Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Herzog/Kinski #5: "Cobra Verde"

Here’s your reminder that Klaus Kinski was a piece of shit. Also, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the film, so...SPOILERS.

The Last Film

I finally made it to the last collaboration between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski (I am going to include the documentary My Best Fiend for my final Herzog/Kinski post, since it is part of the collection I own): Cobra Verde. Aside from My Best Fiend, this was the film I was most looking forward to rewatching because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I had nearly forgotten every bit of it. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed as I watched it, but it grew on me by the end, as most Herzog/Kinski films do. This final collaboration made me reflect on their work as a whole, and I realized that I liked analyzing these films and looking up behind the scenes info more than actually watching them.

That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy all of these movies; I do like them very much. But the background drama coupled with analysis makes these movies unique. Herzog likes to point out in his commentaries how anti-Hollywood he is, and that’s what I like about his work. These movies could not be made by a studio. The subject matter, the meandering pacing, the volatile Kinski, etc. All of these things would have been altered. And while Herzog’s style honestly bores me at times, by the end I’m always left thinking about what I had just watched for hours afterward. That is special to me because I watch so much crap that I forget almost instantly. It’s nice to watch something that sticks with me and challenges what I think a movie should be.

So why did I forget Cobra Verde after my first viewing, then? All I can think is that I was a different person when I bought this set all those years ago. I was only really a fan of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, and I thought the set looked cool. Only now have I given it proper attention, and I am very glad I did.

This is Kinski at his most manic and despondent.

Herzog doesn’t seem to be thrilled with Kinski’s work in this film, and he thinks it was his preparation for Paganini that caused it. Paganini would end up being Kinski’s final film. Herzog thinks that Kinski brought the energy he was creating for that role to Cobra Verde, leading to a less enthused performance. I can’t claim to know why Kinski seemed different in this film, but I think he is clearly different this time around.

It’s strange to make such a claim when Cobra Verde has so many crazed Kinski moments. The training scenes with the female warriors, in particular, show Kinski at his most crazed. Not to mention a black-faced Kinski facing execution or Kinski facing off against a king in a throne room with a floor made of human skulls. How could this be considered a less energetic performance? Well, those scenes are certainly brimming with Kinski’s famous, manic spirit, but they don’t make up the bulk of the film. Most of the film, Kinski comes across as tired and depressed. Granted, the character is admittedly miserable by the end of the film. But with the hindsight that Kinski’s career and life would end soon after this film, it’s not a stretch to think that something had changed in him.

This doesn’t mean the performance is bad. In fact, this is my favorite performance. The lack of energy in most of the scenes adds a complexity to what otherwise would be a terrible character. He is a terrible character. Not only is he a murderer and bandit, but he is a rapist and a slaver, as well. In a normal film, he would be the villain. I suppose he is still the villain of this film. I guess I mean that in a normal film, the focus would be on a hero fighting against such a man. But this is a Herzog film.

Herzog doesn’t seek to make Kinski all that sympathetic, but he does give him a few lines showing that he’s aware of how terrible he is. One of my favorite lines occurs when he allows a fellow slaver to take one of his women (who live in a pit) for the night. When he’s asked who the women are, Kinski responds, “Our future murderers.” The question is, does acknowledging he and the slave trade are awful make him any better? I would argue they make him even worse, as he engages in the slave trade knowing how awful it is. And it would be one thing to just be involved in it as a business, but to also keep women in a pit to be raped nightly? Admitting you’re awful doesn’t really do much when you’re doing things like that. But it does make for an interesting performance.

Did Herzog intentionally make movies with Kinski that mirror his own filmmaking style?

One criticism that has been leveled at Cobra Verde is that it is too light on plot. It’s true that things just seem to happen to Kinski without there being any real goal for the character. But that’s typical of the three crazed ambition films Herzog made with Kinski. Aguirre has a goal, sure, but it’s insane. There’s no kingdom to be made as you drift down the Amazon. Fitzcarraldo definitely had a goal, too, but it was just as crazy. So Cobra Verde doesn’t have some grand plan, but like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, he seems to drift through life.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare these characters to Herzog himself. This was most clear with Fitzcarraldo, since he actually did what the character was trying to do. But it’s kind of the same with Cobra Verde, as the sheer amount of extras appearing onscreen must have been just as complicated to deal with as dragging a ship up a hill. It’s not just trying to do difficult things that tie them together. Herzog has stated in previous commentaries that he never storyboards anything. And all of this films that deal with native people actually have native people playing the parts. There’s no way he could plan that out very far in advance. I imagine following Herzog to these locations to make movies must’ve been similar to being on the journey with Kinski’s characters.

Because of this, Herzog’s films feel like documentaries and shots go on much longer than they normally would. Some of it works, and some it gets a bit tedious, but it’s a unique film experience. That is why Herzog and Kinski were so good together despite their infamous clashed behind the scenes. Kinski could bring the manic energy or the lethargic presence needed for such strange characters, and Herzog was willing to sometimes go blindly forward and see what happened. It’s a small miracle that these films ended up being so great and effective. But perhaps, after five films, I’m experiencing a Stockholm Syndrome-type situation, and I find brilliance where there is actually just insanity.

These movies are making me think like Herzog...I’m scared.

Writing thing like “I find brilliance where there is actually just insanity” scares me a little because it sounds like something Herzog would say. I first became aware of this as I was taking notes while watching Cobra Verde. Here’s an example:

I suppose I prefer the three movies about ambition most for the same reason some people hate them: the lack of story. Sure, plenty of things happen, but overall these films are about the journey, not the destination, which is a metaphor for life, of course. These films are not trying to tell some important story. They meander and seem to just let things happen, because that's what life is: a meandering journey featuring random events that typically ends unremarkably. My God, these films have gotten to me. I'm starting to write the way Herzog talks.

I don’t think I would have written something like “life is a meandering journey featuring random events that typically ends unremarkably” after only watching one of these films. I think this is something that happens when you watch them all and write about them over the course of a few weeks. I love these movies, but I’m glad I only have the documentary left. Thinking about these characters and the behind the scenes stuff and listening to Herzog’s commentaries is getting to me. I’m definitely going to be choosing something much more light-hearted when I’m done with this collection.

Would I own this if it wasn’t part of the collection?

Probably not, but I do think I will revisit this one again sometime. But if I’m in the mood to watch a Herzog/Kinski film, Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo will always come before this.

Random Thoughts

“I want you awake when you die!” Of course you do, Kinski.

Kinski’s a natural...at slaving.

I have to admit, Kinski looks pretty damn cool in this movie, both as a bandit a la Leone and as a Napoleonic captain.

A goat takes communion. Maybe this is meant to be some kind of commentary on Christianity, but it’s probably just because there was a goat on set that day, and Herzog thought it would be funny to give it communion.

Kinski and crabs...they've come full circle. In the commentary, Herzog talks about his fear of the crabs. Interesting that he told Kinski to act crab-like in Aguirre and Nosferatu, especially since he claims he was never afraid of Kinski, but he directs him to act like a creature he fears.

Prince Crazy Eyes. That dude cracked me up in every scene.

The most famous behind the scenes photo from this movie shows Kinski reaching for Herzog’s throat, but there are actually multiple pictures of them smiling together, which is definitely an odd sight.

I can think of nothing more terrifying than seeing Kinski running full speed at me, leading an army of topless female warriors.

That's one hell of a messaging system. Do they really need to be that close together? Seems like you could get the same thing done with one-tenth the people. But Herzog liked the way it looked, so...

For once, Herzog is more interested in the natives than nature. This makes Kinski even worse since he treats them all like animals or tools for his own uses.

Cobra Verde is a unique character for Kinski. He's just as ambitious as Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, but unlike them, he seems to not know why. He is admittedly miserable. So what's the motivation? All three characters don't really plan things out and just seem to go where the wind takes them. Perhaps Cobra Verde is the ultimate version of this. A bandit whose only motivation is to see where life takes him, no matter how evil the path.

And on that note, are all these characters like Herzog, as well? His films seem to drift aimlessly in their subject matter. Sure, he has always had a connection to nature and the absurdity of humanity, but the subjects and styles of his filmography are possibly the most varied of any director. He is like Verde, drifting from subject to subject rather than looking for some ultimate goal.

What a fitting final image of Kinski. Struggling to move a boat and failing to move it an inch, despite his rage. But he is immensely watchable. It's hard to describe. He's looks strange and severe, and nearly every character he played for Herzog was monstrous in some way. You don't root for him really, but you want to see what happens.

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