Werner Herzog’s Documentary Series ‘On Death Row’
The prologue of each of the four episodes of “Death Row” is the same: a restless camera prowls through the dismal ante-room, holding cell and injection chamber of an unnamed execution facility, while director Werner Herzog tells us in his familiar teutonic monotone that, as a German and a guest of the United States, he “respectfully disagree[s]” with the death penalty, legal in 34 states, and performed regularly in 16.
And so he sets out his stall up front. What’s perhaps surprising, however, is that what he then delivers is neither polemical nor propagandistic in its approach; Herzog’s storytelling instincts trump his didactic ones here, to compelling effect. Having already tackled this subject in his feature-length “Into The Abyss” (the central figure of which makes a fleeting appearance here in the “Joseph Garcia and George Rivas” section), it’s clear that in exploring the stories of these condemned men and women, Herzog has found a rich vein to mine, and he brings to this latest endeavor, a four-part TV series for Investigation Discovery, an uncharacteristic restraint. His even-handedness serves the subject matter well, largely refuting any accusations of liberal whitewashing before they can even be made. What he delivers instead is a series of nuanced, meticulous and gripping portraits of several death row inmates, unflinchingly portrayed, mostly in their own words and those of the men and women who arrested, reported on, prosecuted and/or defended them.
In so doing, he states overtly on a few occasions that his concern is not to find exonerating evidence, to allow himself to be used as a tool by canny inmates, or to delay or influence their fates. This is an immensely important aspect of his approach, because it sidesteps the logic trap of being anti-death penalty out of worry that there may be wrongly convicted people on death row (always the least convincing anti-death penalty argument — are you anti-state-mandated killing or just anti-mistake?) Without that kind of agenda (and in direct contrast to, for example, the various West Memphis Three documentaries of late) Herzog is free to follow the stories where they naturally lead, and, spoiler alert: in pretty much none of the cases do they lead conclusively to the idea that the condemned is innocent.
Checking the more unwieldy of his ideological baggage at the door and curbing his more eccentric impulses in service of the material, Herzog nevertheless delivers something unmistakably Herzogian. The man himself, while never directly onscreen, feels omnipresent, either as the off-camera interlocutor or in voiceover, but he makes his auteurist presence felt in other, less overt ways too. In the prison scenes, the framing and mis en scene options are necessarily limited and he doesn’t to try to adorn them much, instead allowing our attention to rivet entirely to the subject, as we search his/her face for telltale flickers of regret, rage, madness, or monstrousness when they discuss the things they have done, or the things they swear they didn’t. However, in the other sections, Herzog gives free, if guarded, rein to his considerable staging and framing talents: lawyers, press, bystanders and family members are often shown in what must be meticulously prepared parts of their homes or offices. The positioning of a framed family photo near a stack of anonymous law books or the hi-def day-glo of an interviewee’s painted nails: these details illuminate entire personalities, and serve as the pin that skewers the butterfly to the page.
Familiar Herzogian themes do rear their heads from time to time — his age-old preoccupation with death and nature, and their interrelation, tugs gently at these stories like an undertow. Birds wheeling in the sky may be a rather on-the-nose visual metaphor for the freedom the inmates are denied, but other shots of fields and trees and skies become invested with more resonance when we realize we only ever see them in connection with death. Out the windows of a vehicle riding the route an inmate will take to the ‘death house’; in the overgrown environs of a house where a fatal crime occurred; or, most chillingly, in the actual roadside ditch where James Blake, the serial killer subject of the first film, reveals he dumped another body — visions of nature may traditionally be thought to offer comfort and hope to incarcerated people, but this is Herzog, and nature here is menacing, almost malicious in its indifference to human events.
There are a few moments where the director crosses the line from observation to intervention, and these are the few moments that feel off, overly artificial and discomfiting. Finding James Blake’s father, for example, and telling Blake of the encounter on camera feels vaguely exploitative, but whether it’s Herzog exploiting Blake, or us exploiting Blake by watching, or Blake manipulating us with his response, we can’t quite work out. Similarly, and perhaps this is a factor of seeing all four films back-to-back, but on more than one occasion Herzog over-editorializes — for instance, “the only escape is in his dreams” — and each time he does, it feels jarringly trite, like the director has momentarily lost his focus on the subject and is rummaging around in his bag of old tricks.
But these lapses are few and far between, and the overriding impression is much more of the off-kilter intelligence and balance that Herzog brings to the project. As an interviewer he is fearless, asking questions that are almost breathtaking in their audacity, and eliciting responses that are telling, even when we judge them to be untruthful. And though in a general ideological way he may sympathize with their plight, Herzog never allows the inmates to lapse into self-pity without summarily recontextualizing what they are saying in light of their crime and its victims.
He often leaves the camera on the subject for those few interesting and awkward seconds of silence after they’ve finished speaking; he makes use of original footage of crime scenes and interrogations; he draws sometimes surprising but always apropos lines between events and people; but most of all he lets the inmates talk and talk. And so we get the jovial, jokey Hank Skinner, who came within 20 minutes of execution for the horrific murder of a woman and her two mentally handicapped sons, relating his favorite “Twilight Zone” episode in its entirety; we get James Barnes, a serial killer, a convert to Islam and the twin brother of a woman who saw Jesus in a vision, trying to adequately describe the “glow” of youth that one of his as-yet-unconfirmed victims had; we get Linda Anita Carty, convicted of murdering her neighbor so she could steal her baby, singing “Amazing Grace”; we get George Rivas, the mastermind behind a prison break and string of robberies that culminated in the killing of a cop, resigning himself to his fate, and in the process becoming perhaps the most sympathetic of the subjects. These stories and moments are unexpected, unscripted, and by turns moving and horrifying, essential and ephemeral: they feel like life.
During the Anita Carty episode, a telling exchange occurs between Herzog and the prosecuting attorney on the case. Throughout, she has been articulate and impassioned in her focus on the victim of this particularly abhorrent crime (a young mother abducted with her days-old baby, suffocated and left in the trunk of a car). Leaving aside the creeping impression we begin to get that she is thus focused as something of a smokescreen for the thinness of her actual case against Carty, at one point her poise slips a little and she says, acidly “you can humanize her.” Herzog brings this back up after she has finished speaking: he doesn’t have to humanize her, he reproaches, Linda Anita Carty is already a human. The slight shrug and awkward silence that follows speaks volumes not just about this lady and her case, but about Herzog’s motives in putting this project together. It seems he believes that if he can draw an accurate portrait of a human, no matter how monstrous the things that human did, or how despicable and unlikeable a person they are, then something in the audience’s humanity will respond on that level. And on that level, once you have recognized a person’s humanity, it is, yes, much much harder to declare you believe they should die. “Death Row” is subtle propaganda, maybe too subtle to change many minds, but whichever side of the divide you sit on, it is riveting, thought-provoking, true-life filmmaking, and it deserves your time. [A-]
by Jessica Kiang