Werner Herzog’s “On Death Row,” which starts March 9 on the Investigation Discovery channel, is a strange creation, half a continuation of ideas explored in “Into the Abyss” and half a true-crime special. The work screened as a single three-hour piece at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, but on TV will play out over four weeks in hour-long installments with introductions by Paula Zahn. Each installment is built around an interview (or in one case, a pair of interviews) with a death row inmate in Texas or Florida.
One of these subjects, George Rivas, was executed last week; the others await the setting of dates or news of appeals. Each episode begins with Herzog intoning that “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.” But the show could never be as simple as a case against the death penalty and Herzog builds a series of complex portraits of convicts, their loved ones, prosecutors and defenders, in which his unmistakable filmmaking voice carries through. Here are five signature moments:
1. James Barnes’ last meal: Sentenced to lethal injection for hiding in the house of a woman who’d rejected him, raping and murdering her and then setting the bed on which he’d left her body on fire, Barnes is a difficult interview, his abusive childhood slowly coming to light along with the fact that as a boy he’d been fond of flame and killing animals, often early indicators of darker things to come. In the context of a discussing last meals, a topic that obviously interests Herzog, the director asks Barnes about his favorite foods and is told “Any beef that comes from a grill, cooked on fire. I’m fixated on fire, ever since I was a kid. I love the smell and the ritual of cooking beef on a grill. “It has nothing to do with your being an aronist?” Herzog asks. “I don’t think so, no,” Barnes replies, seriously, “because any good chef has a lot of flame in the kitchen anyway, whether they’re outside or not.”
2. Linda Carty and the Assistant D.A.: Carty, a British woman convicted for killing a 25-year-old woman in her apartment complex in order to kidnap her newborn, doesn’t come across as a reliable narrator in her protestations of innocence, but she also experienced the worst lack of a trial and competent defense. Speaking to Herzog, the assistant D.A. Connie Spence notes that Carty’s well-spoken and that we want to humanize her because we don’t want to believe someone could be capable of the sort of crime of which she’s been accused. “I have to make one remark,” the director corrects, laying out a kind of thesis for “On Death Row,” “I do not humanize her. I do not make an attempt to humanize her. She is simply a human being, period.”
3. Joseph Garcia’s Dream: Garcia didn’t participate directly in the murder of the police officer that landed him and the surving members of the Texas 7 on death row, and he still holds onto hope that he’ll be spared, descripting a poetic recurring vision he has to Herzog: “In this dream, I’m looking at a birthday cake. On this birthday cake it has two candles, it has 99 on it. There’s a lot of people around, I can hear them yelling ‘Papi, blow out the candles, it’s your birthday!’ When I go to put my hands down on the table, I realize that my hands are old, and that it’s me because I see this tattoo on my hand. And I’m going, wow, here I am at 99. I go to blow out the candles and I wake up.”
4. Hank Skinner’s Theoretical Escape: Herzog finds a sort of kindred spirit in Skinner, who’s experienced two last-minute stays of execution for the triple homicide of which he’s been convicted and is fighting to exonerate himself. He recounts his stories with an intense sensory detail that his interviewer clearly relishes, and is fond of digressions into topics like the persecution of the Knights Templar or how his oldest daughter used to sleep on his chest as a baby. Describing how they transport prisoners from death row 40 miles to the death house in Huntsville, Skinner notes that the men riding with you pack serious weaponry and inform you that they’ll kill you first if anyone tries to stop them on the road to get you out of there. “So I couldn’t free you if I tried,” Herzog muses. “Even if I had a bazooka and a tank, you would be dead before I could rescue you.”
5. The Road to Huntsville: Inspired by Skinner’s story about how it was a relief to leave the prison and be back in the outside world, even if it was on the road to his death, Herzog ends “On Death Road” by taking the same drive, looking at the decrepit houses and worn shopfronts, as the filmmaker contemplates how “the landscape bleak, forlorn, and yet everything out there all of a sudden looked magnificent, as if entering the holy land. Hank Skinner’s holy land. The Happy Worm Bait Shop in the holy land. We even saw something that looked like a few stray apostles on the road to death.”