Monday, September 13, 2010
Motion Studies: Kinski smiles
(Cobra Verde, dir. Werner Herzog/Werner Herzog film Production and Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1987)
Suddenly, out come the choir of young African nuns. Each one is a skinny girl wearing only beads, leighs and tribal skirts. Six stand in a circle around one in the middle; all sing a call and response anthem in their language that consists of two repeated phrases. The choir leader, in the middle, nods to the camera, smiles like a pop star who knows she's the hottest sensation, and vaguely points in our direction to let us know each of her solo lines are directed at us. Each girl has a blissful expression on her face. They look in our direction as if indifferent to the fact that they live in a conflict-torn country, in a palace where they are the king's property. Like most other Africans in the film, they are slaves, but they are content, image-conscious, ebullient slaves. They are a presence which contradicts the entire notion of slavery, and tells off the solemnly romantic tone of the film surrounding them.
Cobra Verde sees what we see, though he is out of the frame, to the left. After a minute or so of their song, he quietly slides in to the middle of the group, glancing at each girl with an affection that Kinski the actor wants to downplay. But just as the girls know the camera is their audience, Cobra Verde knows Kinski is the real person. This is hardly an instance of breaking the fourth wall. Herzog's films often contain moments of direct address to the audience, never for the purpose of self-reference. It is too obvious that this film is about both Kinski and his character from the beginning. Both are nearing the end of their careers, lives and sanity. Both are tired of working, but still mustering considerable ambition. Yet in this one shot, Kinski is finally mellow; he looks almost like a fond uncle figure to these signing girls. Just before the choir finishes their song, Kinski smiles.
This window of playfulness in the film-- Herzog's last collaboration with Kinski-- comes before the final blow that ends Cobra Verde's authority and symbolically ended Kinski's career. The film plays as a sort of elegy to something that is not quite over; hence the presence of sunsets and the vast expanse of ocean. Exactly what we needed to see was a long shot of a group of singing girls, there for just this moment, for our pleasure. Most importantly, they bring out the humility left in Kinski, no small feat.