Doctor Johnson once said: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”. It’s one claim about the condemned’s relationship with mortality that German director Werner Herzog investigates as part of his three films about Death Row, the first of which goes out on Channel 4 tonight (10pm).
Based around a series of on-camera interviews with a condemned man called Hank Skinner, Herzog’s documentary showcases some of the most insightful and moving testimony about death and imprisonment I’ve ever heard.
Skinner, who was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend and her two mentally disabled children in Texas 17 years ago, is a disarmingly charming interviewee with Rodney Dangerfield looks and an accent straight out of King of the Hill.
He’s also living proof that the prospect of execution does indeed concentrate the mind, reeling off references to Gilgamesh, the Knights Templar and holy scripture, explaining that there’s little to do in jail but read.
As Herzog probes Skinner we’re told that time has no meaning in prison, that sanity is very hard to hold on to and that the condemned man’s only release is in dreams – Skinner confessing to spending his nights fantasising about prosaic things like shopping for groceries or doing laundry.
In fact, some of Skinner’s descriptions of life in prison and thoughts about his inescapable fate brought tears to my eyes, especially his recollection of the beatific relief he experienced when he was granted a “stay” of execution at the 11th hour some years back.
But Herzog is careful not to provoke undue sympathy in the viewer, and spends a great deal of the film discussing Skinner’s crimes with a journalist who covered the case closely. We are reminded time and again that in spite of his seemingly warm persona, Skinner is a convicted murderer.
However, he alleges throughout the programme that he isn’t guilty, and as the film plays out finds himself at the centre of a landmark case in US legal history, prolonging his life or, as he puts it, “earning more time in this hellhole.”
“I’ve been locked in a concrete box for 17 years,” says Skinner, reminding us that he’s already served more than a UK life sentence. And while one would think he’d welcome death, his talk of a future, of his hopes and dreams, poignantly illustrates the human drive to stay alive at all costs.
While Death Row is far from easy viewing, it’s a fascinating, compelling and poetically made film that forces viewers to confront some very uncomfortable issues head-on, and anyone who’s ever contemplated their own mortality would be well advised to tune in.