By Catherine Jessica Beed

Werner Herzog has always been interested in documenting the misfits of society, his films fascinated with outcasts and the complex extremities of human beings. With this project, Herzog draws to attention the very real and very sensitive matter of capital punishment, and further continues one of  his journeys into exposing the human condition.

As a companion piece to Werner Herzog‘s feature film Into the Abyss, On Death Row is similar in style.  A series of intimate portraits, the subjects are dealt with in a thoughtful and observant manner. Each episode in the four-part TV series focuses on an interview with a death row inmate, relaying in their own words the crimes they committed, and with gentle prompting from Herzog, they describe the details of their lives on death row. Herzog himself never appears on screen.

The tone is direct and forward, the camera static and open, every person is filmed continuously with only brief interludes to add further visual insight into their monologues. To hear these stories direct from the mouths of death row inmates along with their experiences is at once disturbing and profound.

The first is James Barnes, convicted of two murders. Herzog was only allowed two sessions of one hour each to interview him. In 1998, James Barnes received a life sentence for murdering his wife, and several years into the sentence, after he’d converted to Islam, he confessed to a another murder, for which he was sentenced to death.

Herzog opens the interview with the words, «sympathising with your quest for procedural justice does not mean that I have to like you.» Regardless, Barnes is pleasant and answers all of his questions, though he seems quite detached from his experiences. Herzog also interviews a detective in Barnes’ case who then describes the full details of his crimes. Watching James Barnes after hearing about his terrible crimes is a bizarre and affecting moment, his demeanour and the way he speaks seem to be isolated from any guilt or remorse for what he has done. He does express that he knows what he did was wrong.

Herzog interviews his twin sister and it becomes evident that James Barnes was abused a lot by his father as a child. This horrific abuse is made all the more troubling knowing that Barnes would grow up to commit the atrocities he did. Six weeks after the first interview, Herzog receives a letter from Barnes which seems to indicate that he’d committed two other murders. Barnes, in the second interview, confesses to these crimes, talking about them in a disturbingly placid manner. At the end of the interview, Barnes describes how he would like to immerse himself in the ocean in order to wash away the dirtiness he feels.

The second episode focuses on Linda Carty, known as the first British woman on death row. She is convicted of killing a 25 year old woman and stealing her baby, though she vehemently denies her accusations. Through interviews with the district attorney who prosecuted her and one of the men who was involved in the crime, it is understood that she had desperately wanted a child. Carty tells Herzog that she had been recruited as an informant and that she had been framed for these crimes by drug dealers. The whole case is one that has been debated a lot as to whether Carty is innocent or not. Her daughter says that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Herzog is warned about humanising Carty, but he says, «I do not make an attempt to humanise her. She is simply a human being, period.» This resonates with the rest of Herzog’s project. It is not about humanising or dehumanising, it is a study and an exploration of the human being in an extreme condition.

The third episode concerns two members of the ‘Texas Seven’, Joseph Garcia and George Rivas. They escaped from jail in December 2000, and George Rivas, who planned the whole escape, describes how they did it in great detail. Once out, they decided to rob a sporting goods store, and this is where it went wrong. The ‘Texas Seven’ opened fire on a police officer who arrived at the scene, killing her. Both Joseph Garcia and George Rivas were given death sentences, George Rivas alone had 31 life sentences by the time he was given an execution date.

In the interview, George Rivas seems to be a very intelligent and calm person, he doesn’t appear preoccupied with his nearing execution. Joseph Garcia is adamant that he should not be there because he was not involved in the shooting of the police officer.

After Herzog finished the interviews, George Rivas was put to death.

The final episode profiles Hank Skinner, whose story is a fascinating one. Hank Skinner had been on death row for 17 years, for the killing of his girlfriend and her two sons. He protests that he is innocent. To Herzog, he describes the moment where he was within minutes of being executed, “I could see the gurney, I could see the arm boards, I could see the microphone, I could see the windows where the witnesses stand”. It’s a scary thing to contemplate, being that close to death and seeing the gurney upon which you will lose your life. Hank Skinner was granted a stay, 23 minutes before he was due to die. Of all the inmates, Hank Skinner seems the most friendly and sentimental, when he speaks of his love for his daughter it is difficult to connect this man with the aforementioned crimes.

The validity and potency of Herzog’s documentary lies not with the brutality of the inmates’ crimes (despite being abhorrent and deeply unsettling), but with his approach to the subject of capital punishment. From the outset, Herzog makes it known that he respectfully disagrees with the death penalty, yet he is not being self-righteous here, instead he allows for people to reach their own conclusions. He asks questions that perhaps one might not have thought to ask, but through these avenues, reveals moments of clarity in an otherwise murky and troubling atmosphere. There is no judgmental overtone and it becomes clear that Herzog is more interested in the emotional and the truth behind what it feels like to contemplate your imminent death.

Director: Werner Herzog
Producer: Erik Nelson
Cinematography: Peter Zeitlinger
Cast: George Rivas, Joseph Garcia, James Barnes, Linda Carty, Hank Skinner, Werner Herzog
United States
174 Mins