Based on Bruce Chatwin's 1980 historical novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, which was inspired by the life of Brazilian slave trader Francisco Manoel da Silva, this legendarily troubled film, all-but-unreleased in the U.S. for 20 years after its completion, was the last of five collaborations between volatile German director Werner Herzog and even more volatile actor Klaus Kinski. It's also the least, but not for lack of stunning visuals and larger-than-life ambition.
Like so many of Herzog's films, from AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972) to GRIZZLY MAN (2005), its theme is the struggle between hubristic man and implacable nature, here played out in 19th-century Brazil and Dahomey. The story of Francisco Manoel da Silva (Klaus Kinski) encompasses the epic miseries engendered by European colonialism: He works, covered head-to-toe with slippery mud, in a brutal Brazilian gold mine and murders the corrupt pit boss who ensures that laborers are perpetually indebted to the company store. He then becomes a bandit so feared he can drive law-abiding townspeople to seek refuge in their church merely by walking into town. Then he reinvents himself again as the overseer of a sugarcane plantation whose rapacious owner, Don Octavio Coutinho (Jose Lewgoy) is more interested in raping pretty slave girls than improving conditions so that fewer workers are mutilated and killed in the cane-processing machinery. After da Silva seduces and impregnates all three of Coutinho's pretty mixed-race daughters, Coutinho and his cohorts conspire to get rid of da Silva by sending him on a suicide mission to procure African slaves. It's a win-win situation for everyone but da Silva: The slave trade is officially illegal and the King of Dahomey notoriously mad it's been years since a white man returned from his nation so he'll probably die and be out of their hair. If he happens to return, they'll all benefit from the labor of his human cargo. But da Silva's deranged destiny awaits him in West Africa, where the horrors of megalomania and degradation are played out on a grand, surreal scale.
The director and his star were barely speaking by the time principal photography on COBRA VERDE, the third part of a loose trilogy with AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972) and FITZCARRALDO (1982), was completed. The conflict may be part of why the film's narrative proceeds in fits and starts, but linear storytelling was never Herzog's strong suit even under the best of conditions. His strength lies in capturing lucid lunacy on film, and Manoel da Silva's descent into the jaws of madness is a straight shot into the heart of darkness, a place familiar to both Herzog and Kinski. (In German, with English subtitles) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh