Werner Herzog Interview
Werner Herzog Interview
Werner Herzog is a German filmmaker with an extraordinary career spanning 60 years. With the majority of his works in the documentary vein, he has directed his camera onto a variety of different and intriguing topics. From people living in close contact with Grizzly Bears in Grizzly Man, to a chance to film the oldest known cave paintings in the world in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog is renowned for his, non-judgemental observations of humankind and nature in action. In his latest film Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, he interviewed two prison inmates in on death row in America.

Talking to View’s Matthew Turner, he spoke about his fundamental stance against capital punishment, his determined impartiality, and why he finds the spontaneous nature of violence the most frightening.
How did the project come about, first of all?

Werner Herzog

It didn't have any sort of point of departure or any event or so. In a way it was a subject [that was] dormant in me for a long time and almost forgotten but somehow there. And out of the blue I knew I had to do this. But there was no particular case that intrigued me to go into it. It's very hard to explain how it happens – films always come at me like uninvited guests or like burglars in the middle of the night.
There's nobody among my peers in Germany who would be an advocate of capital punishment, it's unthinkable...
Why this film now, in that case? Was there something that sparked it into life?

Werner Herzog

Well, I was fascinated by the senselessness of the crime, that it's really hard for me to comprehend. If you had a bank robbery that goes awry then you still would understand it with our horizon of experience, but in this case it's kind of incomprehensible. So there's something frightening and it's not so unique because you see these things happening in civilisations like the United States or in West Europe or in Japan or whatever. If you go, for example, to Ethiopia, the crimes would be of a different nature, I guess, so it has to do with our kind of civilisation.
Why did you decide to make the point at the beginning of the film that you're against capital punishment?

Werner Herzog

Well, because I am against capital punishment! However, the film is not an issue film, it's not an activist film. And you have to understand, I'm not an American citizen, I'm only a guest in the country. And in the four films that I made on Death Row inmates, which are showing on television on Channel Four, I say it very clearly in the opening, that I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment.

It's the past of Germany, with the barbarism of the Nazi time with excessive amounts of capital punishment, euthanasia parallel to it and then a genocide of six million - there's nobody among my peers in Germany who would be an advocate of capital punishment, it's unthinkable. At the same time, I would be the last one, coming with that background, to tell the Americans how to handle their criminal justice.

Or would I go to Pakistan to tell them how to deal with it, or China or Nigeria or Indonesia, I think has it. And India still has it. All the very, very populous nations in the world have it. Russia actually abandoned it last year, which is one of the very fine achievements of Vladimir Putin, who is completely underrated, in my opinion [laughs], whatever [others may think of him] ...
The subtitle of the film is A Way of Death, A Way of Life and the film talks about the lives of the people who are left in the mess that surrounds the horrific crime at the centre of the film. How do you feel about the other interviewees, who are left to go on?

Werner Herzog

It's not just who have to go on, for example the young woman who married Burkett, one of the perpetrators. And it's very mysterious, because there seems to be an urgency of life, which is now a chapter in the film. And it was never really planned – only when during editing, it emerged from the footage there was something - it was not just about capital punishment and retribution for senseless murders, which is death, death, death.

All of a sudden something mysterious emerges, the urgency of life. And life is so urgent that a woman who marries the murderer and during the ceremony of marriage they have a bullet-proof wall of glass between them and they only have a telephone receiver and see each other through the glass and they marry. Now that they are legally married they are allowed to sit at the same table and they can touch hands. But of course there is a guard sitting right with them at the same table.
Did you feel she was a bit crazy?

Werner Herzog

Very hard to understand for me, but again, the urgency of life, now, what happens? There's something mysterious about it, about this urgency of life. She's only allowed to touch his hand, so how does she become pregnant? There's a mystery. And yet a child was born. Actually, during the time of filming, she was pregnant. Just when I was in editing she gave birth to a boy.
And the cycle continues?

Werner Herzog

Not necessarily. I wouldn't be so fatalistic. I think Melyssa Burkett is – she's kind of strange and hard to comprehend but at the same time solidly with her feet on the ground and she had an upbringing with a Mormon family, a very closely-knit family, family values quite strong and visible in every day life. I don't think the cycle is going to continue with this child. Hopefully.

And it doesn't look like it. You see if she were on drugs and she had no job and if she were “white trash”, then I would question it and I would say, 'For God's sake, it may be the next generation of somebody who will lead a catastrophic life.' So we don't know, but I think the boy is going to thrive.
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Content updated: 17/12/2017 15:32

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