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A few things you should know about 'Cobra Verde'
on 12 January 2010
This is a haunting film about slavery (based loosely on a Bruce Chatwin novel), but unlike other films on the topic it doesn't actually denounce slavery, working instead within the mental framework of the 19th century. Not a 'politically correct' approach, of course, as director Herzog cheerfully acknowledges, but an historically faithful one.
Herzog is concerned with authenticity when portraying African cultures, and this may be one of the most realistic depictions of colonial Africa ever committed to film. Interestingly, the actor who plays the King of Dahomey is a real African tribal king.
Klaus Kinski plays the title role with a crazed intensity which according to Herzog mirrors the fact that he was slipping over the edge in real life. Kinski's character Cobra Verde longs "to go forth from here to another world", but in fact he is already in another world - Herzog's camera captures the sense of strangeness and mystery in each landscape the film passes through.
In many ways 'Cobra Verde' is like an extended dreamscape, hyponotic yet full of surprising juxtapositions. While not Herzog's most coherent film, in terms of stylised cinematography it ranks up there with his best. It is a work of art that demands attentive viewing.
Contrary to the myth that whites are responsible for the African slave trade, the film also acknowledges the historical reality that slavery was practiced extensively by Arabs and Africans (not that whites didn't actively participate in it, of course). Herzog discusses some of these issues in the director's commentary track, which is interesting in its own right.