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Werner Herzog's Death Row experience

Herzog was at MIPCOM this week discussing his documentary Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale of Life

Werner Herzog’s latest existential exploration deals with one of the most contentious political and ethical issues of any time: capital punishment. The film follows the cases of two inmates sentenced to the death penalty and the people in their lives.

Herzog was fascinating as ever in describing his method and ethical stance: “The film is not an instrument for my subjects to prove their innocence… Some subjects I contacted agreed to participate only if I tried to prove their innocence. But that wasn’t what I was trying to do. There are attorneys and courts of law for proving innocence and guilt…”

“The shoot was highly security oriented, I was only allowed three people with me, there were the most rigorous security checks and we were only allowed one hour with each convict. The problem is that you have to find the right tone immediately and to connect with the prisoners immediately.

“I was looking for crimes that are utterly senseless…I chose my subjects from the internet and wanted to focus on states where the death penalty is practiced. Texas is the overwhelming state for that.

“When you are talking to someone who is going to die in eight days it is very intense. But I have a duty to shoot my film. The process must be quick. But in editing we have more time to think about it. It is so intense that my editor and I had to start smoking again. We would normally work eight hours on an edit but in this film we could only do five hours because it was so intense.”

During the MIPCOM conference, Herzog echoed sentiments he also expresses in the for-once-fascinating press notes: “It is absolutely clear that the crimes off the persons in my films are monstrous, but the perpetrators are not monsters. They are human. For this reason, I treat them with respect, addressing them with Mr and Mrs and their full name. Although I am not visible, I wear a formal suit.”

When Screen asked for his thoughts on the recent high-profile execution of Troy Davis, he said he was unable to comment on that case specifically, but he did add: “This film comes at a moment when there is a huge discussion going on in the US. Despite Rick Perry having signed over 200 death warrants already in Texas, the curve seems to be flattening out or slightly declining. The film has been understood as part of the capital punishment discussion. But the film doesn’t discuss capital punishment. However, this association does become unavoidable when you hear the testimony of Fred Allen in the film. He was the former captain of the execution tie-down team who had a complete nervous breakdown after 125 executions and renounced the practise of capital punishment. It’s hard to believe in capital punishment after hearing him.”

Herzog further discussed his stance: “I explained to the wardens and the inmates that I am not an advocate of the death penalty. My point of view is simple. My historical background is different. In the history of the barbaric Nazi regime there was an excessive use of capital punishment and euthanasia and genocide. Because of that historical background I cannot be an advocate of capital punishment. I respectfully disagree with the state of Texas’ programme of capital punishment.”

He provided a sobering and fascinating start to MIPCOM. Into The Abyss screened in Toronto and has upcoming slots at the New York and London film festivals.

IFC films has US rights, Revovler has UK rights and UK broadcaster Channel 4 will screen the film and a four part series by Herzog which considers other death row cases in more depth.

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