You will need a long shower, Linda Stasi of the New York Post noted, after watching On Death Row, the four-part documentary television series by Werner Herzog, the idiosyncratic, Oscar-nominated German auteur best known for his films Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. “This one gets categorized as both yuck and yikes TV,” Stasi wrote.
The series, which premiered last Friday on the Investigation Discovery channel, is a spin-off of Into the Abyss, a feature-length documentary by Herzog that came out last year and treads the same ground. On Death Row offers an intimate look at prisoners facing the death penalty in Texas and Florida. Among them is George Rivas, leader of the Texas Seven, who was executed on February 29. (Rivas’s episode airs March 23.)
“Mr. Herzog’s stately technique and Teutonic diction, applied to what was essentially a straightforward true-crime tale, gave Into the Abyss an appearance of profundity it didn’t entirely deserve,” Mike Hale of the New York Times wrote. “This isn’t really an issue in the more modest environs of On Death Row, and a surprising element of the series—making it both compelling and perversely enjoyable—is that Mr. Herzog loosens up, getting more argumentative in the interviews and presenting moments of mordant humor. […] Mr. Herzog doesn’t linger on the larger questions, being more interested in the details of bad choices, last meals and family visits.”
There probably aren’t many who are better suited to conduct these interviews than Herzog. Over the course of roughly two dozen documentary films (and scores of feature films) that mine fringe people and ideas, he has proven himself a master of psychic infiltration. “The amount of personal detail, access, intimacy and emotion as well as the relationship that [Herzog] establishes whether he’s in for 15 minutes or 55 minutes is incredible,” Henry Schleiff, president of Investigation Discovery, told the Hollywood Reporter. “I mean, it’s kind of a parlor trick.”
Herzog, who Jeanne Jakle of the San Antonio Express-News reported started smoking again during production, makes it clear at the beginning of each episode that he is against the death penalty. But Herzog is still empathetic towards Texas, the state that has become synonymous with executions.
“There’s this very common thing of Texas bashing, and I’m not in this business,” Jakle quoted Herzog as saying. “There has been something really special about Texas, the intensity of the people. In Texas, a jury can find you guilty of capital murder and, in the punishing phase, can let you walk free, but there have to be massive mitigating circumstances … that’s really astonishing. No other state in the United States, I think, has this possibility.”