Saturday, 8 August 2009

Cobra Verde (1987)



Starring: Klaus Kinski
Music: Popol Vuh
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
(based on the novel 'The Viceroy of Ouidah' by Bruce Chatwin)

Director of Photgraphy: Viktor Růžička

A slow pace has been established from the outset, yet, as the film continues, this pace becomes so predominant that narrative becomes more and more irrelevant. In another film about the fate of mad white men in mad foreign continents, this might in fact be part of a narrative process: the descent, illustrated by means of greater chronological incoherence and focus on the hallucinatory power of the image (as in ‘Apocalypse Now’), of the white man losing his soul and journeying into the heart of darkness. Herzog is not interested in making such sweeping ‘human condition’ statements – or, he is, but they are of a different kind, and his whole methodology seeks to embody rather than merely to illustrate them. Thus, though he is decidedly not making a historical film, a film ‘about’ colonialism and its evils, neither is he using the situation as a springboard to make points about the human condition: rather, through means above all of images, a ‘message’, or what he might call an ‘ecstatic truth’, emerges in a symbiotic manner, partly from his own egocentric volition (and that of leader actor Klaus Kinski), partly from those elements of the film which, by weight of circumstance and presence, remain out of his control (which is precisely what he wants).

Having said that, the hints at a kind of preaching – the sort of thing which any other film-maker would have assumed mandatory in a film which depicts the slave trade – do half-imply the ‘heart of darkness’ trajectory: most notably, the scenes in which Kinski writes a letter home bemoaning his lost soul, the growing frostiness of his heart in an unbearably hot country (although of course this ‘coldness’ recalls his dream of the land of cold white snow he discusses with the barman in Brazil, the white utopian realm he cries out for when, ironically enough, his face has been painted black in preparation for his execution, the snow which seems to finds its visual echo in the rows of white flags waved in great signalling lines across the African landscape).

The prologue suggested otherwise: a line-faced old musician half-speaks, half-sings his announcement that he will sing a song of Cobra Verde, alternating this with scratchy near-melodies, bowed on the violin which he holds adjacent to his head, oddly angled towards his ear rather than under his chin. You will now hear and see fantastic tales, Herzog, through this old man, seems to be saying; and indeed we do, but not in the straightforwardly narrative and heroic manner which the song might lead us to expect.

Defeating expectations is an important part of this film: while it contains many Herzog trademarks – the manic Kinski performance, the tale of the downfall of a man driven to excess, to push his limits in opposition to hostile natural forces and to hostile cultural forces alien to his own background, the focus on startling images, the use of a dreamy and barely-present Popul Vuh soundtrack – its historical scope is more complex, perhaps more muddled than something like ‘Aguirre’ or ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (though, like both of those films, it has as its milieu a colonial world). In a way, it’s several films at once: the main portion of the story, in which Cobra Verde struggles to control the slave trade in Dahomey, the story of how he became the bandit Cobra Verde (pretty much skirted over – his first murder is barely registered, a brief glimpse of torches against an otherwise entirely black backdrop, a snarled Kinski threat), the story of how he infiltrated a rich plantation and impregnated the master’s daughters, and a wider story of the end of slavery, the end of an era.

Particularly intriguing in this regard is the early scene with Euclides, the dwarf bartender, which can perhaps most obviously be read as a tribute to the spaghetti western bar scenes in which Kinski played his part (most memorably, that in the Dollars Trilogy where he attempts to get Clint Eastwood to light a match on his hunch back), hints of the western appearing in the immediately preceding scene, with his stylised appearance in a town square. “It’s the bandit Cobra Verde” the townsfolk scream, as he strides out emblazoned with bullet-belts in an X across his chest, the badge of honour of the Mexican bandit, everyone fleeing inside the church, and Herzog focussing more than half the short scene on a barrel which rolls slowly across the cobbles, almost in a parody of Leone’s focus on excruciatingly drawn-out detail, but a focus in this case which, unlike Leone, does not lead anywhere. The scene simply ends, Kinski’s entrance and the rolling barrel almost but not quite symbolic moments, generic homage, mere ‘atmospheric’ scene-setting, or – most convincingly – part of the myth-making which surrounds Cobra Verde/Kinski throughout the film. By contrast, Eastwood’s ‘inscrutable’ or, as it might be more accurate to put it, amusedly amoral ‘Man with No Name’, seems as flimsy a protagonist as the ridiculous Segals, Stallones, and Van Dammes of 80s and 90s action movie lore; for Herzog is not setting up his bandit as a man whose cunning and violence set him out above others, generating the fear and respect both of those characters with whom he interacts on screen and the audience on whom his image is impressed, but as something at once more mysterious (as I’ll try to suggest below) and more obvious (Kinski’s alternations between horrendous rage and prolonged, still calm).

Of course, given that this is Kinski (and Kinski filmed by Herzog, rather than Kinski content to chew the scenery in a dodgy B-movie), such mere movie myth-making as that of Leone/Eastwood could not be part of the picture, even if it was intended. Dollars Trilogy Eastwood remains an actor cultivating a persona (though, of course, this persona would come to be identified with ‘Clint Eastwood’ himself, with the subsequent modifications of the Dirty Harry phase lending him a greater vocabulary which made the transition more convincing). It could be said that he barely acts at all – for acting, in a conventional sense, wouldn’t really fit with Leone’s construction of personality from visual detail, from formal camerawork rather than the more observational style of Herzog. Rod Steiger found this to his cost when he brought his Actors Workshop approach to ‘Giu La Testa’; Eli Wallach’s salt-of-the-earth peasant bandit, the obvious predecessor to Steiger’s Juan, and Gian Maria Volonte’s heavies, play their roles with an excess crucial to Leone’s use of commedia-del-arte-flavoured types, but this excess, which might be mistaken simply for an ‘OTT’ style, is of a less ‘motivated’, more elemental kind than Steiger’s, to which it superficially seems similar. Wallach and the heavies are inhabiting their roles not by dogged psychological research and preparation, but are conceiving motivation as a spur-of-the-moment form of being, an instinctual and above all honest approach to life (at heart – for the characters are of course far from honest, engaging in all the double-crosses, swindles, lies and sentimentalities that would come to be the spaghetti western standard). Yet such ‘being’ should not be confused with ‘not acting’, with ‘simply being yourself’; if, watching the Dollars Trilogy now, Clint Eastwood retrospectively comes to seem as if he is just being Clint Eastwood, he is still retrospectively being the Clint Eastwood film persona, the almost ridiculously artificial and pared-down version of a human being that, again, became a spaghetti western standard, with armies of expressionless Djangos and Sartanas committing cold acts of violence.

No Eastwood then, Kinski is, once more, the man pushed to extremes, the man who attempts to take on the vast indifference of nature (an indifference which seems to be cruelty to most humans, or is sentimentalised away, as in the case of Timothy Treadwell from ‘Grizzly Man’, but which Herzog is determined to face head on, as in the latter film) not by challenging it with his human sophistication or intellect or fine-tuned emotion, but by testing the limits of rage, living in bursts of furious physical action, ecstasies of violence and fury (watch the scene where Kinski announces to his ‘amazons’ that they will now attack the king; as they chance ‘fight! fight!’ over and over, waving their weapons, chanting and dancing in the intoxicating rhythms which are so much a part of the film’s visual and aural texture, he is at once overwhelmed by the mass frenzy surrounding him and its centre, a prime force if not its instigator (particularly given the way in which he stands out visually, the white face with the long blonde hair among a sea of brown and red)). What’s so unnerving is that this really is the persona which Kinski lived: thus, we are not only watching Cobra Verde (or Aguirre, or Fitzcaraldo, or even Nosferatu) but the man, Klaus Kinski, so identified with his role that it becomes a kind of super-reality transcending even his own ‘actual self’ (I’m reminded of something Artaud writes about the necessity for an actor to completely inhabit his role in this way, but I can’t remember the exact phrasing or context).



Given the way Kinski constantly spills over in this manner, it often seems that Herzog wishes to vanish completely from his own film; the opposite of the Godardian mentality, always trying to force the viewer into some new consciousness of the artificial nature of the film in which they try to lose themselves, the rejection of celluloid as escapist drug. I’m thinking of the long takes in which the camera is held on one viewpoint, a shot in which a person or an object moves (or even stays still), held in a kind of suspension generated from the anticipation of the cut-away to the next scene (for these takes are rarely directly related to the film’s narrative thrust). The camera becomes an unblinking artificial eye, the dispassionate observer reflecting nature’s dispassionate observation back on itself, that dispassionate indifference illustrated most strikingly in footage not Herzog’s own – when Timothy Treadwell’s camera catches a bear looking directly into it, Herzog’s commentary transforms the moment into perhaps the most blatant statement of this creed, this notion of indifferent nature.

One senses that Herzog would like the idea of the dispassionate eye, would like to achieve the same quality himself; for, however breathtaking his visions, he is hardly the most compassionate or ‘human’ of film-makers. Think of such moments as that opening sequence in ‘Aguirre’, where Kinski, the prime human subject in so much of the director’s work, is not even glimpsed; the deserted landscapes of ‘Fata Morgana’; or, in the same film, the skeletons of animals, victims of drought, all life vanished, heads that once contained movement and even intelligence now simply grotesque white boulders. One might ‘justify’ this approach – if such an approach needs justification – by arguing that, if one wishes to depict something – some fact of non-human earthly existence, of, to use a word which gives only a rough approximation of what I mean, ‘nature’ – something beyond the grasp of human minds (or at least, emotions), one cannot constantly reduce it to the human scale to which it stands in opposition, or in mere indifference.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Olaf Stapledon’s two great works of philosophical science-fiction, ‘Starmaker’ and ‘Last and First Men’, and Stapledon’s intentions seem to me actually quite close to Herzog’s, even if the ideological and even polemical thrust of his works far exceeds Herzog’s. Consider the rejection of the form of a conventional novel, the return of narrative to its epic roots as a collection of tales relating the actions of men and women, whose ‘inner life’ is pretty much irrelevant in comparison to what they do; the long-form, quasi-historical approach, the gradual widening of scale until one reaches minds whose scope far exceeds even the most intelligent homo sapiens, whether these be the ‘cosmic mind’ which the 18th race of men briefly achieve through the telepathic communication of the entire race, or the mind of the Starmaker, the creative/destructive force with whom the whole universe exists in a reciprocal relationship, dependent on the Starmaker for existence just as he is dependent on it for his. Stapledon’s intention was to create a modern myth, to reject the errors of both scientific and religious dogmatism, to restore a sense of scale and wonder at the inexplicable and vast nature of the cosmos without reverting to primitive or sentimentalised religion – to accept the Real for what it was with a kind of detached and even joyous fatalism, modified by an existentialist or even humanistic assertion of opposition to the invincible oppressive forces of the indifferent universe.

Herzog might not go as far to stake his claim, with Stapledon, with “the forces of life as embattled against the forces of death” – though I’m struck by the way in which he seems reluctant to afford the moment of death itself much sway. In ‘Cobra Verde’, most of the deaths take place off-screen, despite the fact that pretty much the entire second half of the picture revolves around plot-lines in which death is a factor (Kinski’s threatened execution, the attack on and deposition of the king). Furthermore, Kinski’s titular characters, in both ‘CV’ and ‘Aguirre’, are afforded last scenes which are not death scenes, though they have the feel of death scenes: they are the moments of fever which will inevitably lead to death, but which are not death itself. It’s as if Jim Jarmusch had extended the final scene of ‘Dead Man’, when Nobody pushes Blake out onto the lake, into the sun; had shown the barely-living Blake in close-up as he drifted beyond any other human living beings, into a world of water, light and sky. In these scenes, Aguirre and Cobra Verde exist in a kind of daze, Popol Vuh’s music offering a mystical suspension highlighting the sense of unreal reality, Kinski’s staring eyes (in ‘Aguirre’) or motionless body (in ‘Cobra’) the point to which his journey has taken him, the shattered endpoint of all his raging and raving and unrestrained fury – a moment of nothingness occurring at the moment limit has been reached, the stunned realisation of being able to go no further and the complete inability to comprehend this, the surrender to a state of mere being, more in the moment than ever before but totally lost in it, so that this extreme presentness, this awareness of the self existing at this place, at this point of culmination, becomes more like an absence, but an absence to nowhere, the moment abstracted to its inexplicable essence.

Such moments would be impossible without the histories of Herzog and Kinski’s relationship, both on the sets of the films and in their lives away from film production – the energies and antagonisms have been well-documented, perhaps most notably in Herzog’s own ‘My Best Fiend’ – and thus they are supremely human, though the fact that they portray the human at its weakest and most numbly inactive makes them seem as ‘dispassionate’ and ‘indifferent’ as the unblinking long-takes of the camera’s artificial eye.

It is not so much a case of Herzog wishing to vanish from his films, then; one is, however, tempted to say that he becomes possessed by the images unfolding under his ‘direction’, that it is they which speak almost independently of the film-maker who trains his camera on them in order to make them speak, or for their silence to prove eloquent.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say might become clearer if we compare Herzog to James Benning, whose takes are even longer than Herzog’s and whose films are even more often absent of the human (’13 Lakes’, for instance). Benning is always aware of the ideological problems and possibilities behind the shots he’s setting up – primarily, environmental or political considerations, as in the use of Che Guevara’s texts in ‘Utopia’ (even though titling a film ‘Utopia’ which depicts near-deserted landscapes could be interpreted as verging on misanthropy). For Herzog, though, this is simply not interesting: any ideology which does come through is implicated in method in a way that is far more subliminal (I’m not sure one could quite call it symbiotic) than Benning’s more theorised, studied formal approach. That’s not to say that he simply films striking images in a haphazard way, like a kind of film-maker Jack Kerouac, stringing together the spewed products of his brain in the hope of finding some jewel of truth among the morass. Indeed, one thing I kept noticing, particularly in the first half of ‘Cobra Verde’, was the painterly attention to mis-en-scene, the near-Kubrickian attention to ordered shot composition. Even those images which appear quite haphazard because of the way they do not really flow with those which precede and proceed them are, on their own terms, formally exquisite.

Bearing in mind that Herzog is not Kerouac is also an important qualification for my next point: at times, the camera almost becomes human itself, becomes the subjective viewpoint of Cobra Verde himself – I’m thinking of the entrance, late on in the film, of the grotesque priest’s ‘choir of nuns’, a dozen teenage girls surrounding their leader, who, smilingly and suggestively, seems to perform direct to the camera. Herzog is clearly taken with this whole sequence, for it is reprised over the end credits, and one could view it as a celebration of vitality, of elementality, of a strong human spirit that survives the cruelties perpetrated to it and around it and from which it is generated (just as even the slaves continually sing their great choruses), in contrast with the mesmerising wave-bound end, or limbo, of Kinski/Cobra Verde. But I think it would be too simple to say this: the ‘subjective camera’ suggests, almost as a kind of idle speculation, that this is Cobra Verde’s fantasy, or his perception of this experience: the lead singer addresses the camera because the camera has become Cobra Verde, something which his sudden appearance among the ‘choir’ jolts us into suspecting. Such a moment is outside the film’s narrative, in essence, because Cobra is now really Kinski, fascinated by what he’s watching; and because we, too, are watching with relief what we perceive as an interlude from the brutal business of slavery (a few scenes before, women have been made to crawl up out of a hole to provide sexual favours, and, immediately preceding the ‘choir’ moment, Kinski has ‘stock-taken’ some chained male slaves as if they were cattle). Yet it’s still bound within that narrative, acting as ‘commentary’, if one require it to do so, on the hypocrisy of the priest (although this is retrospective, as the group is only revealed as his ‘choir’ after their performance), all of a part with the film’s view of white religion, white Christianity as a grotesque incongruity in native Africa (as in the scene where the priest feeds a communion wafer to a goat, or where he offers his daughters to Kinski as he is a white man); acting also to illuminate Kinski’s fascination with these women, which has seen him father 62 children.



Hopefully this last sentence may have indicated some of the complexities of this moment of representation. Is it mere exploitation? As so much in the film, it’s uncomfortable and seductive, Herzog’s freedom from dogma leading him (and us, the viewers) uncomfortably close to a racist mentality (hence, perhaps, to make up for this, the slight moralistic tone which creeps into a couple of scenes towards the end, and the enigmatic final title – “the slaves will sell their masters and grow wings”). One ponders his decisions to seek out ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ images and then to simply film them, to let them unfold at their own pace, a bizarre kind of freak-show which lacks the outlandishness of Jodorowsky’s use of cripples, of the physically-deformed, and which therefore seems harsher, more exploitative.

This always nags me when I watch Herzog’s films: what do these images constitute? Is his insistence on finding a new visual language to refresh our culture, his famed desire to capture an ‘ecstatic truth’, merely a front of some sort, a means of avoiding the necessity of facing up to moral, to ethical responsibility? Is he merely explaining things away by claiming that there is actually no explanation, using the ‘inexplicability’ of his images as a defence in all cases? Of course, I wouldn’t want to swing the other way and fall into the trap of the ‘accountant’s truth’, whereby detailed theoretical justification for every shot would need to be drawn up, whereby a stringent moral code would censoriously deprive the films’ of the risks they take and the beauties they generate.

And it’s all very well arguing in the abstract, but the images themselves so frequently strike me– yes, even move me, despite what I’ve said about Herzog’s lack of a human touch – that I find it hard to maintain this position for long. Thus, despite the presence of problematic, borderline-exploitative or merely vacuous shots, there are moments of just exquisite rightness, one of these being Cobra Verde’s final scene, attempting to drag the boat away off the beach, into the sea, and finally lying prone, washed forward and back by the waves. It’s not just the way that Kinski moves beyond acting, into that state of limbo described above, nor the way that Herzog’s camera films unwaveringly; but it’s the presence of the crippled African boy, further up the beach, turning this moment of solitude not so much into a shared moment, but into a moment which nonetheless contains the possibility of human relation. The way the boy moves, turns his head slightly, whether out of curiosity only, or curiosity tinged with sympathy, the sympathy of the outsider for the outsider, the deformed for the deformed – the way this gesture, probably entirely spontaneous (though, given Herzog’s attitude to staging documentaries, one can never be too sure) doesn’t scream out what it is, the way it offers possibility, potentiality, as a truer ‘fact’ than certainty. If there is love in this scene, and I want to think as well as feel that there is – and perhaps I do think it as well feel it – it is my love, it is that of the viewer, rather than of Herzog; and perhaps that is the sacrifice he has had to (willingly) make, to lose a too-close sentimental involvement, to adopt the broader and more distanced perspective in order to present the possibility of human insight, of human empathy, far greater than that which is obviously signposted.

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