Into The Abyss: the death penalty is where human beings lose their humanity

A Grizzly bear-obsessed dreamer in Alaska, a demented Spanish Conquistador searching for El Dorado, a man chained in a German cellar for years with only a toy horse for company, a woman who walks for ten days through the Peruvian jungle after being the sole survivor of a plane crash...Werner Herzog’s feature films and documentaries are famously about extreme situations and extreme personalities. 

So it was possibly inevitable that Herzog would sooner or later make a film about death row. His documentary about prisoners and staff on death row in the US, Into The Abyss, sounds like a typically painstaking examination of the

outer limits of human life and human suffering. Herzog talks about making the film in this on-stage interview (you have to make allowances for a slightly nervous/sycophantic audience and a play-it-for-laughs panel, but Herzog is fundamentally serious).

“I always try to look deep into what constitutes human-ness”, says Herzog. “The persons on death row are not monsters, they’re simply human”. Good point. And one easily forgotten. Next time you hear some politician or media pundit railing against a “beast” or a “monster” who “deserves to get the death penalty”, it’s worth remembering this. Herzog is clear that the film is “not a platform” for debating the death penalty, it’s not “an issues film”. Fair enough. I tend to like films that aren’t obviously one thing or the other, though Herzog also makes it clear that he has his own views:

"I am not an advocate of capital punishment. And I'm saying that being a German, with a different historical background. Being a guest in your country [the USA] I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment, period. I don't try to be didactic. I simply have a different historical load on my shoulders."

Interestingly, to explain how his German heritage makes him opposed to capital punishment, Herzog refers to the Nazi euthanasia programme and the systematic extermination of the Holocaust. What I like about Herzog is his determination to look the full horror of man-made depravity in the eye, but always while making a clear effort not to demonise or judge.

In the next few days the USA is set to execute a mentally-ill man in his sixties (Reginald Brooks in Ohio), and a man in Idaho described by a psychologist as “a damaged human being” from a family background of “violence, drug and alcohol abuse”, one who has nevertheless turned himself into a positive role model during his 24 years on death row (Paul Rhoades). Either could form a subject for a Herzog film. One that looks unblinkingly at human failings (both of these men have committed terrible murders), but one that recognises that people are redeemable, that people are sometimes mentally frail and damaged, and that life itself is precious. (Look out for an Amnesty Twitter action on these two cases, coming soon….)

At home I’ve got an audio recording of Herzog speaking where he describes the natural world (a big preoccupation of his) as one that has no interest in human beings. If nature, with all its apparent "anarchy" has any system at all, he says, it's "the harmony of collective murder". A bleak but maybe not inaccurate assessment. It seems to me that "collective murder" could be a description of the mechanics and bureaucracy of the death penalty.

In the end I reckon that Herzog's fascination with volatile actors like Klaus Kinski and with extreme situations like a captured US pilot being taken prisoner and tortured in Laos is a reflection of his real empathy with human suffering. I don't think anyone with this level of empathy could ever support the deliberate cruelty of the death penalty.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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