Werner Herzog: On Death Row

This piece was published on the Frieze blog March 27, 2012

Lethal-injection gurney in Huntsville, Texas. Photo: Paul Buck – AFP/Getty Images

Depictions of the death row experience in western mainstream cinema have, on balance, progressed along a singular diegetic line. Whatever the outcome, whether it is life or death, the narrative arc carries a central protagonist – typically a male convict, or someone touched by his condition – towards judicial vindication or religious exoneration. Coated in Hollywood’s saccharine glaze, sentimental biopics like Dead Man Walking (1995) or quasi-spiritual narratives such as The Green Mile(1999) have wrung the emotive possibilities of capital punishment dry. But in documentary film, the investigative impulse, and the veracity of testimony, propel both audience and filmmaker towards an end of wider socio-political significance.

Because no other advanced country in the West is actively killing prisoners, the western death row documentary traditionally focuses on the American South. According to Hugo Adam Bedau, editor of The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies (1997), ‘death sentences and executions join high homicide rates as a way of life in Texas, Florida and other southern states, as they have for centuries’. For those in opposition, execution in the US is an anachronistic symptom of the Bible Belt’s entrenched Old Testament values. The international community’s view is that state-sanctioned death constitutes an abuse of human rights, a draconian tool more suited to totalitarian regimes than democratic republics. Though prominent nations are conspicuously reticent about criticizing China’s use of capital punishment – the current death sentencing of female business tycoon Wu Ying, for illegal fundraising, has been met with international silence – Alexander Lukashenko(the Belarusian president Condolezza Rice describes as ‘Europe’s last dictator’) has recently come under fire from the EU for the hasty execution of two terror suspects sentenced to death.

Randall Dale Adams in Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988)

These enduring points of view have pushed western documentary filmmakers towards an abolitionist line of argument. Errol Morris’s paradigmatic mainstream documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988) pioneered dramatized re-enactments to piece together a case for Dallas’s Randall Dale Adams; while Paul Hamann’sFourteen Days in May (1987) observed the pursuit of freedom for Mississippi’s Edward Earl Johnson. Both men’s stories provide affecting archetypal portraits of wrongful conviction, and cogent arguments for the abolition of capital punishment. But beyond the familiar territory of reviewed evidence, analysis of questionable confession techniques and the exposure of lacklustre defence representation, can today’s death row documentary cover any new ground?

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (2011), a feature-length documentary, and Death Row (2012), a three-part series of inmate profiles broadcast by Channel 4, are the results of Werner Herzog’s late-career interest in the field. Instead of following the investigative route plotted by Morris and Hamann, Herzog reconnects with a literary impulse first explored by Truman Capote in the novel In Cold Blood (1966). The goal is to move beyond reportage, beyond a surface reading of events, to depths of greater psychological and metaphysical insight. The result is an utterly compelling meditation on the desolate emotional landscapes opened up by capital murder.

Left to right: Jason Burkett and Michael Perry in Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss (2011)

At the centre of Into the Abyss are Jason Burkett, sentenced to life imprisonment, and Michael Perry, awaiting death by lethal injection, both interned in the state of Texas. In a premeditated, aggravated assault, the two men shot and killed Sandra Stotler, her son Adam Stotler and his friend Jeremy Richardson. The purpose of this triple homicide was to enable the pair to steal two cars: a Camero and Isuzu Rodeo. At first Perry seeks to enact the role of the wrongfully accused man, adopting the freedom-or-religious-salvation narrative. ‘I’m either going home to the world, or home to God’, he states. But in a startling introductory remark, Herzog occludes this direction for Perry, the film and the audience:

I have the feeling that, in a way, destiny has dealt you a very bad deck of cards. But that does not exonerate you, and when I talk to you that does not necessarily mean that I have to like you. But I respect you, and I think you are a human being, and I think human beings should not be executed

What Herzog outlines here is a post-abolitionist’s perspective. The moral issue of capital punishment is resolved, and so the empathic device of using wrongfully accused inmates, to generate affecting narrative tropes, need not be employed. In other words, there is no need to convince a liberal audience, already well versed in the environmental and contextual conditions leading to crime, that execution is wrong. True to directorial form, what Herzog is looking for are entryways into the soul: the actual ground on which the modern penal system operates.

In court on 20 July 2001, serial killer Aileen Wuornos runs the emotional gamut, while asking to be executed after a decade of appeals. Photos: David Tucker

In Discipline and Punish (1975), Michel Foucault writes ‘it would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect […] this soul which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of punishment, supervision, and constraint’. If we accept that the shift from corporal punishment, torture and public execution to internment, rehabilitation and private execution has produced a shift in the target of such penalties from bodies to souls, then life imprisonment and execution are the state’s ultimate punitive tools. The convict has nowhere to turn but within. This is why he or she seeks the transcendent through Christianity. Religion offers a spiritual way out: it allows the convict to admit the soul is in torture, whilst gaining relief from punishment via the spiritual peace God brings. Nick Broomfield’s films Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), perhaps more then any other death row documentaries, show how the mental elasticity of the convict is bent and broken instead of the body. What Herzog demonstrates in Into the Abyss is that this activation of the soul is an epiphenomenon reaching beyond the prison walls to friends, bereaved family, and those working within the prison service. Members of this accidental community lead lives barely tied to the material world.

Numbered gravestones of the unclaimed executed, Texas State Cemetery. Still from Into the Abyss

In a classic Herzogian scene of tragicomic surreality, the director interviews the Reverend Richard Lopez, death house chaplain. A small, gentle and courteous man, Lopez describes how the silence and solitude of the golf course allows him to appreciate life. ‘I can see the beautiful grass’ he ruminates ‘I can see the squirrels […] sometimes the deer are running. Sometimes I look across the golf course, and I see a cow and a horse, and I stop and I acknowledge… life’. This man who stands clutching the ankles of prisoners as they pass away, demonstrates the emotional chasm that death – here the causal factor activating Foucault’s secular soul – opens in the minds of the living. By virtue of their closeness to execution and murder these individuals inhabit a different, otherworldly reality. It is a space in which everyday events and objects suddenly become radiant with metaphysical intensity, or shrouded in transcendental waves of despair. Fred Allen, a former captain of the death house team involved in more 125 executions, tells of the moment when it became time to stop, ‘we were doing two a week, and that was getting tiresome’ he says. After executing Karla Faye Tucker in 1998, Allen suffered a breakdown. Listening to a news report of the execution he had assisted in, an emotional torrent ripped through his body, ‘I just started shaking’ he explains. But now Allen’s life is similarly open to the startling everyday vividities that Lopez speaks of, ‘once you get up into your life like that’ Allen says ‘you do start watching what the birds do’.

At the starker end of the experiential divide are the victims’ families. Their lives teeter on the edge of deep chambers of reality-warping despair. Charles Richardson struggles with issues of guilt, but it is Lisa Stotler-Balloun whose soul has been comprehensively strafed by the death. As well as her brother Adam, and mother Sandra (murdered by Burkett and Perry), her father was killed in a train accident; her grandfather had a stroke; her step-brother shot himself; her real father died in his sleep; one uncle died of a heroin overdose; and the other committed suicide – ‘all of this happened in six years’, she says. The ensuing intensities of grief wrenched her completely from the world. Unable to maintain a working balance between the phenomenal and the metaphysical – between answering telephone calls and entering transcendental states of mourning – Lisa withdrew, ‘I just shut down’ she says, ‘for about four years I didn’t go anywhere.’

Herzog made Into the Abyss after interviewing several inmates on death row. Although Burkett’s and Perry’s stories had the depth to carry a feature that would avoid conventional trappings, Herzog used footage shot with other inmates to construct shorter made for TV programmes. Death Row, the three-part series that resulted, is currently being screened by Channel 4. Each episode focuses on a particular death row inmate, using interviews and recollections about the capital offence leading to their internment. The series provides an important bridge between Into the Abyss and the familiar documentary style pioneered by Morris and Hamann. Again the focus moves beyond the moral issue of capital punishment, butDeath Row stops short of Into the Abyss’s metaphysical heights by concentrating on the inmates’ experience. The question behind the endeavour seems to be: what does it feel like to know when you are going to die? It isn’t quite answered, but what we do see are glimpses of the interior ground that will allow Herzog to pose a different question – i.e., what are the emotional ramifications of capital murder and punishment – in Into the Abyss.

In the first episode Hank Skinner, a man who’s been awaiting execution for 18 years, under a position of maintained innocence, is in the midst of a case for absolution. Skinner’s chance for clemency hinges on the examination of DNA evidence. In the meantime he is a man tortured by the Kafka-esque nightmare of death row limbo. In the second episode Herzog meets James Barnes, a supremely manipulative and sinister individual whose measured exterior hides a truly psychotic mind. Barnes takes pleasure in intellectualising murder, fitting the profile of a remorseless psychopathic individual who kills not on impulse but for transitory feelings of empowerment and pleasure. At one point, lost in a rapturous memory relating to a young murder victim, Barnes recalls ‘he was still shiny […] before you get to a certain age, especially at night, older people they don’t have a shine a glean to their skin. He still had the young glean […] he still had a glow.’ It’s disturbing stuff but there is a quiet dignity to Herzog’s manner and pacing, which raises the series above morbid voyeurism. It’s a world away from the prime-time ‘deathsploitation’ of Ted Bundy’s televised 1989 interview with Dr James Dobson, and the weekly Chinese seriesInterviews Before Execution, a programme in which the doll-like Ding Yu prods at inmates to elicit public confessions.

Interviews Before Execution, credit still

There are Herzog fans of a specific type, those who look for a kind of awkward Bavarian quirkiness in his films, who may view Into the Abyss as another amble into eccentric realms of social anthropology – and there are definitely instances of the bizarre. But approaching the film in this way, mounting a high horse to look down on the South, will undermine its essential project. Herzog is a director whose entireraison d‘être has been the examination and explication of the human soul, and inInto the Abyss the vertical plunge into emotional depth is overwhelmingly comprehensive.

Something should also be said for the director’s skill as an interlocutor. With the rise of citizen journalism and subcultural TV networks (VBS TV for example), unskilled interviewers increasingly bumble their way through situations needing intelligent mediation. Herzog had 50 minutes to interview each inmate, and less for many other interviewees; that he was able to orientate them towards such personal and dignified disclosure is a testament to the vanishing craft of professional interlocution. But, over and above this, the most important element of Herzog’s revitalization of the death row documentary genre, is the emotional gravity it allows audience members to experience. Though death is frequently reported, unless we actually experience bereavement, it remains an ever-present media abstraction – a practice that desensitises and removes audiences from the realities of grief. The elegiac mode in art is still an important communicative tool, and by following Into the Abyss’s metaphysical journey we are pulled into the irresistible super-reality of mourning.

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