Werner Herzog’s Death Row Portraits cover five inmates awaiting Death Row in Texas and Florida. The project was shown in four instalments at the Biografilm Festival this June. Portrait of Hank Skinner was one of the four, delving into the psyche of Hank, a man accused of murdering a young mother and her two handicapped children. Other than a short statement at the beginning of each portrait, announcing that he ‘respectively disagrees with the death penalty’, Herzog’s aim appears not to be an examination of the politics of capital punishment, but of the five inmates, who exist only in anticipation of the lethal injection. Secondary to this, the crime itself is examined, with interviews of lawyers, detectives and relatives of the victims and of the accused.
More so than some of the other portraits – which take up a lot of the time switching from the inmates to exploring the crime itself – Hank Skinner’s is dominated by himself. The camera is focused on a seated Skinner, while Herzog, in his distinct German accent, encourages elaboration. Skinner insists on his innocence from the very beginning. From the start, he appears eloquent and incredibly intelligent, making light-hearted jokes and references to obscure historical and religious events. Herzog allows Skinner to talk without a bombardment of questions. The questions he does ask are few but audacious. In this way, he shapes his portrait of Skinner without allowing his subject to slip into a state of self-pity. Herzog is against the practise of capital punishment, but he does not treat these inmates as victims. Instead, he puts them in front of the camera, leaving them to reveal their side, to expose themselves in a way that they see fit.
Naturally, the portraits effectively convey the immorality of the penalty, but from the very beginning it is clear that Herzog’s fascination with humanity is very much present. Portrait of Hank Skinner provides viewers with a doorway into the very human mind of a man sentenced to death. What makes Skinner’s portrait even more fascinating is the fact that he came within 20 minutes of execution until he was granted a stay last minute as a result of civil disagreements concerning withheld evidence. His story is entirely human. He describes the disappearance of time behind bars, the merging of hours, the longing for real food, for a washing-machine, and the feeling of death lingering throughout the penitentiary. At times, Herzog warms to Skinner, making jokes about setting him free. At other times, the camera remains fixed on the face of the subject, revealing the strange and harrowing despair of an inmate with a stamp of expiry.
Guilty or not, Herzog makes it clear that his subjects are safe. There is definitely a feeling of security surrounding an interviewer without a catalogue of questions in hand. In this case, it takes on the form of a conversation, serving to take viewers into a world that is very rarely seen for those lucky enough not to live in a nation which still practises. This is intriguing viewing. The stories told by Skinner and the other four prisoners are honest and at times, painfully difficult to bear.
Watch the entire film here: