Don't be fooled by the lack of suicidal penguins and bear-loving oddballs in Werner Herzog’s documentary about Death Row.
His tenacious curiosity, eye for absurd-yet-telling details and passionate humanism are upfront here, braiding a study of capital punishment in Texas with an incisive, compassionate portrait of life in death’s shadow.
Herzog makes his ethical stance clear (“humans should not be executed”) and rigorously details a triple homicide that spiralled from a car theft. Yet he’s not mounting a defence for the condemned.
His purpose is existential: a beady probe into the lives of those affected by the pending execution of 28-year-old Michael Perry and the murders he’s charged with. Off-screen, Herzog’s canny queries and patient ear disarm interviewees.
The oddly perky Perry and his partner in crime are the least interesting – the glass between the felons and Herzog exacerbates a sense of distance – yet other subjects unload to devastating effect.
A grief-lashed woman’s account of her multiple losses and an ex-prison worker’s death row dispatches offer articulate expressions of death’s wallop.
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams’ stereoscopic wow and Grizzly Man’s mounting madnesses are missing, but Herzog’s eye stays keen, his lateral style of inquiry drawing out details only he could.
One woman’s description of an epiphany involving a rainbow recalls Timothy Treadwell’s prayer for rain (when lo, it rained). And when Herzog presents a prison chaplain with the echt-Herzog request to “Describe an encounter with a squirrel”, he gets a revelatory response.
“Life is precious,” the reverend weeps, cutting to the heart of a piercing film that finds affirmative value in the places other filmmakers wouldn’t look.
Herzog’s tapestry testifies to life’s light from death’s darkness. Its honest humanity and sideways-on character bare his illuminating imprint.