a graveyard.  Dead and dying animals are all around:  it reminds one of the final shot in Aguirre.  Death surrounds the man.  We don’t know why.

Soon, we see de Silva in action, working in a gold mine.  He screams that he has been cheated by his foreman, and in the next scene, which is completely dark, we see him light a fire just long enough to wake up his boss:  “I wanted you to be awake when you died,” he tells him.  The scene goes dark, and we know that Cobra Verde has murdered.

He is later hired by a rather uncouth sugar plantation owner to be overseer to his slaves.  De Silva watches expressionless as his new employer mistreats and even sexually accosts his servants, bragging about the number of mulatto children he has fathered by the slave women.  It’s a game to him.  It becomes even less of one later when he realizes that de Silva has played his own version:  he has impregnated all of the owner’s own daughters.

Wanting revenge but fearful of Cobra Verde, he devises a plan to send him to Africa to re-open the slave trade.  He sets off across the ocean, and thus, the familiar Herzog theme finally comes into play:  ‘civilized’ man entering into beautiful ‘primitive’ territory, becoming filled with delusions of power, only to eventually be destroyed by his environment because he never paid it proper respect.

De Silva soon finds himself taken prisoner by a mad African king, who intends to put him to death.  However, a rival tribe soon kidnaps him back, and offers him a seat of power if he will help lead their tribe in a battle against the king.  He agrees, provided that he receive complete control of the slave trade in return.

What follows are some of the film’s most remarkable sequences, where Cobra Verde trains the hundreds of men and women to do the fighting.  When he leads them in their charge, Kinski is at his most remarkable and unrestrained. 

But one simply cannot exist off the misery of others.  All of Herzog’s characters eventually learn this, and Cobra Verde is no exception.  The slave trade is dying out, and he holds on to the last remnants of it as tightly as he can, but he senses the end.  His partners in commerce have been cheating him.  Those whom he once helped protect are growing less enthused with him as he marches them one by one into slavery.  One remarkable shot has the camera looking up high through the opening of a well as de Silva and his customer look down.  The point of view eventually switches to show an incredible mass of humanity squeezed together at the bottom of the well:  de Silva’s ‘product’.  “Who are they?” the customer asks.  “Our future murderers,” de Silva answers, with a sense of knowing.

In the end, Cobra Verde is a lost man.  The final visuals of him struggling to return his boat to the water with no avail, and eventually collapsing into the ocean as the waves ravage him, say more about the man than any ten pages of exposition.  Pride and contempt turned de Silva into Cobra Verde, but the land and people he sought to conquer turned Cobra Verde back into dust.

The on-set conflicts between Herzog and Kinski have become the stuff of legend.  This film, however, marks the only time Kinski ever seriously threatened the director, according to Herzog.  Apparently, at one point, Kinski grabbed a big rock in his fist and came close to using it.  Still, Herzog readily admits that he both loves and misses his old comrade in arms, even the fighting.  He rightly points out that the end result on the screen was all that mattered, and their legacy of five films that began with Aguirre and ended with Cobra Verde stand as lingering cinematic landmarks and testimonials to the two men’s creative brilliance despite the frequent hostilities of their working conditions.

Video ****

Anchor Bay has delivered quality transfers for all of the Herzog/Kinski films, but this one is by far their crowning achievement.  This is a gorgeous picture from beginning to end, and it renders here without a noticeable flaw.  Images are sharp and crisp throughout, with excellent detail, even in the many deep focus shots.  Colors are natural looking and bright, too, without any instance of bleeding or distortion.  I noticed no grain, noise, shimmer, haze or any other form of compression artifact, and the print itself is remarkably free of dirt or scratches.  This is a reference quality disc, and one of the best looking transfers I’ve seen for a film from the 80’s.

Audio ***

You have a choice of 5.1 or 2.0 surrounds if you listen to the film in German (or a 2.0 English track if you prefer).  I personally liked the 5.1 track a lot.  For starters, it opened up the field of audio a lot more, giving it more range and more spatial room.  Plus, the rear channels deliver a good bit of ambient sound to the mix.  You’ll notice this especially when the film first shifts to Africa:  the sound of the waves crashing comes alive from every corner.  I didn’t notice much use of the .1 channel, but there wasn’t an abundance of bottom end to the soundtrack.  Dialogue is clean and clear, and the music by Popol Vol sounds terrific as well.  All in all, a decidedly good remix effort from Anchor Bay.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a trailer with several viewing options (English or German?  Subtitles or no?), plus talent files on Kinski and Herzog and a commentary track with the director.  It’s an interesting one, being that this film was his last with Kinski.  He offers plenty of retrospective regarding their work together.

Summary:

Cobra Verde is a powerful film that marks a fitting close to one of cinema’s most infamous partnerships.  Neither Werner Herzog nor Klaus Kinski seemed to hold anything back in their final film together, and the end results are striking.  Fans will definitely be pleased with both the movie and this outstanding quality presentation on DVD by Anchor Bay.