Werner Herzog’s grand theme has long been the quixotic struggle of heroically deluded humans against the implacable powers of the natural world—the man-eating carnivores of Grizzly Man, the crushing weight of deep space in The Wild Blue Yonder, or even the law of gravity in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. In Cobra Verde, that unmanageable force of nature is undoubtedly Klaus Kinski. Playing a 19th-century Brazilian bandit named Francisco Manoel da Silva who’s sent on a suicide mission to procure slaves from Africa, Kinski turns the old stereotype of civilized explorer versus savage native on its head, then decapitates it with a rusty machete. Throughout the film, Kinski’s body veers from silent stillness into sudden attacks of seemingly uncontrolled violence; half his dialogue consists of lower-brain shrieks and canine snarls, discharged through his eerily large and fishy jaws and framed by a whirling mane of unkempt tawny hair. After seeing the picture, it’s easy to understand why this was Herzog’s final collaboration with the actor (reportedly the director afterward claimed that Kinski had “become uncontrollable”) but Kinski’s performance nevertheless serves up a potent confusion of documentary and fiction that has long been an essential element of Herzog’s filmmaking.
Kinski’s character, however, is far from the film’s only serving of astonishing insanity: Herzog depicts the 19th century as an insensibly violent era, with both Africans and Europeans given equal time for maniac brutality. After da Silva wanders onto a town square where Brazilian colonials in comfy carriages entertain themselves by watching slaves get whipped in punishment, he’s hired by a wealthy sugar plantation owner as an overseer. There, the sweet stuff is wrung from human misery: Slaves work alongside rumbling industrial machinery like cogs (almost literally: One man gets his arm caught in a cane-thrashing mill, and the factory owner calmly calls for someone to cut him loose). Sent to Africa after impregnating all three of the plantation owner’s daughters, da Silva successfully parleys with the mad King of Dahomey to procure a boatload of human livestock in return for rifles. But later, da Silva leads a revolt against the king with the help of a massive army of topless warrior-women—like a spectacularly Freudian nightmare conjured after wanking to one too many National Geographic magazines.
Completed in 1987, Cobra Verde has never until now seen a proper American release. But it’s deliciously tempting to imagine how it would have been received back in the USA for Africa era: Picture it on the same marquee as one of that decade’s Merchant Ivory–style colonial fantasies, totally freaking out both Helena Bonham-Carter fans and the post-colonialist politically-correct crowd in one blood-curdling Kinski swoop.