Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Werner Herzog’s Death Row Portraits (2012)

by on April 19, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed April 25 at 6:30 & Thurs April 26 at 9:30 at IFC Center [Program & Tix]
Playing Wed April 25 at 9:30 & Thurs April 26 at 6:30 at IFC Center [Program & Tix]
*Director’s Cuts presented by Werner Herzog

IFC presents the US Premiere of the Director’s Cuts of Werner Herzog’s four-part documentary series.
J. Hoberman’s pick for “next year’s Oscar telecast emcee” will also sign books, posters and DVDs at 6:45pm both nights, including copies of Into the Abyss, his acclaimed recent documentary about a triple homicide in Texas. During this project Herzog started smoking again.

Jessica Kiang caught the world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, for The Playlist:

As an interviewer Herzog 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.



Justin Chang for Variety:

The critique of capital punishment Werner Herzog initiated with “Into the Abyss” comes to riveting fruition in “Death Row,” a weighty and probing look at the practice of legally sanctioned execution. More humane treatise than searing polemic, this powerful companion work offers four criminal case studies that will conveniently fill broadcasters’ slots at an absorbing 47 minutes apiece. Viewed together in one three-hour-plus sitting, however, they build a stealth argument about the humanity of the accused and the potential pitfalls of due process.

The portraits in “Death Row,” devoted to four men and one woman awaiting execution, are not only shorter and narrower in focus but also more pointedly shaped and structured to interrogate the morality of the death penalty. Herzog’s personal views notwithstanding, however, the films are strikingly undidactic and, as one would expect from the director, as invested in eccentric human details as in questions of law and order; it’s up to discerning audiences to see the implicit parallels and contrasts and grasp the director’s overarching argument.

Viewer perceptions of guilt or innocence, indifference or remorse, are of course beside the point, even if they’re an essential component of “Death Row’s” cumulatively overwhelming emotional impact. “He does not appear to be a monster,” Herzog says of the bright, highly articulate Barnes, a statement so plainly true that it takes a moment to grasp what the director no doubt knows, that appearing and being are two different things.



Deborah Young for The Hollywood Reporter:

Satisfyingly articulate and straightforward, but at the same time so disquieting it leaves a queasy feeling in the stomach, Death Row is a powerful gathering of four 47-minute television portraits of prisoners awaiting execution in Texas and Florida. The morbid fascination of true crime finds a master narrator in Werner Herzog, who brings a very European sensibility to the genre, along with a moral point of view that goes beyond simply opposing the death penalty to attempting to describe the existence of evil in human beings.

This sounds like a very tall Germanic order, but the films have nothing abstruse or philosophical about them. They manage to be engrossing, at times even with a touch of black humor, thanks to their uncanny closeness to their subjects, almost all of whom have committed repulsive, heinous crimes. Their horror is never whitewashed, and they are guaranteed to disturb even the viewer in tune with narrator Herzog’s opening comments (which are identical for each segment) that, as a German coming from a different historical background, he “respectfully disagrees” with capital punishment in America.

The quiet melancholy of Mark Degli Antoni’s score is used sparingly and expressively over police crime scene photos, like cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s bleak views of highway ditches and forlorn American towns, cold prison towers and the strapped gurney where the condemned are executed by lethal injection at the rate of one a week in Texas alone. In the end, these brief films are persuasive by their gentleness and their relentless insistence that each person be viewed, first of all, as a human being.



Jonathan Romney for Sight & Sound:

The four films, running approximately 45 minutes each, are at their most riveting when Herzog restrains his usual interviewing eccentricities (which he pretty much does) and allows his subjects to tell their stories. One man, Floridan killer and arsonist James Barnes, is at once the film’s most unsettling and most familiar figure – a calm, lucid, shaven-headed man, and you have to blink to remind yourself that he’s not being played by Pruitt Taylor Vince. It’s the testimony of his sister Jeannice, herself with a chequered criminal past, that offers one of the most disturbing insights, with intimations of a shared nightmare past and possibly repressed memories of sexual abuse.

We never quite know how much to believe of what the prisoners tell us; with little else to do while awaiting death, it would seem only normal that some degree of fabulation would keep people sane. An ebullient Texan named Hank Skinner – something of a natural comic – protests his innocence, and tells an extraordinary story about a last-minute reprieve from lethal injection, just when he’d already started tucking into his final meal (a more than copious blow-out that could only be Texan). And a British woman named Linda Carty is the focus of a truly distressing horror story about the kidnapping and murder of a Mexican woman: Carty, a mercurial performer first seen giving a flamboyant performance of ‘Amazing Grace’, is the most elusive, unknowable figure here. For sheer narrative power, though, there’s no beating the charismatic George Rivas, a jailbreak maestro whose adventures you wouldn’t credit if Herzog decided to spin them into a fiction feature (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he did); as recounted here by Rivas and fellow condemned man Joseph Garcia, they’re riveting.



Herzog speaks with The Hollywood Reporter:

How did you convince these inmates to share their stories with you?

There is a clear protocol to go through first. You have to get in touch with the inmates in writing. The next step is to ask the prison authorities, and if it’s a complicated case you have to get a permit from the state and there are certain rules. You have 50 minutes. Forty-eight minutes into the conversation, you feel a soft hand on your shoulder and it’s a guard who means business. The guard lets you know you have another 120 seconds. That said, they normally gave me a little bit more time because they liked me. The guards and the prisoners, they all wanted me back.

[producer] Henry Schleiff: What was so surprising to me was that normally it takes some period of time –the second or third interview– before you get into the kind of questions that Werner was asking in his first and only meeting with them. The amount of personal detail, access, intimacy and emotion as well as the relationship that he establishes whether he’s in for 15 minutes or 55 minutes is incredible. I mean, it’s kind of a parlor trick.

What was your secret?

You have to give them a kind of security. With Into the Abyss, for example, a woman who lost both her mother and her brother in this senseless crime said that I was the only one in ten years that made her feel safe. Or the only one outside of intimate family members, that is. But you have to have that in you somehow; you can’t learn that. It helps that I don’t have a catalog of questions when I go into these interviews. It’s a conversation from man-to-man, or in that case, man-to-woman.

What does the film platform offer than the TV one does not? And visa versa?
For example, with the Death Row project, we could do these very, very condensed portraits and stories of one individual person on death row. You can’t do that in the theaters, because it’s too short and too narrow. You see, if you go to a theatrical release you’ll need to have a one and a half hour film, and I wouldn’t do a one and a half hour film on one character on death row. It wouldn’t be the right thing and it wouldn’t be the right audience.



Mary McNamara on the TV-versions, for Los Angeles Times:

During the interviews, Barnes is well-spoken yet strangely detached, acknowledging his actions and his subsequent remorse in tones that suggest they were the experiences of another person. Even the news that Herzog has managed to contact Barnes’ long-estranged father is greeted with a disturbingly placid mien.

They are chilling scenes to watch, the evenness of the conversation underscoring the horror of the crimes; at no point does Barnes offer any explanation for his behavior. Interviews with lawyers involved in the case, and especially Barnes’ twin sister, offer grim counterpoint — Barnes showed sociopathic tendencies from childhood, but clearly he was also the victim of tremendous paternal abuse, including “blanket parties” in which all the members of the family were forced to whip him bloody.

This brief glimpse into the roiling crucible of one American family is somehow more disturbing than the crimes or the idea of state-sanctioned death, if only because it poses an even more complicated problem: If monsters are made, not born, how do we, as a society, prevent their creation? This is not a question Herzog himself raises, but his style of filmmaking — to obsessively explore his subject from as many points of entry as possible — is the cinematic definition of thought-provoking.



Mike Hale for The New York Times:

Mr. Herzog’s stately technique and Teutonic diction, applied to what was essentially a straightforward true-crime tale, gave “Into the Abyss” an appearance of profundity it didn’t entirely deserve. This isn’t really an issue in the more modest environs of “On Death Row,” and a surprising element of the series — making it both compelling and perversely enjoyable — is that Mr. Herzog loosens up, getting more argumentative in the interviews and presenting moments of mordant humor.

Joseph Garcia, on death row for his involvement in a prison escape that led to the killing of a police officer, argues that because he did not pull the trigger he should not be condemned. “I wasn’t even on the back dock when that happened,” he says. “I was still in the store tying up hostages.” Mr. Herzog’s prompt and dry response: “Which was bad enough, let’s face it.

Herzog doesn’t linger on the larger questions, being more interested in the details of bad choices, last meals and family visits. (When he asks an inmate’s twin sister, who lives in another state, why she hasn’t visited him, she winces and says, “I think I might have a warrant down there.”)



Phil Dyess-Nugent for The Onion AV CLub:

The one time Herzog gets audibly pissy with someone comes when one of the prosecutors who worked to convict Linda Carty—whose case has been more publicized overseas than here, because Carty is a British citizen—delivers an endless speech expressing her concern that, if he attempts to “humanize” her, everyone will forget who “the real victim” is. The language she uses is utterly dead—it’s the kind of speech that any prosecutor or victims’-rights advocate can roll out on cue if you point a camera at them and put a quarter in their slot—but Herzog allows her to go on and on, as if he wanted to be sure that she had the chance to get as far up the viewer’s nose as she plainly gets up his. When she finally stops flapping her gums, he grunts, “I do not attempt to humanize her. She is a human being, period.” The woman’s ability to switch over to auto-pilot and talk like a press release—which she probably sees as proof her precious objectivity—is a horrifying quality in someone whose job is to get to the truth and administer justice. This is as personal a documentary as any of Herzog’s others, but what makes it personal is the quality and depth of its curiosity about people.

The most richly unnerving of Herzog’s subjects is James Barnes, who is soft-spoken, articulate, and politely friendly in a weirdly creepy way that actors playing serial killers never have the guts to try for. (When Herzog presents him with words of love from the father Barnes hasn’t spoken to in ages, the surprised Barnes looks as if he’s racing through his mental folder of possible emotional reactions before deciding which button to push.) Barnes, who talks about enjoying the sounds of birds singing and rain hitting the roof and recalls that the last time he felt rain on his skin was in 2002, was convicted of murdering his ex-wife, a crime he denied having committed, though while serving his life sentence, he got religion and confessed to a different murder that landed him on death row. In his sessions with Herzog, Barnes alludes to even more murders that he might have committed, which Herzog sees as a possible tactic to get his execution date postponed if he can interest the police in enlisting him to clear open cases off their books. Barnes seems capable of having more than two murders to his credit, and more than capable of playing mind games with them whether they’re his to claim or not. One of the cops who worked on his case says that Barnes ’ condition for confessing to one murder was that he wanted the victim’s ex-husband in the room, so that he’d have to listen to the details of the woman’s final moments and could share them with her children, a sweetheart move that the cop describes as “another violation” and “the ultimate power trip for him.” Barnes’ interview is balanced out with scenes of his twin sister, who describes a brother who, from an early age, seemed to be developing into a sociopath, as well as a home life that was precisely calibrated to steer him in that direction. Herzog also checks in with the lawyer handling Barnes’ appeals, who has no illusions about his client but insists on the importance of due process, saying that his experience in El Salvador in the 1980s showed him how a society that has no use for it “wears on the citizenry.”

People who are surest about the issue will likely find Herzog’s approach frustrating and even pointless, because he doesn’t even pretend to be serving up any answers. But he knows which questions should be ruffling our sense of complacency.


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