Werner Herzog is against the death penalty. He begins every episode of his Death Row Portraits, a four-part miniseries made for Investigation Discovery, by admitting as much; as a German, how could you not be? But his approach is morally demanding. Unlike, say, David Grann’s “Trial By Fire,” in which the New Yorker reporter uncovers evidence that suggests the state of Texas executed an innocent man, Herzog doesn’t focus on the guilt of his subjects; he doesn’t like many of them, and doesn’t ask you to, either—he invites you to despise them, even—nor does he shy away from the gruesomeness of their crimes. They’re not saints or heroes or victims. Still, he asks, does that mean the state should judge them so definitively—that we should kill them?
Herzog overwhelms the viewer with the banality of his subjects, allowing them to talk and talk and talk, displaying how ordinary, articulate, and intelligent they can be. (Many of them insist on their innocence, and some of the episodes deal with unique complications of due process, but the focus is not on issues of guilt or innocence. The cases serve as context.) When one prosecutor warns the director of the danger of humanizing murderers, he gets curt with her. “I do not humanize her,” he says of one accused killer. “I do not make an attempt to humanize her. She is simply a human being, period.” It can be tempting to reduce those involved in a crime to archetypes—victims and fiends. But Herzog reminds us the truth is more complex, complicating capital punishment by erasing the monstrosity of its targets. “[It] looks to me like a monstrous crime,” Herzog says of one case. “There’s something really monstrous, scary, definitively evil about it. However, he does not appear to be a monster, in my opinion.”
The episodes are stylistically and thematically close to Herzog’s recent documentary Into the Abyss; in fact, four of the five subjects await execution (one has since been killed) in the same Texas prison as that film’s Michael Perry did. For Herzog, the death penalty is too grave and significant an issue to resolve in a mere two-hour movie. Unlike Abyss, the Death Row Portraits are aesthetically small-screen, mostly limited to talking heads. Herzog begins each episode with the convict, disarming you with their humanity, then offers counterpoint—from a reporter, lawyer, co-defendant, family member. When Herzog does go out on location, it’s affecting: the poignant drive from the prison to the actual death house, or the creeping around a crime scene in a forlorn Texas town.
But the general confinement of the camera helps Herzog subtly build an argument about the bleak reality of life in prison; he elicits from his interviewees the magnificence of the mundane through the eyes of a man set to die. Can you see birds from your cell window? When was the last time you felt rain on your skin? What do you dream about? Herzog, of course, also displays his gallows humor, and shows off his gift as a fearless, probing interviewer—one unafraid to dip into the mystical. “Tell me about time,” he asks one convict.
The subjects come off as surprisingly self-aware, which suggests prison can in fact make people better—that it can be rehabilitative, at least psycho-spiritually. Of course, part of me is seeing what I want to see; like Herzog, I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment. Despite the director’s strong opinion on the issue, his portraits are stridently objective, retaining the humanity of victims and perpetrators, as well as the barbarity of the crimes. Anyone with a hardened pro or con opinion could probably find support here. But to me, it seems to me that by illustrating such humanity, Herzog thinks it ought to urge us to transcend our instincts for bloodshed—not to stoop to the level of those we lock away.
The slightly longer director’s cuts of Death Row Portraits will be split into two programs and screened tonight and tomorrow at the IFC Center. Herzog will lead a post-screening discussion both nights.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart