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Werner Herzog’s Death Row Documentary Gets New Title As Details Emerge

Written by on June 20, 2011 

When you know that Werner Herzog is one to confound expectations, him going from the Chauvet Caves of southern France to the halls of death row in a Texas prison, in a weird way, makes sense. We told you about his documentary on death row inmates back in February, when it was simply known as Death Row. The description of the doc let us know that it would follow “five death row subjects, four men and a woman”; four are in Texas, while one is in Florida.

Variety fills us in a little more on the whole thing, saying that it’s been given a new name: Gazing into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life. (Just imagine Herzog saying that, and the title feels right.) They also tell us that the documentary’s subjects will be “two men convicted of triple murder, another who killed his girlfriend and her two mentally retarded sons, and a woman — one of only 10 on Texas’ death row — charged with abducting a newborn baby and killing the child’s mother.” You can tell almost immediately that this won’t be an easy watch, but it’s about death row; if it was “an easy watch,” it would be misrepresenting its subject matter.

It’s said to contain Herzog in a “dialogue with the prisoners, discussing life and death,” while also taking a look at “their stories and their crimes.” The filmmaker described it as being “a gaze into the abyss of the human soul,” which ties into its title. We also know that this will be done for television, airing on the network Investigation Discovery on a currently unannounced date. Surprisingly, his accent – which is practically a trademark by now – may not be on display as much as one would expect, with him saying that this would mostly focus on interviews, leaving voice-over and music less room to be used than normal.

Not that a lack of this would dissuade most people from checking it out. Herzog is, after all, one of the most acclaimed living filmmakers, so his work gets a lot of attention from cinephiles, with him even breaking out into the mainstream a little bit over the past year. There will be attention surrounding this, and the fact that it’s centered on a controversial topic like death row means that it could spark a lot of discussion. What I wonder about the most, when it comes to this, is if he’ll continue to employ what he refers to as “ecstatic truth.” This is his method of adding some fictional elements to his documentaries, in an attempt to make them more cinematic. I, personally, don’t mind him doing that, as it’s ultimately in service of a more interesting (but still truthful) approach to real-life subjects than your standard documentary. Maybe the harsher details of this story will make him cut back on that a little, and this will only tell the inmates’ stories, but we’ll have to wait before we know more about his approach here.

Do you like Herzog’s documentary work, and is death row something that you want to see him tackle?

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