Andrew O’Hehir of Salon recently picked up the phone for a conversation about life and death with German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The two discussed Herzog’s newest film,
a nonjudgmental meditation on what it means to be human while awaiting the gallows in the shadow of horrific crimes.
We learn a great deal about Jason Burkett’s family and background in the film, but very little about Michael Perry, beyond your interview with him.
Well, the reason was that he was executed eight days after my conversation with him. I had no chance to speak with him again. Unfortunately his father had just died, and his mother refused to appear on camera. Months after the execution I cautiously asked again, and she categorically declined. I did not want to bother her any further. You have to leave them in peace; you have to know when to push and when not to. So we did not have anyone from the family who could tell us about him.
He’s an enigma, which may serve the film in some ways.
Yes, but you also see a real human being. He seems completely oblivious to his situation. He tells me about a canoe excursion he took to the Everglades when he was 13. At the end he thanked me. He said, “Man, I didn’t sense that I was in a cage and I was gonna die in eight days. I was free like a child for an hour.” When he tells me about seeing alligators and monkeys in the Everglades, it’s as if he were not locked away in a tiny cage.
I must say, however, that of all the men and one woman I have seen on death row, my instincts tell me he was the most dangerous of all of them.
That’s fascinating. Well, it’s very difficult to connect the person we see you speaking to — who seems like a kid, really — to the horrible crimes he apparently committed. Brutally murdering an old woman to steal her car. It’s incomprehensible.
Yeah. And of course I allow him, and allow everyone, to be a human being. It’s so easy to say, and I hear it all the time, “They are monsters. Just get rid of them.” No, the crimes are monstrous but the perpetrators are human. And they never lose the humanness that is in them.
A still from Herzog’s “Into the Abyss,” released in U.S. theaters on Friday.