Cobra Verde

Cobra Verde (1988)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Klaus Kinski, King Ampaw, Jose Lewgoy, Salvataore Basile, Peter Berling
Extras: Commentary Track, Trailers, Talent Files

"Cobra Verde" is based on Bruce Chatwin’s novel "The Viceroy of Ouida, " which recounts the life of Francisco Manoel da Silva who rose from humble beginnings as a Brazilian farmer to become the master of all slave trading on Africa’s western coast during the 1750’s. The film opens with da Silva (Klaus Kinski) staring out over what used to be his farm before a harsh drought turned his dreams into dust. Forced to seek work in the goldmines of Brazil, he kills his supervisor over missing wages and steals away into the night — becoming known as Cobra Verde, the Green Snake. Don Octavio Coutinho (José Lewgoy), a wealthy sugar plantation owner, takes an interest in the man — mistakenly assuming that he can mold him into a vicious slave master who will do his bidding. But the Cobra is not one to be controlled and, after impregnating the man’s daughters, the Don is soon hatching a plan that will ensure Cobra Verde’s death. He sends him to Africa to buy slaves from the vicious King of Dahomey, knowing full well that the king will likely kill this white man on sight. If by some chance he does survive, then the Don stands to gain a fair number of new slaves making this a seemingly can’t lose proposition.

Arriving in Africa, the Cobra finds himself in the middle of an internecine struggle for control of the Slave Coast. After aiding in a coup against the king, da Silva is named Viceroy and given full control of the slave trade. His cold, ruthless nature makes him wildly successful at this new endeavor and his employer back in Brazil is pleased with this new source of income. But the Don hasn’t forgotten the real reason he sent da Silva to Africa and is soon scheming to bring about his downfall.

It may seem that I’m giving away the entire plot of the movie and, in a way I guess I am. But "Cobra Verde" is not so much about plot as it is about the rise to power of a very amoral man and the corruption of his soul that results from his misdeeds. The opening scenes set the stage by showing us da Silva’s emotionless visage as he stares out across his ruined farm. From that point, he seems to turn inward and become focused only on his own lust for power. But a man can only trade in the lives of other men for so long before the realization of what he is doing drives him into madness and despair. In this condemnation of one man we see an indictment against the whole concept of enslaving fellow human beings.

If this is your first foray into the world of Werner Herzog films then your eyes are in for a treat. Eschewing the use of soundstages and phony looking props, Herzog has always chosen to film his movies on location — harsh conditions be damned. In the case of "Cobra Verde," the exotic locales include the plantations and jungles of Brazil and the magnificent, sun-drenched coastal regions of West Africa.

The DVD presents the film in all its glory, displaying the <$16x9,anamorphic> video in its original 1.77:1 aspect ratio. From the very dark, subdued colors of South America to the incredibly vibrant hues of Africa, the transfer renders the diverse palette perfectly. Blacks are very solid as well, with little or no loss of detail in even the darkest of scenes. Quite a bit of grain is present in certain scenes but, as fans of Herzog’s previous movies can attest, this is an intentional device used to inject the film with a sense of realism. There is no evidence of compression problems or edge enhancement, leaving the viewer with an image that is true to the director’s intent.

The audio is presented in a newly remixed <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 format in the film’s original German language. The soundstage is firmly anchored across the front speakers with the surrounds being used infrequently for atmospheric effects. Dialogue is quite clear and the diverse score comes across very well. There is little in the way of LFE activity, although the occasional drumbeat does extend down into the lower ranges.

Also included are German and English 2.0 surround tracks. Each is just as clear as the <$5.1,5.1 mix> but lack the depth and imaging of the primary track. The English dub isn’t as obnoxious as some but, for a movie that is as visually-oriented as "Cobra Verde," listening to the film in it’s original language isn’t as taxing as it may at first seem and the subtitles do reflect the German dialogue as much as my rusty language skills would allow me to confirm.

As to extras, "Cobra Verde" contains a screen-specific commentary by the director, Werner Herzog, and interviewer Norman Hill. Hill’s job seems to be to keep the track from meandering into long passages of silence as he’s quick to pose a question whenever the director seems to be slowing. As such, the commentary is quite engaging and never lags for too long at any one time. As one might expect, much of the commentary is filled with reminiscences of the stormy relationship between Herzog and Kinski. Although "Cobra Verde" is the film that ultimately drove them apart, it continues to amaze me that, after all these two went through together, they remained friends right up until Kinski’s death in 1991 and produced some of the most visually-absorbing cinematic works in recent decades.

Rounding out the extras are the theatrical trailer presented in three different versions (Take your pick from: German with subtitles, German sans subtitles, or English dubbing) and fairly in-depth talent files for Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski.

"Cobra Verde" was the final film to come out of the tempestuous Herzog-Kinski relationship. Utilizing a visual style common to their earlier offerings, it may at first seem that there is little to set this film apart from such works as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo," or "Nosferatu." But, in "Cobra Verde" we are witness to a director and actor who are at the top of their game. This film is blessed with magnificent cinematography that truly elevates the story and, dare I say it, an almost subdued performance by Klaus Kinski that really allows the heart of the story to come through without being overwhelmed by the sheer force of his character. Through the destruction of this one man we bear witness to the end of the slave trade and are left with a vision of an Africa ready to emerge from its dark history.

Once again Anchor Bay has taken what must be considered a niche film and restored it to its full grandeur. We’ve come to expect this kind of treatment from them but it is still cause for celebration. "Cobra Verde" is perhaps the most accessible of the Herzog-Kinski productions and tells its tale in a very straightforward manner that should appeal to those who have shied away from their works in the past.