4/10. cobra verde
In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance - due to the length of the essays, some of the entries such as Berlin Alexanderplatz and Grindhouse will have their write-ups broken out individually.
4.10. Cobra Verde.
(35mm) IFC Center.
There is a puzzling title card at the beginning of Cobra Verde, a bit of poetic prose that doesn't immediately seem to fit with the ultimate plot of the film: The servants will sell their masters and grow wings. It seems to imply that this will be an up-lifting tale in some way, another inspirational story of the exploited over-coming their oppressors. It is decidedly not that film. It's a period piece about the slave trade, but one that deliberately eschews every traditional approach to the subject – the opening bit of prose seems to just be there to throw you off the scent of its unexpected strategies. Its rejection of the standard approach has led to a certain amount of cloudiness surrounding the filmmaker's intentions – is the movie cynical, iconoclastic, completely unconcerned with politics, cynically anti-progressive, even racist?
However, I would make the controversial assertion this Werner Herzog film is the most essential film ever made about slavery. The problem with most films that revolve around the subject, say something like "Roots" or Amistad, is one of perspective: they are told from the point of view of the slaves and, as a result, become little more than prison narratives. That genre is inherent about what it is like to have one's freedom taken away, the contrast between freedom and imprisonment, the issues of justice behind having one's freedom removed. This is interesting and important and it doesn't diminish the value of any of the fine films examining slavery from this perspective, but it unfortunately, inevitably shuttles the issue of slavery into a narrative chute that that also contains a variety of other types of prison dramas. Ultimately, the narrative forces driving "Roots" are not all that different from the ones driving The Great Escape or The Shawshank Redemption. The dramatic drive of most films about slavery is even closer to the forces propelling "unjust imprisonment" movies like Midnight Express or Gulag, movies that rely on political injustices to create a sense of fear and outrage in their audience. All of these imprisonment films sustain their stories on the backs of the prisoner's longing for freedom.
Cobra Verde is a film from the perspective of the slave traders; at very least, some principle actors in the slave trade. I've seen few other films pointedly assume this perspective – of course, there are many films that feature slave-owning folks in the lead roles, but that's often just as a matter of historical record: they're not films about slavery, the slavery is incidental. In the case of Cobra Verde, the plot revolves around a consortium of rubber magnates who want to foster a rebellion in Africa in order to ultimately sow a societal chaos that will make the slave trade easier – with a stable ruling class out of the picture, there would be very little in the way of them fully exploiting the country's general population. Klaus Kinski plays a lunatic bandit hired by one of the plantation owners to act as an enforcer on the plantation; he's subsequently sent to Africa to lead the all-female rebellion against a schizophrenic king. Kinski's bandit, nicknamed "Cobra Verde," is the ultimate personification of the unstable forces on the edge of society that are harnessed by the rich and powerful when they don't want to get their hands too dirty: he's the spirit of Blackwater and Jonas Savimbi and Mike Tsalickis and Ahmad Chalabi and the Pinkertons.
But he's also a great character: Kinski's wild eyes have rarely revealed such vulnerability and the contradictions behind Cobra Verde are multiple and difficult to parse. He's not overtly racist – he has a playful romance with a black woman in South America and he never seems to look down on anyone that he meets, regardless of their race, creed or culture – but he has absolutely no conflicts about being used as an instrument of slavery. He's intelligent and confident, but easily controlled – he's an outlaw who repeatedly submits into a specific position in the power structure of the world. He's hard-nosed and pragmatic, but impulsive and can work himself into the fits of delirium that are Kinski's signature as an actor. Most interestingly, he's the sort of perfectly amoral creature that most human beings really are; he's driven by a mixture of lust and necessity, out-sized appetites and practical concerns, ambitious dreams and harsh realities – to Cobra Verde, the ethical ramifications of his behavior are entirely beside the point. He impregnates all three of the plantation owner's daughters - that's when he's shipped off to Africa to organize the army of women. The impulse lusts behind the pregnancies quickly and without incident give way to the new task at hand: his moral indifference is the mechanism that allows the change in his life to be smooth, almost inconsequential.
To the plantation owners, he's a handy little trick to have in their repertoire: his lunacy and doggedness means there's a chance he can actually lead the rebellion; his amorality ensures a certain complacency. And if he fails and the rebellion is violently crushed, what's it to them? A few coins from their over-flowing coffers is all it amounts to. And that interplay of institutional forces is what Cobra Verde is all about. It tells the story of slavery from the top down, but not as some dry analytic deconstruction of sociological forces – it's a poetic realist's version of an action movie. The remarkable thing about the movie is the way is doesn't need to sacrifice any of painfully beautiful human elements to address a large-scale issue. Its closest tonal comparison is probably Toni Morrison, but her work obviously comes from the bottom-up point of view. But really, the film is ultimately most striking for its deeply human, endlessly sympathetic, but completely clear-eyed view of the fundamentally amoral world in which we exist. It is an amoral film without a trace of cynicism, a movie infused with a desperate sympathy for all of the awfulness which humanity conjures. It presents a reality beyond good and evil, but one nonetheless touched by poetry, by music, by nature's over-whelming gorgeousness, the dark beauty of despair and the fleeting invigoration of hope. The slaves will grow wings and sell their masters.
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