I don’t have a definite answer for how I feel about the death penalty. Every time I think about it I have a different opinion from the one before and my view now is far from what it was when I was younger. It’s a depressing subject but one of interest to me ever since I watched Paradise Lost, a documentary about three teenage boys incarcerated for the murders of three children, one of which was given the death penalty. I have no idea why but I’m fascinated with films, TV series and documentaries about war, prison, and true crime. I guess, like watching horror films, it’s something to do with experiencing things that hopefully I’ll never have to experience first hand, seeing what goes on and putting yourself in these scenarios without real danger or harm.
Director Werner Herzog, a masterful documentary filmmaker, takes an unbiased look at the death penalty through a series of interviews with inmates Jason Burkett, his father, and Michael Perry, Jason Burkett’s wife, family members of the victims from the crime both Perry and Burkett were incarcerated for, and a retired correctional officer who witnessed over a hundred executions. Werner Herzog remains objective throughout, sharing little on his own views except when introducing himself to Michael Perry, who at the time was only a week away from execution, saying “ When I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but I respect you and you are a human being and I think human beings should not be executed. As simple as that”. This is Herzog’s only personal comment, after that he remains in partial letting Perry and Burkett, those closest to them, and the events which led to Perry’s death sentence speak for themselves. He looks at it from every angle, not to influence you in one way or another but simply to show it from every perspective. What views you have about the death penalty before watching the film will undoubtedly stay the same after you’ve seen it. And with little exposure of the trial or what happened in the ten years after the crime prior to the documentary, it’s hard to say whether what happened to Perry and Burkett (who is currently serving a 40 year sentence) is right or wrong. There is too much speculation and he said/she said rather than actual facts from the case, and for me that is the films only weak point leaving me with too many questions I would need answering to form a solid opinion. Personally, this is one area I feel Herzog could have gone into in a little more detail with, otherwise it is an incredibly moving documentary, thought-provoking and insightful.
Werner Herzog is unarguably one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time, responsible for my favourite documentary Grizzly Man. His lens acts as a window into the lives of those in strange, unusual, and sensitive circumstances and lets them tell their own story, only asking them the questions to help tell the story he wants to share. But he never lets personal opinion effect his vision and instead and gives the viewer the opportunity to formulate their own opinion.