How the real final scene fascinates us

Werner Herzog's new documentary on death row is the latest example of an enduring theme. By Geoffrey Macnab

Click to follow

The buck-toothed youngster on the other side of the glass panel is friendly and eager to please. There is a naive quality about him that is oddly appealing. His name is Michael James Perry and he is going to be dead in a few weeks time. He is an inmate on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas.

When we first see him, he is shuffling into view with his hands handcuffed behind him. Once he sits down, he is unshackled and he immediately starts to dab at the panel so that the glass is clear for the film-maker who is interviewing him.

Perry is one of the subjects in Into the Abyss, a new feature-length documentary from German director Werner Herzog. Alongside Into the Abyss, Herzog has also made a series of other portraits of death-row prisoners that will show at the Berlin Film Festival next month.

"When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean I have to like you but I respect you and you are a human being. I think human beings should not be executed," Herzog tells Perry.

His story, and that of the murder he was convicted of committing, can't help but rekindle memories of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966). The celebrated book offered an equally detailed anatomy of a killing, and jolted readers' feelings in the same way that Herzog's film does.

The initial feeling in Capote's book is one of disgust and incomprehension at the crime that the two drifters, "Dick" Hickcock and Perry Smith, have committed. They butchered a Kansas farmer, as well as his wife and two of their kids, for no very good reason other than that they wanted to steal his money.

However, Capote, like Herzog in his death-row films, gets close to the prisoners. Regardless of the crime they committed, you begin to identify with them and feel a sympathy for them,

When I spoke to Herzog early last year, he was mid-way through making his death-row documentary. He said he was looking into "the deep abysses of the human soul."

"I am not in the business of guilt or innocence. My focus is elsewhere," he told me. Herzog's romantic language – and in particular his emphasis on what he calls "ecstatic truth" – is bound to rankle with some. Anti-capital-punishment campaigners would probably have preferred a more straightforwardly polemical approach while others would, no doubt, argue that due process was followed: the death-row prisoners were convicted of committing unspeakable crimes and were made to pay for them.

Nonetheless, Into the Abyss hints at just why film-makers have always been so fascinated by death row. It's the procedure and rites of state-licensed executions that intrigue and terrify them: the grim and inexorable way that justice is done in these cases.

When Krzysztof Kieslowski made A Short Film About Killing (1988), his fictional story followed an almost identical trajectory to that of Herzog's documentary. Early on, the crime is shown. Kieslowski has an eye for the grim and telling detail. When the taxi driver is struggling for his life as the drifter is strangling him, we see him kick off his socks and shoes. He doesn't die easily. The drifter garrotes him and bludgeons him with a rock. This level of detail also applies to the second killing – the hanging of the condemned man, at the end of the film. Kieslowski goes out of his way to show the hangman's routine: the methodical way he checks the noose and places a plastic bowl under the trap-door in case the dying man fouls himself.

The techniques of capital punishment fascinate film-makers, who tend to carry out morbidly exhaustive research for films touching on death row. For example, when he was preparing Monster's Ball (set around a Louisiana jail), Marc Forster sat in an electric chair himself and studied the nail-marks left in the wood by condemned men in their dying moments.

Another area film-makers dwell on is the behaviour of death-row prisoners. Are they cowardly or are they brave? In Roman Polanski's Macbeth, we see King Duncan's court looking on with approval at the courageous way the treacherous Thane of Cawdor accepts his punishment. "Nothing in his life/ Became him like the leaving it," says Malcolm.

By complete contrast, there is James Cagney, as Rocky Sullivan, being dragged kicking and screaming to his execution at the end of Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). The film-makers leave us to make up our own mind about the scene. Is the big-shot gangster really just a two-bit coward or is he putting on an act for the sake of his old friend (the priest, played by Pat O'Brien).

Rocky knows that the Dead End Kids – the local street-delinquents – are watching his every last move. They think he is a hero. If he disabuses them of that notion, he may help steer them away from his own life of crime.

Actors relish playing death row inmates. From Susan Hayward in I Want To Live to Charlize Theron in Monster, there are plentiful examples of searing performances which have gone on to win Oscars.

What almost every death-row film accentuates is the sheer absurdity of capital punishment – the bureaucracy and strange little rituals that go alongside it.


'Into the Abyss' is released in the UK in March. Werner Herzog's four-part documentary 'Death Row' is a world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, 9 to 19 February