Interview: Werner Herzog
The German director shares his thoughts on capital punishment with Ben Walters
‘I think it’s the most intense film I’ve made,’ Werner Herzog says of his latest feature, ‘and I’ve made quite a few intense films.’ He isn’t kidding. Over five decades and some 60-odd titles, Herzog has carved out a unique patch of cinema – a here-be-dragons storyscape with few clear boundaries between existentialist investigation and boys’ own adventure, genius and insanity, fantasy and reality. Whether working in fiction (‘Fitzcarraldo’, ‘Bad Lieutenant’) or documentary (‘Grizzly Man’, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’), he explores the edges of experience, endurance and understanding, defying ego-driven humans to find meaning or harmony amid cosmic indifference. As Herzog notes in his distinctive German accent, over the phone from Los Angeles, ‘“Into the Abyss” could have been the title of quite a few of my films, let’s face it…’
Nor is he kidding about the intensity, even within this context, of his new film. ‘Into the Abyss’ is a documentary about the aftermath of a triple murder, based on interviews with the two men convicted of the killings and members of their families, members of the victims’ families and state employees in the Texan execution system. One of the convicted men, Michael Perry, was awaiting lethal injection and it is the death penalty itself that is Herzog’s true subject here.
‘My leading character was executed eight days after I met him and filmed with him,’ he says. ‘But really the leading character is an utterly senseless triple homicide at the epicentre of everything.’ Perry and his friend Jason Burkett shot a woman while she was at home baking cookies, before killing her son and his friend, because they wanted the woman’s car. As a principled opponent of the death penalty, Herzog was drawn to crimes like this that did not lend themselves to ideas of flawed process; for him, there is no such thing as a rightful execution, whatever the crime, however unquestioned the conviction.
‘When someone commits a bank robbery and a security man gets shot, you have the feeling that the crime made some sort of sense,’ he asserts. ‘“Yes, it was money that they wanted from the cash register.” In this case, it is utterly senseless. It seems to be outside the horizon of what we can understand. I tried to probe very, very deep into the abyss of the human soul, the human condition.’
Herzog found it surprisingly easy to get access to death row prisoners in Texas. ‘Texas is so convinced of the righteousness of capital punishment that they make it transparent. They’re the most media-friendly in the United States.’ Even so, shooting presented plenty of logistical challenges. ‘While shooting, I had to just function, perform and deliver,’ says Herzog, who is often heard off-screen. ‘There was complete focus. I had to find the right voice right away because every single person you see in the film I met for less than one hour. I had only eight or so hours of footage all in all – others shoot 400 hours for a film like that!
’ It was in the editing that Herzog and his editor Joe Bini really got to know their ‘cast’ and were forced to dwell on the realities at work. ‘The result was – I abbreviate the story – both of us started to smoke again. We had to rush out [of the editing suite] and hang on to a cigarette. And we could only work five hours a day. Normally we’re eight-hour guys, regular working men.’ The whole experience didn’t affect Herzog’s views on capital punishment but it did make him think better of Texas: he met a former executioner who rejected the legitimacy of death row and a young man who declined to use a knife in self-defence even as he was stabbed with a screwdriver. ‘That’s very heroic and really encouraging.’
Herzog’s research led him to other cases whose stories have taken shape as a television series, ‘Death Row’, to be shown on Channel 4. In all, he spoke to a handful of prisoners awaiting execution, including one who came within half an hour of dying before being granted a stay. He described to Herzog the drive from his cell to the death house, 43 miles away. ‘He sees the landscape and he knows it’s the last time he will see an abandoned gas station or a bridge and he says it all looks like Israel to him – like the Holy Land. That made me curious and I followed with a camera these 43 miles. It’s a very drab, shitty area of provincial Texas, yet all of a sudden everything looks magnificent.’
The filmmaker was surprised by some of the patterns that emerged from his interviews. ‘These people know exactly when they are going to die and how they are going to die and we do not,’ he says. ‘Because of that it’s very interesting to listen to them. What do they dream? Astonishingly, what is consistent is small family values – being with loved ones, defending your children, things like that. I had a tendency to dismiss such things as middle-class or bourgeois but these people are not middle-class. I look at that now with much greater sympathy and much greater intensity.’
'Into the Abyss - A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life' opens on Friday March 30. 'Death Row' airs on Thursday March 29 at 10pm, Channel 4.