Death Row: Berlin Film Review

Werner Herzog returns to the dark country of Into the Abyss and capital punishment in America in four chilling TV docs.

Werner Herzog's documentary series examines the lives of prisoners awaiting execution in Texas and Florida.

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.

For those who have seen the director’s feature-length doc Into the Abyss, subtitled A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, these portraits of humanity may seem like more of the same in a TV format. Most of the producers and crew are identical, and at one point Michael Perry, the teenage murderer from Into the Abyss, makes a brief appearance. In reworking his lifelong obsession with the subject, however, Herzog shifts the tone from meditative abstraction to utterly concrete realism, brushed with expressive asides and intuitive editing. His interviewees are still alive, for the moment, and their stories come across less as object lessons aimed at debating the death penalty than as excruciatingly painful tales of woe.

Though obviously made for quality television, where they could find the most natural home, the four episodes have their own weight when seen back-to-back. The three-hour running time is off-putting, however, and this package makes most sense for festival exposure. The grimness of the subject itself doesn’t foretell mass audiences outside genre fans.

The first episode examines the criminal pathology of James Barnes who -- convicted of strangling his wife -- confessed to the rape and murder of a nurse. In this second case, he took off all his clothes, slipped naked into his victim’s apartment and spied on her for hours before murdering her and setting her bed on fire to get rid of the body. Herzog remains off-camera as he questions Barnes in prison, trying to contain his horror and analyze the serial killer’s psyche. (Confessions of other killings came during the interview.) Viewers will agree with the puzzled director that the voluble, intelligent and apparently remorseful Barnes doesn’t come across as a monster; still less when, in an interview with his twin sister, it emerges that he was beaten, humiliated and probably sexually abused as a child by the father he loved desperately.

Rivaling the moral ambiguity of this portrait is the slippery case of Hank Skinner, whose wonderfully theatrical face and tendency toward overeating and hysterical laughter makes it difficult to believe he murdered the woman he was living with and her two sons. After 17 years as a dead man walking, Skinner still protests his innocence, though a local reporter who walks the camera crew through the crime is convinced of the contrary. As in Into the Abyss, Herzog lingers on the aching poverty of town where the crime was committed, with its vacant lots and windowless homes. And like James Barnes, Hank Skinner is an extraordinarily articulate raconteur of his own life.

The other two stories are probing but never reach these depths of psychological portraiture. Two of the men involved in a dramatic 2000 breakout from a maximum security prison in Texas, ending in the killing of a police officer, alternate their tales in the third episode. The robber George Rivas describes in cinematic detail how he planned and executed the escape of the “Texas Seven,” in which young convict Joseph Garcia, who took no part in the shooting, was also condemned to death. Both are confessed killers and both seem incapable of murder, filling the viewer with the feeling that, to quote Garcia’s attorney, "It wasn't his real self that killed the boy."

In the intimacy of the one-on-one interviews, Herzog gently but firmly insists that his subjects confront their guilt and responsibility for their crimes. He doesn't get very far with Linda Carty, an undercover DEA informer who was sentenced to death for ordering the murder of a young mother and the abduction of her newborn baby. Editor Joe Bini astutely interweaves the thunderous condemnation of the district attorney with footage of Carty's original police interrogation and interviews with her daughter and one of her accomplices, describing the background and legal aftermath of the crime without denying its
shocking horror.

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.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 8, 2012
Production companies: Creative Differences and Skellig Rock in association with Spring Films and Werner Herzog Films
Director: Werner Herzog
Producer: Erik Nelson
Executive producers: Dave Harding, Henry Schleiff, Sara Kozak, Andre Singer, Lucki Stipetic, Nick Raslan
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Editor: Joe Bini
Music: Mark Degli Antoni
Sales agent: ZDF Enterprises
No rating, 188 minutes.