Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog were a legendary team.
Klaus Kinski was the infamously intense German actor who was always in demand because of his talent but who was also reportedly impossible to work with. So legendary was Kinski for his bad behavior that it’s actually been the subject of two documentaries — My Best Fiend and Please Kill, Mr. Kinksi.
Werner Herzog is the famously obsessive and experimental West German director, the brilliant filmmaker who specializes in features and documentaries about men battling nature. Inevitably nature always seems to win.
Along with directing the previously mentioned documentary, My Best Fiend, Herzog made five films with Klaus Kinski. Herzog often described Kinski as being one of his first muses. Herzog’s obsessiveness found the perfect reflection in Kinski’s intensity. Together, they made films about four madmen and one vampire. As much as Herzog sometimes hated him, he also considered Kinski to be a key part of his early success.
Klaus Kinski, for his part, often threatened to murder Herzog. There’s a famous photo that was taken during the making of 1987’s Cobra Verde. In the picture, an enraged Kinski appears to be attempting to drive a machete into Herzog’s neck. In My Best Fiend, Herzog stated that he believed Kinski was just acting for the cameras. The photographer, on the other hand, states that Kinski was definitely trying to kill his director.
(Herzog, it should be pointed out, often threatened to kill Kinski as well. In My Best Fiend, Herzog tells a story of nearly burning down Kinski’s house, just to be scared off by Kinski’s dog.)
Cobra Verde was the fifth and final film that Herzog made with Kinski. Reportedly, it was during this film that Herzog decided that he could no longer deal with Kinski’s erratic behavior. (Interestingly enough, Cobra Verde was made around the same time that Kinski made Crawlspace, the film that inspired Please Kill, Mr. Kinski.)
In Cobra Verde, Kinski is cast as Francisco Manuel da Silva, a 19th century Brazilian rancher who is forced to take a demeaning job with a mining company. When Silva decides that his abilities are being exploited to make his boss rich, he reacts by murdering his boss and going on the run. (Interestingly enough, Kinski often complained that Herzog used him to get rich.) Silva becomes a bandit known as Cobra Verde and eventually finds himself working as a slave overseer on a sugar plantation. When Silva ends up impregnating all three of his employer’s daughters, he’s sent to West Africa on a mission to re-open the slave trade. Silva’s employer figures that Silva will either be killed in Africa or he’ll end up sending him so many slaves that the sugar plantation will become the most successful in Brail.
Silva ends up becoming not only a very successful slave trader but also something of a powerbroker in Africa. He arranges for one king to be overthrown and another one to elevated to the throne. But, even as Silva finds success, he starts to grow increasingly obsessive and megalomaniacal. He’s built himself a kingdom in Africa but he knows that, as soon as soon as the slave trade ends, so will his power.
It’s a bit disappointing that this was Herzog and Kinski’s final collaborations because it’s not only one of Herzog’s weaker films but it’s also one of Kinski’s least interesting performances. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s evident what Herzog was going for, showing how a man went from being exploited to becoming the exploiter. And, even if it’s not Kinski’s performance, he’s still always watchable. But, when watching the movie, you get the feeling that, on his way to making an important statement, Herzog got lost and the story got bogged down. Oddly, Herzog doesn’t seem to be quite sure how to get Silva from one point of his story to another and, as such, the film has an uneven quality. We never get the feeling that we understand what’s motivating Silva. In some scenes, he’s a cynical but committed rebel. In others, he’s a comical libertine. And then, in others, he’s a fanatical slave trader. None of the different sides that we see of Silva ever seem to come together to form a whole. Of course, Herzog and Kinski were apparently at each other’s throats during the making of the film so perhaps that explains why the end result seems so disjointed.
And yet, it’s a Herzog film so, of course, there are isolated moments of brilliance. An early scene where Silva meets a young man in a room illuminated with candles is dream-like and shows that Kinski could be a subtle actor when he wanted to be. Another scene, where Silva exhausts himself trying to push a boat to the ocean, takes on an obsessively self-destructive grandeur. Littered about, there are moments of beauty and unforgettable mania. It may be a disappointing film but it’s still a Herzog/Kinski film, after all.