Battle not with monsters: abolish the death penalty

Back in November I blogged about Werner Herzog’s death penalty film Into The Abyss. I was basing that post on reviews but now I’ve seen the film and so this is my re-entry into the abyss …..

If you've watched a few of Herzog's films you'll know he often focuses on outsiders. People in some way cut off from society. In his early work there was the “primitive” child-man chained up for years by his “owner” (The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser), the idiot savant figure released from jail (Stroszek, the film Ian Curtis watched on the night he killed himself), various unforgettable monomaniacs (Fitzcarraldo, Cobre Verde, Aguirre, Heart Of Glass), and other socially marginalised figures (Even Dwarves Started Small). More recently there was the obsessive amateur naturalist (Grizzly Man) and the Vietnam pilot shot down behind enemy lines in Laos (Rescue Dawn).

Into The Abyss, a feature-length documentary on the death penalty in the USA, fits the pattern. People sentenced to death are cut off from society in a particular way: they're marked out as “deserving to be killed”; for everyone else in the world the “sanctity” of life is considered precious. Those condemned to die are in a separate zone, death's ante-chamber. As new Amnesty figures out today show, there are at least 18,750 people currently on death row somewhere in the world, a staggering number. That’s a lot of extreme marginalisation….

Herzog's film focuses on two young men (Michael Perry and Jason Burkett) convicted of interrelated multiple murders in Texas, where one is sentenced to death and the other receives life imprisonment. Here, immediately, you get a sense of the arbitrariness of the death penalty. Two terrible crimes and a gulf between the punishments (an abyss even).

In the film Herzog says he personally doesn't agree with capital punishment (and interestingly he refers to his German heritage and the Holocaust in this regard), but he also insists that Abyss is a work that deliberately avoids taking sides. In media interviews he’s been at pains to ram this point home, saying over and over again that it’s “not an issue film; it's not an activist film against capital punishment”. True enough, the film isn’t polemical. The victims’ voices are heard throughout; there’s hard-to-watch crime scene police video from one of the murder locations (complete with blood trails on the ground); and for what it’s worth I doubt most people will find either of the convicted men very sympathetic (particularly the smilingly in-denial Michael Perry).

But the film shows also us things that will make many pro-death penalty types question their view. For example, we discover that the stone crosses of executed prisoners in the graveyard at the Hunstville penitentiary’s in Texas have no names, just the prison numbers. We hear a prison chaplain (Reverend Richard Lopez) explaining that he asks condemned prisoners on the execution gurney whether he can hold onto their ankle in their dying moments. And we hear Hunstville’s former head of executions, the one-time “Captain”, Fred Allen, as he explains how after overseeing more than 120 executions in his career he had a “shaking” reaction to the execution of Karla Faye Tucker and turned against capital punishment once and for all (“No-one has the right to take another life” he now says).

One of the working titles for Herzog’s film was Gaze Into The Abyss, a clear referencing of Nietzsche’s famous aphorism “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Having gazed into the abyss people like Richard Lopez seem overcome by it. In one especially moving moment in the film he recounts seeing a squirrel and suddenly begins to cry, apparently as much for the men he’s seen killed as for the squirrel. One reviewer has talked of the “mournful” tone of the film, and that’s about right.

Herzog’s film is out on Friday. The perfect, mournful accompaniment to it is Amnesty’s report on how several thousand people were executed around the world last year (though in a dwindling band of just 20 countries). Also there are two excellent short-films appetisers to Herzog’s meisterwerk. One is this two-minute animation (clever and hard-hitting), the other a beautifully made five-minute Guardian animation on the efforts of the lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei to save juvenile offenders from execution in Iran. My recommendation: watch all three films, starting with the short ones and moving on to Herzog - and then consult Amnesty’s work on the death penalty.

Herzog’s too fastidious a film-maker to say out it straight out, so I’ll do it instead. The message of his film is this: battle not with monsters and abolish 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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