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Podcast #128: Werner Herzog on Death, Executioners, and Advice for Filmmakers

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Werner Herzog has reached cult status as a filmmaker, earning critical praise and ardent fans for films like Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten DreamsA frequent and favorite guest, he joined LIVE from the NYPL to discuss his documentary film Into the Abyss in 2012. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Werner Herzog discussing death row rhetoric, the afterlives of executioners, and advice for young filmmakers.

Werner Herzog LIVE from the NYPL
Paul Holdengräber and Werner Herzog LIVE from the NYPL


Herzog critiqued the dehumanizing diction of supporters of capital punishment who refer to Death Row inmates as monsters. He suggested that monstrous actions do not make the monster:

"All the time you hear from people who are advocates of capital punishment. 'They are monsters, why don’t they even get a trial, just shoot them, just hang them. Hang them high.' That’s what you hear, and I say, no, I disagree, they are not monsters. The crimes are monstrous, but the perpetrators are always human beings, and I treat them with respect, as a human being, they are never monsters, they are human, and it’s within the bandwidth of human beings to do the most atrocious things and doing the most bizarre and senseless murders, it’s part of our humanity. And a cow in the field doesn’t have it in it because they only have instincts and a cow does not murder, but human beings because they are human are capable of murder and are capable of the vilest, most monstrous plans, but they are not monsters themselves."

One figure with whom Herzog spoke while making the film was Fred Allen, a former captain of a tie-down team, that is, the team responsible for executing prisoners on Death Row. It is Allen who is allowed the final word in Into the Abyss:

"He’s a Texan man who was the former captain of the tie-down team. After one hundred twenty-five executions, he has to stop. All of a sudden he starts shaking. We’ll show a little bit later on. And he has the last word in Into the Abyss, it’s so beautiful, he speaks now that I have settled my life, and everything is good now, and he is not an executioner anymore, and I look, I sit back, and I look at the trees and at the birds, and he says, 'I look what the birds are doing and what the ducks are doing and the hummingbirds.' Pause. 'Why are there so many of them?' Cut, end of film.  I like to have a good end in a film of mine, but this is a real good one, and I owe it to Fred Allen, the former captain of the tie-down team. So there’s very remarkable characters out there."

Herzog also discussed his Rogue Film School, sharing his advice for young filmmakers:

"Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.  If you do not read you will never understand the world and you will never be a real filmmaker. And read books. My wife Lena in a pause after intensive discussion about reading and about texts, she was at the ladies’ room and from stall to stall two young ladies who were at the Rogue Film School had a discourse, a ladies’ room discourse, and one of them said, 'You know, Herzog I think is right, I should start to read, like,' pause pause pause 'books.' Because yes, people do read, people do read, but they read Twitter or online or Facebook and fourteen percent of Americans, and it’s not in America like this number is staggering, are functional illiterates, which means they can read but they do not understand the meaning of a text, or they cannot follow slightly complicated instructions or so. They are functionally they are somehow second-rate illiterates, and this is very alarming because this number is slightly growing. And that’s very, very, very alarming."

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