My colleague Justin Chang has already reviewed Werner Herzog's "On Death Row" out of the Berlin film festival, but I can't resist sharing a few thoughts about the four-part series in advance of its March 9 premiere on Investigation Discovery.
In the program, Herzog continues to explore questions surrounding capital punishment he tackled in the documentary "Into the Abyss," interviewing more death-row inmates. What's most intriguing, though, is the role the filmmaker himself plays as an opponent of the death penalty.
Herzog isn't a journalist, but he comes to the task with a natural curiosity that serves him — and the project — well. Calmly, he asks the right questions, while still saying things in voiceover like "As a German, coming from a different historical background … I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment," which make his own convictions crystal clear.
The thoughtful manner in which "On Death Row" examines those concerns is a cut above for ID, which has carved out a true-crime niche thanks in part to its sensational approach and cheeky attitude, often cloaking its programs in familiar movie trappings. (The new "Deadly Sins," for example, brings "Seven" to mind, while "Dark Minds" has a jailed serial killer assisting cold-case investigators, providing the network with its own in-house version of Hannibal Lecter.)
The inmates Herzog speaks to have done terrible things, but by forcing the viewer to contemplate the ramifications of capital punishment, the director helps give their deaths, if not their lives, meaning.
"You know it doesn’t deter anyone," Herzog says during one interview with an attorney regarding a frequently cited rationale for executions.
So give Investigation Discovery credit for allowing Herzog (who wrote and directed the show, with Erik Nelson producing) to further delve into this topic and dare to question the state putting people to death. While it's unlikely to sway many hearts and minds, it ought to make anybody with even a hint of an open mind think.