It somehow seemed fitting to return to Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde (1987) a few days after professional sports entertainment wrestler “The Ultimate Warrior” died of a heart attack. The wrestler—born James Hellwig—was as known for his memorably inexhaustible and frequently unfathomable microphone skits outside the wrestling ring as he was for his high-octane performances inside it.
Watching Cobra Verde the same week Warrior died, one couldn’t help but notice the same attributes apply to that film’s star, Herzog regular Klaus Kinski. In the opening sequence of Herzog’s My Best Fiend (1999), the documentary on the director’s creative partnership with the actor, we see Kinski performing his foul-mouthed early-1970s stage monologue in character as Jesus Christ. Growling and howling at his audibly bemused audience, Kinski aggressively refuses to be ushered off stage. It’s not just the emotional intensity of the performance that’s striking, it’s the sense that in some way it goes beyond acting—we’re watching someone who, at the very least, gives the impression not that he’s quite clearly lost it, but that he never had it to begin with.
Even before Hellwig changed his actual name by deed poll to Warrior in 1993, he had that similar Kinski vibe about him, embodying a persona so fully that it was impossible to distinguish between what was real and what was put on (what in the wrestling world is known as “kayfabe”). Warrior made his television debut for Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE—then known as the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF) in October 1987. Cobra Verde received its world-premiere in West Germany two months later. Warrior’s distinctive face paint and feral-like ring entrance marked him out immediately as a star to watch. Inside a year, he’d won his first championship belt, and in 1990 he beat fan favorite Hulk Hogan to become WWE Champion. In 1991, he relinquished the title belt. Later that year, Klaus Kinski died of a heart attack.
By the time they made Cobra Verde, Kinski and Herzog’s best collaborations were behind them. Following 1982’s epic Fitzcarraldo—the duo’s fourth film together—Herzog made several documentaries and one feature, Where the Green Ants Dream (1984). As if the efforts invested in the 1982 work had been silently acknowledged as an unbeatable peak for both, there’s something comparatively routine about Cobra Verde. For starters, the intricacies of its plot—taken from Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, about a slave trader’s doomed exploits in Africa—are somewhat confusing.
Given well-documented reports that Herzog’s regular cinematographer Thomas Mauch left production following several tirades directed at him by Kinski, it’s probable that the actor, for whatever reasons, wasn’t as congenial or easy to direct by 1987 as Herzog had evidently found him to be earlier in their partnership. (And, even then, legends about fellow actors offering to kill Kinski on Herzog’s behalf in the earlier productions are well known.) Indeed, just as the narrative of Fitzcarraldo had mirrored the duo’s own megalomaniacal efforts to transport a steamship over a mountain, Kinski played a wayward bandit-cum-slave trader to a fault: at several points in the film, he seems beyond anyone’s control. In an early scene, he bursts into a fit of rage against fellow performers, and their collective scramble to ground him seems too convincing an instance of “kayfabe.”
Such scenes are a far cry from visibly more controlled equivalents in earlier collaborations. In Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Kinski is the eponymous, misanthropic conquistador who machinates a barely-supported mutiny while trekking downriver in vain search of a golden city. Half-hunched as if one side of his armor is heavier than the other, the actor matches his character’s own conniving ways, seemingly half-happy to remain for much of the film in the background or periphery of long shots. In Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), his rat-like demeanor offsets the desperate, rather pathetic pathos with which he longs for earthly love. Upon arriving in an empty town square at night to pursue amour fou, he enters the frame by turning on his heel with a unique, declarative gesture and almost faces the camera—thereby turning an establishing shot into a close-up without any camera movement or editing.
In Woyzeck (1979), which was shot days after Nosferatu’s production wrapped, Kinski takes such pathos to an extreme. In its sped-up opening sequence, the actor’s sheer energy and visible exhaustion acquire comical qualities, rooted in the absurd. Already, however, Kinski’s face is just a little too pained to be harmoniously funny: as his veins bulge out the side of his head and his yellowed eyes stare through the camera as if there isn’t one there, we sense a good but simple man for whom nothing but tragedy lies ahead (“In a small town, on a wide, still pond…”). After cruel mockeries culminate in this good but simple man committing murder, Kinski comes disastrously close once more to breaking the fourth wall—turning on his heel and stepping into frame like he did in Nosferatu, but this time without the controlled, steady movement. Whereas his vampire reluctantly takes centre stage, Kinski’s Woyzeck seems repulsed by the idea of being filmed at all, of being part of this unfolding drama—and lashes out freakishly and accordingly.
In Cobra Verde, Kinski takes things to another level in doing things his own way. A fiery, bridge-burning type, there’s something innately child-like about him, evinced in the way his half-mad intransigence results in a downfall that he himself barely recognizes. Here, there is no longer even a fourth wall to break. Towards the end of the film, when Kinski leads one tribe of natives into battle against another, he kicks aside a supposedly sacred snake and surges ahead with alarming disregard for any consequences. While in Woyzeck Kinski was frightening because he was so vulnerable and fearful, what makes the character so frightening here is also the precise root of his vulnerability: fearlessness.
The endearing qualities of this heart-on-sleeve, brawn-over-brain fearlessness also recall The Ultimate Warrior in his prime. Warrior’s chosen arena, the performative world of sports entertainment, appealed (and appeals) to adolescences actual, prolonged, dormant and belated—and the wrestler conquered it by taking a particular brand of steroid-fueled performance to an extreme. In comparison, Kinski, with his manic, near-involuntary gestures of life-or-death, all-or-nothing psychosis-cum-folly, remains today the most memorable star of films by that director who once said “cinema is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”