Unruly Choir

Cobra Verde

Werner Herzog 1987

I watched this quite a while ago now, but didn’t manage to follow up on my desire to write something about this particular sequence. Another go, this time from memory. Towards the end of the film a ‘nun’s choir’ come into the walled section of the fort from which Francisco Manoel da Silva (Kinski) is running his slave trade outpost. The dozen or so young girls, framed at the back by a few male singers and percussionists, form a mass just ahead of the archway, pressing into the image in a lateral way, spreading out like a surface, as if reluctant to step into the full light of the courtyard. Da Silva has just walked through a group of male slaves, clinically grabbing heads and checking teeth (a horrible stocktake) and the emergence of this group of musicians and dancers is absolutely transformative – especially to Kinski. For one thing, the way the group comes up to the camera, and in particular the affecting, somehow invulnerable manner of the young woman who seems to lead the performance, seems to grow in the scene like an unstoppable contagion.

The main singer – who is undoubtedly the focal pull of the group, and who, every now and then, winds up the formation of figures with a muscular twirl, as if resetting the torsion that they are working on the film/image – and the surrounding women, address the camera straight on, smiling and winking wryly – looking through everything, all equipment and apparatus. There is no clear indication that we have assumed a character perspective, that we have cut to inhabit Kinski’s viewpoint, but this remains poised and uncertain. For then, Kinski breaks out from the frame edge and infiltrates the choir. There is something additional in this gesture I think – it’s like both Kinski and da Silva splits from themselves, drifting like a pale, and now benevolent apparition in the midst of the intense mass of the choir. Something that steps outside of the film here – not simply a breaking of the fourth wall or the consistency of characterisation – or at least there is nothing so upfront about its lack of containment, so to speak. Yet that’s what it seems to be at work here – this sequence, however instigated by Herzog, whether it became found its way into the film by design, accident, etc. it ends up blossoming unchecked in the material of the story, and the matter of the image. It overloads the narrative and historical setting, breeding over the ‘location’ like a fungus. It refuses to be assimilated on anything but its own terms – those of a singular performance, tied to an index of event that cannot be utilised in the generation of sustainable fictions. I’m tempted to say that it becomes extraneous, but this is not to be thought in the sense of any superficiality or as anything reductively ornamental. It is rather that it becomes a figure of brutal authenticity and, more importantly, materiality. This reference to materiality is echoed in what Gilles Deleuze says about what he considers Herzog’s emphasis on the materiality of images, producing a physical presence of the image that in this case could be linked both to a people’s nobility and vulnerability – a performance of disjunction that seems to protrude from the surface of the film, to come out and dismiss its construction through an integrated (paradoxical) display of porosity and imperviousness.