Werner Herzog's "On Death Row" Premieres Tonight

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Werner Herzog premieres a four-part miniseries tonight (Friday, March 9) on Investigation Discovery at 10pm ET/PT. It's dark, and smart, and well worth your time -- as long as there are no kids in the room.

A Question of Retribution

On Death Row is the story of five death row inmates, as told through in-person interviews by Werner Herzog. Herzog seems fascinated by these people, who are almost by definition unreliable witnesses to their own lives. He treats them with respect, gently questioning them about their (often horrific) crimes. In the first episode, we are witness to a very strange story arc concerning James Barnes, an inmate in Florida: we start out thinking, "This guy may have repented," but after Herzog lets the man talk (and also talks to some family members), Barnes digs his own grave. It's a curious thing to see a person whose own death is certain -- even scheduled -- talk about death. These men and women are in a unique position to share their emotions regarding death, and Herzog is in an extraordinary position to sit there and speak with them.

A theme Herzog returns to repeatedly is the question of retribution, which is the central notion of capital punishment. While the series doesn't spend a lot of time directly dealing with politics, Herzog does make a point of asking various stakeholders (like Barnes's defense attorney, whose last name, bizarrely, is Burden) what the intent of the punishment is; Herzog clearly doesn't buy any arguments that the death penalty is a deterrent. But rather than argue with people or pursue his agenda, he lays out his position briefly (Herzog is against capital punishment), then lets the subjects talk. Watching the discomfort on the faces of everyone involved is wrenching, and is the heart of this series of hour-long films.

Progressive Disclosure

Any good drama withholds some information at the beginning, progressively disclosing it along the way. Herzog doles out details over the course of each hour, allowing the viewer to piece together the story of each inmate. I found myself repeatedly surprised by these stories, as they change the viewer's perception of the inmates as you go along -- things that seemed normal before become sinister, once you know more details of the person's story. In other words, if you watch the episode twice, the second time will be much creepier. Further, Herzog treats the inmates as human beings and relates to them, even sharing jokes on a few occasions. This is an emotionally interesting interaction, mainly because these exchanges are quickly followed by grisly details of murders.

In addition to the examination of death offered as the text of this documentary, there's a rich subtext here: this is in large part a study of psychopaths. We can see how the inmates think about their own crimes, and how they interact with Herzog, and we can glimpse their emotional lives (such as they are) through their attempts to interact with this gentle German man with a camera. Look carefully, but be aware that what you see will be disturbing. Also, note the care with which Herzog corrects his interview subjects when they prevaricate, and that he repeatedly points out that the people who are on death row have arrived there for a reason -- even if he disagrees with the fundamental premise of capital punishment.

Several of the inmates have been executed since they were interviewed for the series (and for Herzog's feature film Into the Abyss). These are not people who are caught up in endless death row legal limbo: they are facing imminent death by lethal injection.

Herzog Shooting in Texas

Florida and Texas as Creepy Deathscapes

I grew up in Florida, and the first episode is about a Florida man and his various murders. I remember them. I recognize the area of I-95 they show onscreen and mention as a dumping ground for a body, and I remember when much of this stuff happened. For those of you who haven't been to Florida, let me tell you: it's full of crazy stuff that's not about fun in the sun. Herzog does a great job of using Florida as a landscape, even though it's not available to the subject of the film (he's locked up behind a series of bars, such that he can barely even see a window). We see glimpses of Florida, but they are brief and suitably creepy.

One of Herzog's early questions for Barnes is about what Barnes can see of the outside world, and whether he misses it. Barnes talks about how he loves hearing the rain (a daily occurrence in the Florida summer), how he misses feeling the rain, and gives a date (now a decade past) when he last felt the rain. This is the kind of visceral detail anyone can relate to -- I miss the Florida rain too -- and it allows the viewer to engage at a physical level with what's going on onscreen.

Herzog returns to this question when interviewing a pair of Texas inmates -- he asks them, in classic Herzog fashion, about their dreams. Of course, they dream (or at least speak of dreams) that are set outside of prison. In that sense, this documentary speaks to the issue of geography and location: here we have people who are forced by circumstance to inhabit the four walls of a prison. Many of them yearn to escape (indeed, the Texas inmates have death sentences because they did escape, and killed a police officer while on the outside), but others are just marking time until death...which is another form of "escape" these inmates think about quite a lot.

The topic of Texas as another sun-drenched setting for murders comes up in later episodes. It's extremely reminiscent of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line -- more on that in a bit.

James Barnes

Who Should and Should Not Watch This

Let me say this emphatically: keep all children away from this show. This is material for adults, and likely only adults who can handle graphic descriptions of murders and footage from real crime scenes. Now, there's not much shown onscreen that's particularly unusual (at least for true crime programming), but descriptions of murders are always terrible, and I found myself double-checking the deadbolt on my door after watching the first hour...and again after each subsequent hour.

Further, I imagine there's a segment of the viewing populace who would not want to see an interview with a murderer, simply because of what that person has done. If you fall into that category, I urge you to watch at least one episode of this series: it may not change your mind (that's not the point), but it will certainly engage you at a deep level.

Is This Film, TV, or What?

On Death Row occupies an odd space, as it's a documentary miniseries that's closely related to Herzog's recent (and acclaimed) cinematic documentary Into the Abyss. The films share footage, a theme, and lots of other material. This cross-pollination is a wonderful thing, frankly: the sheer quality of Werner Herzog's work elevates "true crime TV" to the level of serious documentary. Herzog was reportedly given serious creative control, and it shows.

What makes On Death Row different from Into the Abyss? Two things: first, it's on television, so it does have a few (surprisingly minor) affordances to the medium: pre-commercial bumpers by Paula Zahn that really should have been left out, but hey, it's true crime on TV; and bleeping curse words. Second, because each episode focuses on one or two interview subjects, Herzog can spend extra time on each inmate and his or her crimes -- details you might not spend as much time on in a documentary in the theater.

As a group, the On Death Row films complement Into the Abyss, and if you're up for a deep investigation of the topic (or you're a Herzog completist), you should watch all of them.

Further Viewing

Herzog is working in an area that overlaps the work of Errol Morris, specifically Morris's films The Thin Blue Line (about the nature of the justice system and the reliability of witnesses) and Mr. Death (about capital punishment, a man who makes equipment that kills people, and...some other stuff I won't spoil). You should go watch both of those, but be aware that Mr. Death is very upsetting. The Thin Blue Line is only upsetting in that it didn't win Best Documentary, because the Academy apparently didn't believe dramatic recreations could be used in documentary. (Oh, how things have changed in the past quarter century! And we have Morris to thank.) If you're curious about the interaction between Herzog and Morris, check out Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, about a bet the two made in the late 1970s.

Blogger disclosure: I was not specially compensated for this review. I requested and received a rough cut of the miniseries, after hearing that Herzog was working on a companion series to Into the Abyss. All photos above are courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

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March 9, 2012 - 5:30am
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