Berlinale Behind Bars: Werner Herzog Looks for the Human Side of Death Row

By Miriam Widman

Their crimes are monstrous. But renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog seeks to show that death row inmates in the US are not monsters. His new series of documentaries, showing at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, provides a different look at those up for execution.

Photo Gallery: Herzog's Encounter with Death Row Photos
Werner Herzog Film

James Barnes sits in his orange colored prison jumpsuit and talks about how he's always been in trouble. As a youngster, he killed his family's cats, set fires and committed other crimes. Now, Barnes is sitting on Florida's death row awaiting execution for killing at least three women, including his wife, whom he strangled and stuffed in a closet.

Barnes is one of five inmates featured in "Death Row," a film series directed by legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The series is being shown at the Berlin International Film Festival this week.

Barnes accepts full responsibility for his crimes and is repentant. In his conversation with the German film director, the inmate does not appear to be a monster at all. And that's just what Herzog wanted to show.

The purpose of the series is to humanize the murderers, not to excuse their crimes, Herzog, 69, said in a statement released Monday. "The crimes of the persons in the films are monstrous, but the perpetrators are not monsters."

'I Respectfully Disagree'

Herzog, a Munich native, is firmly against the death penalty, in line with the overwhelming sentiment of his fellow Germans. "A State should not be allowed -- under any circumstance -- to execute anyone for any reason," Herzog said in the statement.

He referred to the millions of innocent people killed by the Nazi government of his native country during World War II. But the killing of innocents is a secondary issue, he said. Government-sponsored executions are just wrong.

Still, says Herzog, his intent with his four-part series about death row, which portrays five people awaiting executions in Texas and Florida, is not to tell Americans what they should do about capital punishment.

"As a guest in the United States, and being German, I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment," he says. "I would be the last one to tell the American people how to conduct their criminal justice."

Herzog doesn't excuse the crimes. He tells the story of Linda Carty, probably the most revolting of the series. Carty is one of 10 women on death row in Texas. She was convicted of masterminding a bogus home invasion on a Mexican-American couple with the goal of stealing the family's newborn child. The mother was found dead with duct tape over her nose and mouth and a plastic bag tightly sealed over her head. Though Carty denies any involvement in the gruesome and bizarre crime, there is overwhelming evidence supporting her guilt.

Reviewing the Death Penalty

Herzog, in a statement, denied there is any "activist's anger from my side" and said he doesn't commiserate with the inmates or in any way befriend them. "There is no false sentimentality," he said. But "there is a strong sense that these individuals are human beings."

It is perhaps no coincidence that most of Herzog's portraits are of inmates in Texas. The state has been responsible for by far the most executions in the United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a non-profit based in Washington, Texas has executed 478 inmates since 1976. The number two spot goes to Virginia, with 109, followed by Oklahoma with 97 and Florida with 71.

Herzog's film comes at a time in which many state governments in the US are reviewing their death penalty statutes. Last year Illinois got rid of the death penalty. In 2009, New Mexico voted to abolish the death penalty. It was repealed in New York and New Jersey in 2007. In Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber halted all executions last year, though the death penalty is still technically legal. The next state likely to abolish the death penalty is Connecticut, DPIC's executive director Richard Dieter said.

Dieter said popular films may have more of an effect, but documentaries are becoming increasingly important and are attracting more moviegoers in the US. "Anything that will increase the discussion will add to the possibilities of getting rid of it," he said of the death penalty.

Still an overwhelming majority -- 34 of the 50 US States -- still has the death penalty on the books. That disturbs not only Herzog, but many of his compatriots.

The Human Side of Death Row

Last year German Economics Minister and Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler rejected US requests to provide a German-manufactured drug used in lethal injections to US states facing shortages, despite requests from then-US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to help ease the shortage.

"I noted the request and declined," Rösler said at the time.

In September, Germany along with countries all over Europe, reacted with protests to the execution of African American Troy Davis, who was put to death in Georgia. Davis was convicted of killing a white police officer in 1989. He maintained his innocence until the end and his supporters said there were serious doubts about his guilt. Davis, 42, was executed by lethal injection.

Hank Skinner, another subject in the Herzog series, was luckier. The Texas inmate was sentenced to death 18 years ago for the fatal stabbing of his girlfriend and her two mentally impaired sons. His execution has been scheduled three times -- the second time he got his reprieve only 23 minutes before his scheduled execution.

Skinner, a vivid story teller, gives a harrowing account of his remaining minutes before he thought he was going to die. It's just one of the film series' many moments that shows viewers the human side of death row.

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