“Evil is a trick.”
Setting iniquity and indifference side by side, Cobra Verde exposes the canard of an obscure malevolent force, finding desolation at the heart of man’s arduous pursuit of martial and sexual authority. Acting as the physical manifestation of this ideological inertia, Francisco Manoel da Silva (Klaus Kinski) cultivates an outlaw’s persona from a life without kinship or compassion, prevailing through happenstance and an insect’s resilience. Kinski’s embodiment of this thematic callousness approximates a primal scream, but the character’s impulses remain nebulous, ensnared within a symbol that benefits the cumbersome narrative, but not the development of abstractions into living flesh.
At odds with Werner Herzog’s preceding scoundrels, Francisco lacks delusions of grandeur, waging war with concealed psychic scars, as opposed to the omnipotent forces of God and creation. The weathered, gaping maw of this malcontent is painted in taut portrait, evincing a child forsaken, sustained only through the surge of unrestrained barbarity and metaphorical flights of fancy, drawing parallels between white snowflakes hydrating the sterile sertão and the cleansing waters of spiritual renewal.
In spite of these emotional ambitions, da Silva takes the primrose path in the name of survival, exercising control over domination by adopting its tenets. The slave trade befits this “cretinous existence” and the infamous Cobra Verde projects his own lack of self-worth on his detainees, accepting tyranny as a suitable replacement for insecurity. This cross to bear acts as a lightning rod for his hypocritical masters, extending from the philandering plantation owner repulsed by a taste of his own medicine to the English sugarcane consumer blind to the scourge of a sweet tooth.
Herzog detects an ironic slant on his principal metaphors in da Silva’s venture, humbling spectacle to unearth contrast. The first reiteration fashions an infinite succession of human chattel as an allusion to Aguirre, the Wrath of God’s labyrinthine trek through the Andes, perverting the unification of a submissive mankind beneath nature by employing the viciousness of the yoke and chain to show humanity bound unto itself. The willpower and simple machinery on display in Fitzcarraldo’s miraculous steamboat procession is corrupted in equal measure, sunken to the foamy shore alongside our pitiable villain, beleaguered by his cowardice and the mire of lubricious sand.
The swash of the ocean on Francisco’s furrowed brow acts as a resolution, awarding catharsis to a callow protagonist and liberation to his legion of victims, exploiting the ambiguity of both parties in a plea for audience empathy. Though the sentiment isn’t dubious in either scenario, the lack of exposition lays bare a blind adherence to plot mechanism, giving rise to an unearned transcendence that solicits tragedy from an inchoate husk and apotheosis for a faceless mass.
Cobra Verde (Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1987)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Written by Bruce Chatwin (based on his book “The Viceroy of Ouidah”) and Werner Herzog (screenplay)
Photographed by Viktor Růžička