Cobra Verde
aka, SLAVE COAST. 1987


Director: Werner Herzog

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Klaus Kinski lends Cobra Verde (1987) a visually powerful center with his character-presence merely standing amidst events. Indeed his domination of the screen is outmatched only by his greatest performance in Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972), which is also Werner Herzog's best film. Unfortunately, Herzog's Cobra Verde lacks a good story, & Kinski's fabulous performance does not entirely save the film.

It starts intriguingly enough in old South America when "Cobra Verde, the bandit" takes a job with an obnoxious Brazillian cane plantation owner, & ends up impregnanting the wealthy man's daughters. But when our anti-hero is given a commission to go to Africa to obtain slaves, the film is all downhill.

The portrait of blacks in Africa are without exception stereotyped, narrow, & appalling. Once Kinski changes out of his bandit costume into the rather Napoleonic jacket, he looks like a moron. The story is studiedly void of either historical or social awareness, yet far too self-importantly directed to be either funny or exciting. Anything that would recommend Bruce Chatwin's original novel is lacking in Werner Herzog's stinky adaptation.

Look for a moment at the cover illustration from the dvd reproduced above, with Kinski in a typically antic posture. Now imagine that from this Al Jolsen pose he is singing the Vaudeville show-stopper, "Rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie melody." That's pretty much what the film actually amounts to.

By the time the film reaches the scenes with the army of amazon warriors trained by the honky hero, it's too late to care even about the exploitation value of naked black girls with spears. Anyone who knows the history of slave-coast amazons knows full well they did not need a white dude to teach them how to fight, & it was not some European's idea that they give it a try. Compared to the actual history, Cobra Verde is as stupid as it is racist.

Everything in this film, except the chorus of singing teenage girls at the end , is completely phony. The girl singers are a delight, & their lead singer has a smug beauty that seems to be saying, "Film me some more, stupid white devil director."

I am both an Herzog & a Kinski fan, counting their collaboration for Aguirreamong the world's great cinematic treasures. That film set up an expectation of genius which Herzog perhaps inevitably could not live up to his whole l,ife, but sometimes a film is so bad, as is Cobra Verde, he nearly makes it inexplicable that he had Aguirre in him.

Even Dwarves Started SmallI admire Herzog too much to jump all over one of his films that badly & leave it at that. As reminder that he is by & large a genius, even if not always showing it, I find myself thinking back to Even Dwarves Started Small (1970). The fact that it is an allegory for the whole human condition was the perfect lame-ass excuse to make a "serious" version of The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). But make no mistake; it remains chiefly an exploitation film.

Well, "serious" version of Terror of Tiny Town is overstating it, since Dwarves is frequently as funny as it is strange. Dancing tribally on the felled tree; tossing plates under the circling truck; little Hombre on the motorcycle....tragedy it is not.

Gorgeously photographed in black & white, there's an epic feeling that makes a hermetic limited location seem expansive, & makes little people seem like giants. The fantastical premise is that there is somewhere a prison for little people. They revolt & take over the isolated facility, their warden trapped on an upper floor only capable of idle threats from a window.

There's no plot to speak of beyond the goal of the inmates to torment the watchful warden as they behave clownishly, disrespectfully, & destructively in their quest for life, liberty, & the pursuit of absurdity.

There is no attempt to be an exciting film. It's lowkey, slowly paced, & frequently patience-testing. At the same time it is mesmerizing. Could it have been as interesting with a full-sized cast pulling the same antics? Certainly not. This is a visual treat exclusively, the perfect excuse to fix one's gaze rudely on a bunch of little-people who're just fun to watch.

Part of Herzog's genius is recognizing most of us can be pretty tasteless, & he strives to make high art of bad taste. If there was a little-person parade down Main Street, I'd want to sit on the curb & watch every minute of it. Even Dwarves Start Small is like that dreamed-of parade.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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