sat 13/07/2024

Death Row, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Death Row, Channel 4

Death Row, Channel 4

The disquieting first entry in Werner Herzog's series on America's condemned

'Death Row': convicted triple murderer Hank Skinner tells Werner Herzog about facing up to death

“A place of human bondage, a place of human suffering,” was how Hank Skinner described the Texas prison where he’s spent the 17 years. On death row, he's convicted of triple murder. The subject of the disquieting first entry in Werner Herzog’s series on condemned prisoners, Skinner was sanguine in the face of death but pursuing every means to prolong its arrival.

Although unseen, Herzog was heard. The programme began with his voiceover stating that “the death penalty exists in 34 states of the United States of America. Currently, only 16 states actually perform executions. Executions are carried out by lethal injection. As a German, coming from a different historical background and being a guest in the United States, I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment."

Werner Herzog Death RowDeath Row fit snugly into the Herzog (pictured right) canon. The director's fascination with America is long standing – that is, the America between the eastern and western seaboards. From 1977’s Stroszek through to and beyond his 2009 film The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he has appreciated the great dream has an antithesis. Made for the otherwise senstionalist US crime channel Investigation Discovery, Death Row evolved as a complementary piece to his 2011 film Into the Abyss, released in the UK on March 30. Into the Abyss dwelt on one case. Likewise, each of this series's four episodes is dedicated to a single case. The film and Death Row are symbiotic.

Skinner was prime material for Herzog: a subject beyond the margins of society, in extreme circumstances with an ambivalent façade that sporadically slipped. The prisoner talked from behind glass – filmed over two sessions limited by prison rules – and the director visited the small Texan town of Pampa, where the crimes took place. Apart from the introduction, Herzog offered no views on the death penalty.

The Pampa we saw was a desperate, edge-of-the-earth place. The camera swept over vacated lots, empty garages, abandoned warehouse units. Herzog captured this environment in 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder. The local newsman who covered the murders Skinner was convicted of said he heard about them by being told “we have a triple”. Skinner’s then-girlfriend had been bludgeoned to death. Her two mentally impaired sons had been stabbed. The tour of the town takes place in the shadow of looming snowstorm, further darkening the atmosphere.

Hank Skinner Werner Herzog Death RowIn his expositions, Skinner was articulate. He’s had practice. The case is well known in America. He'd blogged about it and had his stance worked out. But the coverage of the case wasn’t a concern for Herzog, who wanted to get the measure of a man facing death. In fact, Skinner (pictured) had already been minutes from execution and was given the last rites. The phone call staying the lethal injection came within half an hour of the execution. This meant Skinner was able to detail his copious final meal.

Herzog calmly noted that Skinner saw himself as part of a lineage. His ancestors, said the prisoner, include persecuted medieval Knights Templar. Quoting from The Epic of Gilgamesh, he drew parallels with his situation. “Connections”, as Herzog put it, "are everywhere". Even when you’ve been in jail for 17 years.

Tracing the journey from Skinner's prison to the execution facility, Herzog captured the passing landscape and found it allegorical. Seeing it anew, he imbued it with meaning. Similarly, Death Row might have seemed dispassionate, but Herzog's characteristic reserve imbued it with meaning. Shouting wasn't necessary to get the point across.

Watch Werner Herzog explaining his views on the death penalty


Director Werner Herzog wants to get the measure of a man facing death

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