Unlikely as it might have seemed 25 years ago, when his documentary jones took off but his “career” was idling in neutral, Werner Herzog has become the indispensable Virgil of 21st-century film space, the best and most indefatigable guide through wonders and horrors that should astound us and rarely otherwise do. In a tangible sense, we are all cast members in Herzog’s reality show, with our every narcissistic urge and act of unfathomable strangeness on display.
Herzog’s “reality” is unlike anyone else’s, especially considered in toto (starting with 1962’s Herakles, made when Herzog was 19), and in his latest, Death Row Portraits, he succeeds in making the TV-doc dynamic feel fresh, meaningful, and appalling. A continuation and expansion of last year’s Into the Abyss, Portraits is Herzog’s idea of a miniseries we should all be forced to watch: four hour-long episodes analyzing and scab picking four capital-punishment cases, three in Texas and one in Florida. Throughout, Herzog is offscreen and interrogating the prisoners in his patented “it’s my movie, fuck off” style, and often his calmly menacing presence feels more formidable than the murderers in front of his camera. He insists he disagrees with capital punishment on principle but clearly relishes asking unpleasant questions and making judgments. (One con rationalizes “I was still inside tying up hostages” when the killings went down, to which Herzog replies, “Which is bad enough, let’s face it.”)
The four cases are four different brands of down-home nightmare, including one centered on devious psychopath James “The Burning Bed” Barnes and another involving a thrilling Texas prison break that could easily be its own movie. The simple approach is proto–Claude Lanzmann by way of Errol Morris: cinema as people telling stories, revealing far more than they mean to. (Crime photos are useful, too.) But Herzog’s inquisitiveness is its own brand, now as always, and though America has been just one detour among many for him, it’s a terrain that comes off more apocalyptically bleak in his gimlet eyes here than in any film since the first Paradise Lost doc. The four episodes are playing at the IFC Center for only two nights and will be followed both evenings by Herzog live, answering questions and pondering the mysteries.