Werner Herzog On Life, Death, Capital Punishment

Werner Herzog is an actor, a producer, a director, a screenwriter and more, but what he’ s most known for, is being one of our great  filmmakers.  Some of his best known projects include Fitzcarraldo, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Grizzly Man.  He stopped by the SiriusXM studios in New York City to talk with about his newest documentary, Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. Here are some excerpts from that interview.

Ron Bennington: The new movie is Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. And Werner Herzog is in studio with us. Nice to see you.

Werner Herzog: Thank you for having me.

Ron Bennington: I saw your film a couple of weeks ago, and it is an incredibly tense ride you take us on. You take us through the prison system in Texas in a way that I don’t think has ever been done before.

Werner Herzog: Well we shouldn’t just speak of Texas. You do have capital punishment in quite a few other states in the United States. And frankly, I’m not in the business of Texas bashing, nor in United States bashing. How can I, as a guest in your country as a German tell you how to handle criminal justice. I would be the last one. Of course filming was very intense. And later, during editing, so intense that both the editor and I started smoking again.

Ron Bennington: And you edited the film fairly quickly right? The turn around on the film was fairly fast.

Werner Herzog: It was. However, shooting was spread out over almost an entire year, because, there are very rare moments when you would have access to one of the inmates, on death row for example. So it was very interspersed. But editing itself went relatively fast, One of the reasons is because there was maybe only eight hours of footage for the entire one and a half hour film.

Ron Bennington: Which is very, very short for a documentary. Sometimes they’ll go hundreds of hours of shooting.

Werner Herzog: Yes, I’m not one of those. Even though I had much more time I wouldn’t have shot that much. I’m very focused, and of course, I’m a story-teller, I’m a film maker and I’m a director. I try to go straight for the hardcore of something, of a story, of a person. And just do it.

Ron Bennington: In this film, were you looking for this kind of story? Or did the Michael Perry being on death row…  How did it come to you?

Werner Herzog: Well you have to check into death row cases. And then the procedure is, you have to write to an inmate. He has to invite you or she has to invite you. Then the warden has to agree. Attorneys have to agree. And then you have the chance to go on camera with one of these inmates. I was fascinated by Michael Perry’s and Jason Burkett’s — his co-defendant‘s story because of the senselessness of this crime. It was so particularly strange and senseless.

Ron Bennington: It was horrifying. It was absolutely horrifying. And you take us through the crime scene. There were times where you’re going through this and you feel like you’re the detective who shows up at the crime scene. And it’s so senseless. It’s so infuriating to see that this crime even took place.

Werner Herzog: Still, I’m not an advocate of capital punishment. If I had been in charge of the system here, I would plead for life in prison without parole. Capital punishment that’s a separate debate and we should not kick it lose. But of course at the moment it has some traction because of other cases that came to the attention of the general public. And all of a sudden my film comes into a phase where it’s really debated again.

Ron Bennington: As well it should be. It should always be debated. And I will tell you going into this, I’ve always been about 90 to 95% against capital punishment. But one thing I would be somewhat sensitive to is the victim’s family.

Werner Herzog: Sure and they have a big space in my film, and its dedicated to them.

Ron Bennington: And you, who’ve made this film– you’re against capital punishment, you stated early on, you stayed with it. And as I was saying, I’m almost at that point with you. But after seeing this film I think that I was closer to being for capital punishment, because I was so infuriated over these two men; this idiotic crime that took place. And I had a very hard time shaking it. 

Werner Herzog: And I respectfully disagree if you are shifting into the camp of the people who are in favor of capital punishment. By the way I should mention, the woman who lost her mother and her brother in this spree of murders– I asked her, ‘would life in prison without possibility of parole have been an alternative, for you.’ And she says, ‘yes, indeed, yes yes.’  And I asked her about Biblical sort of connections, ‘would Jesus be an advocate of capital punishment?’ Answer, ‘probably not. We don’t know but probably not.’

Ron Bennington: One of the things that got to me though, was just seeing the horrific crime scene; the fact that it took place over a Camaro; the fact that, while you’re talking, one is doing life in prison, the other is on death row and there is absolutely no reason that they should have two different verdicts. You would think, any just system would have both [same] verdicts.

Werner Herzog: Well you have to accept the justice system. They were in different trials. With a different jury. The jury, by the way, found the co-defendant Jason Burkett also guilty of triple homicide. But during the penalty phase, the jury decided not to execute him. And probably his father, who is also in prison, probably saved him by pleading to the jury. And he’s a very tragic figure in a way, and it’s very very compelling– very compelling– what he says against capital punishment, by the way. And he apparently saved it. You have to accept the system as it is. Yes there is a court of law. Yes there is a jury. And if a different jury comes to a different conclusion we should rather accept it.

Ron Bennington: And Burkett’s father was the only person there who I thought had remorse– had pain…

Werner Herzog: …admitted his guilt, saw it very clearly what went wrong…

Ron Bennington: …and part of what was infuriating me and was pushing me in the other direction, was the fact that Burkett and Perry seemed like they did not still connect to what they had done. Not just to the victims…but to the families…to that community…and it is baffling.

Werner Herzog: Yes it’s baffling to me as well. But when it comes to the question of death penalty, I as a German citizen with all the dark times of the Nazi barbarism cannot be an advocate of capital punishment. It’s more a question of principal but I’m a guest in your country and I respectfully disagree with the practice.

Ron Bennington: One of the things that got to me, is to see, knowing how long that the victims had been dead, and then seeing those two guys– Perry and Burkett– you can see them laughing about different things. Even though it is a horrible thing to be doing life in prison, you can still read, you can still make friends, you can still laugh. Burkett actually fell in love with somebody who wrote him. So they are still having some kind of life. Even though they snuffed out a life. If they wanted that car so bad, they could have just taken the keys off of her.

Werner Herzog: That was actually the original plan. Try to spend the night in this house because they had some common friends or acquaintances. Steal the keys of the car during the night, and take off. And they had no real plan for afterwards. Vaguely, maybe we’ll make it to California or whatever. The frightening thing is, they found the lady at home baking cookies. It turns out that she’s alone, and they decided spontaneously it would be so much easier to just kill her, and then take the car. It’s just mind-boggling. And then they disposed of the body and when they returned, it was a gated community, the gate was closed and they didn’t have the clicker. So they waited for her son to come home in the evening, and unfortunately he had yet another friend in the car. They lured them out into the forest, shot them, and then they had access to the gate. And they took the car, and they were in possession of the car for less than 72 hours. It’s mind boggling. It’s frightening. And as boyish as Perry looked like– the young man who was executed eight days later after I saw him– I think he was a very very dangerous man.

Ron Bennington: Even still. Even still to this day, if he would have the opportunity to do it again– he hadn’t learned anything. At least as far as the film showed.

Werner Herzog: No I wouldn’t completely take this position. Because apparently he had gotten some insight in himself. And if certain things in his childhood, in his adolescence had been different, he could have been a very nice young man. Maybe a very nice considerate father, loving father of two, three kids. I still believe they are human beings– as monstrous as their crimes are. People always tell me they are monsters, just kill them off. No I disagree. The perpetrators still are human beings, and I see them and I talk to them like two human beings, not like two monsters.

Ron Bennington: Did anything change for you as you were watching– as the story unfolded in front of you.

Werner Herzog: Yes. Because I keep asking everyone on death row– or for example the father of Burkett who saved his life in court. How should we do lives right? How should we raise our children? Whenever I speak with anyone so permanently in prison or on death row, it always comes back to small family values, very intensely. And all of a sudden I look at the whole question differently. Yes, we have to be on the side of our children even though they do a lot of things wrong. You have to love them. Encourage them to finish high school. Encourage them to be a part of a family and not go too far astray. That’s one thing. Family values. Second. The value of life out there, something we overlook all the time.  What a phenomenal privilege it is that we can open and close a door. We over look it. Seeing an abandoned gas station. Seeing a cow in a field. All of a sudden it’s something magnificent. And we see it daily but we do not recognize it any more, that this is the magnificence of the world out there. With a different death row inmate, I had a conversation of his last trip. They are taken from death row, 43 miles to Huntsville because there is a death house and they are being executed. He was 23 minutes away from execution and got a stay. And the way he describes his last 43 miles in this prison van, it’s just astonishing. How he talks about a bridge and the light on the waves of the water– the sun on it. And how he sees a cow in a field. What a glorious moment. And he speaks– it was like Israel, it was like the holy land. And everything looks like the holy land – even an abandoned gas station gives me the impression everything out there is like holy land.

Ron Bennington: Because we no longer see everything as a miracle. We have the time to be bored, with these things that we will, with our last breaths, hold really precious. I want to talk about one of the people in the film, and that’s the prison guard, Fred Allen, who you spend some time with. That was really astonishing footage and astonishing conversations– to find out what his life was like.

Warner Herzog: Well you have to be aware, he was pro-capital punishment. He was the captain of the tie down team– the guys who strap you down to the gurney. They do it in 15 seconds flat; they are professional; do it with integrity no doubt. And here, after 125 executions, all of a sudden he has a breakdown. Starts to shake uncontrollably. I asked him how bad of a shake was it? And he says well, it was a shake! And he’s a big strong man and starts crying uncontrollably, cannot stop crying, and leaves his job from one day to the next at the cost of losing his pension. Wonderful man and I think he’s some sort, almost like a national treasure, in my opinion. And how he talks about his job as an executioner is so compelling that whoever sees him, hears him, has to have some doubts about capital punishment.

Ron Bennington: And I give you again, full credit. In your film, you show what happens to family members. That, just because the crime hasn’t physically happened to you, if it happens to a close friend or family member, this could be life altering when violence is brought in like this.

Werner Herzog: It’s not ‘it could be life altering.’ It is life altering for all of them. And I’m speaking for families of victims of violent crime. You see if you are a victim of a financial scam and you lose some money, yes you are a victim. But victims of violent crime– that’s really life changing. All of a sudden your mother is murdered and your brother is murdered.  And so all of a sudden there is a huge void. There is fear. Your entire life comes apart.

Ron Bennington: You’ve done the film Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, but this isn’t the end for you. This is a subject that you’re going to be following for a while in different ways.

Werner Herzog: There is, in addition to Into the Abyss, which is a theatrical film and is one hour forty-five minutes long, there is a series of shorter films– four shorter films on death row inmates and pretty much focused on these people.  One hour programs for television. You have forty-four minute films, and they’re very much focused on just one person on death row, not the entire tapestry of a crime and all its repercussion. Not just an American Gothic in a way.  But it will be over soon. I’m finishing four films, I’m editing them and then I’m moving somewhere else, in fact, I’m moving into acting. I play a villain which is fine. I like to work as an actor as well.

Ron Bennington: You work as an actor and of course you direct feature films, you direct documentaries. Is there ever a time that you’re like, okay now that I’ve finished one I want to move to the other? Or do you let these projects come to you.

Werner Herzog: I never plan a career. I always follow the most intense urgency, the most intense pressure. Most of the films just come at me like burglars in the night. Unwanted guests. And you’ve got to get them out the door or window or anywhere.

Ron Bennington: Is it the same amount of passion that you’ve always had?

Werner Herzog: Oh it hasn’t stopped. I actually work faster now than in my younger years. I’ve done six films this year.

Ron Bennington: How is that? Because technology changes? Or the way you work has changed.

Werner Herzog: Well I’m exaggerating now, when I say six films. Five of them are much shorter, it’s not the feature-length films. Some projects you can do easier and faster in terms of shooting and I’m much faster now in editing. Editing on celluloid is quite time-consuming, it’s a lot of craft. Now, digitally editing, I can edit almost as fast as I’m thinking.

Ron Bennington: There’s some people who would like to go back to celluloid but you like technology?

Werner Herzog: I’m always back into celluloid whenever there’s a chance. You see, the film I made on death row, you cannot shoot in celluloid because you cannot ask the inmate every eleven minutes, please hold your sentence because I have to change reels now. You just can’t do it. You have to have 45 minutes going in one go, and you don’t have to stop the camera.

Ron Bennington: Did you get only that one conversation with Michael Perry?

Werner Herzog: Yes, he was executed eight days later. And the rules are, if you want to talk to someone again, there has to be a hiatus of at least 3 months until you get the next meeting because the prison system, correctly so, does not want to allow an inmate to become a regular on tv talk shows every week. So it’s justified and in Perry’s case, there were no three months. Eight days later he was dead.

Ron Bennington: And how was that for you? When he was getting up and walking out, you knew it was literally dead man walking.

Werner Herzog: Well you never can tell exactly, but knowing his case file, I was under the impression there wouldn’t be any clemency. So deep in my heart I knew I would never see him again. And he thanked me, by the way, he thanked me very very much for being with him.  Because for almost an hour, he was almost like back in his adolescence. He tells stories about a canoe trip in the Everglades, and he’s completely oblivious of this little box in which he is encaged.  And I allowed him to be a human being who tells about his adolescence and about monkeys that jumped at him and things like this.  And for almost one hour, he didn’t notice that he was on death row.

Ron Bennington: And yet, that close he is to the gurney. You show in the film of where they’re staying. It’s not that many steps.  And you knew that night, exactly every thing that he was going through.

Werner Herzog: I knew every single step of the procedures.  I knew at 6:00 sharp he would be taken from the holding cell six, seven steps to the gurney.  He would be strapped down, not later than 6:01. The needles would be poked into his veins not later until 6:02, 6:03.  He would have thirty seconds of a last statement and then the lethal injection starts to flow. And he will be pronounced dead six or seven minutes later.

Ron Bennington: If they would have allowed you, Werner, would you have filmed it?

Werner Herzog: No. Under no circumstances whatsoever.  I would not want to be witness to an execution.  Even if you have me a million dollars to film it, I would say “just get lost, I’m not going to do it.”  Even though it’s a public event– an execution– we as film makers stay out of it period. It would be indecent. It would violate the dignity of a person’s death. You just don’t do it. Under no circumstances.

Ron Bennington:  And yet you did take us through the crime scene. We did see the blood.  We did see the  victim’s foot in the water.  I mean there was no one there to worry about humanity for her.  

Werner Herzog:  Well, I’m showing very discretely some signs that there really is a dead person, and in case of this one young teenager who was found shot in the woods, you see one foot and the sneaker’s on it.  I do not show more. And I have seen the full footage. My only response is, I hope that no one ever, ever sees what I have seen. When you look in detail at the damage that was done to a human being, and you look at it close up, I wish that nobody has to see what I have seen.  And it must not be shown on television.

Ron Bennington:  The film is Into the Abyss. A Tale of Death. A Tale of Life.  It’s the type of film that should be seen by people, and I would love for there to be a town meeting right after so people could talk. I do think it’s something that Americans should be talking about all of the time.


As always you can hear the full interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Don’t have satellite radio yet?  Click here for a free trial.