“How are you going to live your dash?” Fred Allen, a former captain of the Texas Death House where death row inmates are executed, is referring to the mark on your tombstone between the dates of your birth and death. Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is an absorbing tale of our limited time on this Earth, and the choices that we make or are made for us in life.
Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of a triple homicide in 2001, apparently because they wanted a car. Herzog notes that, “What was intriguing was the senselessness of the crimes.” Perry was placed on death row while Burkett was imprisoned for life. The documentary interviews the two convicts, relatives of the victims, and workers on death row both before and after Perry’s execution. In grim detail we discover how the killings were committed through archive police footage of the scene of the crime. The home of murdered Sandra Stotler is covered with bloodstains, but perhaps more unnerving is that the TV and lights of the home are still on. The camera lingers on a close-up of a baking tray full of unbaked cookie dough. In an instant a life was removed, yet the former presence of the person reverberates on screen and leaves a deep impression.
As is typical of Herzog he manages to scratch under the surface of those he meets to discover their hopes, beliefs, opinions and contradictions, as well as the ultimate absurdity of life. In Texas, as indeed much of America and the world, people believe that God is responsible for their fate. Perry states he is at peace because he believes that his execution will send him to Heaven. Meanwhile Jason’s wife Melyssa, who met him whilst he was in prison, knew that he was the one because on the day she first saw him there was a full rainbow in the sky.
To these people God created us and will lead us to the paradise in death; our lives are merely a measurement of time. Perry spent over a third of his life on death row, and during the interview talks of how strange it is to be counting down the days to his execution. In his own stark words he states, “I can’t believe the state of Texas wants to murder me in eight days.” Both Jason, and his convict father Michael who pleaded for him to be spared at his trial, will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Michael Burkett refers to his son’s first chance of parole being 1941, a humourous mistake but one that casts light on the fact that he has not been in the outside world in the 21st Century.
This confusion and distortion of time is enacted through the film’s narrative as well. Only after Sandra Stotler’s daughter mentions attending Perry’s execution do we realise that her interview has been conducted after the event. Off-camera the figure who Herzog had been interviewing is there no more. The films returns to a shot of the death chamber from the start of the film, a gurney in the middle with the straps pristinely laid out. Herzog draws parallels with the Stotler home by showing us a room that is marked by absence. The meandering camera’s lack of energy equates with the life that has been suddenly torn from this world.
Herzog makes it clear from the beginning that he is against the death penalty, and his fascination with the fragility of life is what draws us to his argument. The relatives of the victims reflect on the time they have lost with their loved ones. Fred Allen quit his job after realising he was wasting his life in something he didn’t believe in. In the film’s epilogue, Jason’s wife reveals she is pregnant with his child. Whilst she is coy about the exact method of conception, it could be deduced that his semen was smuggled out in order for her to be artificially inseminated. And so in all this madness a miracle does happen and life is created from the precipice of death. Melyssa shows a picture of the unborn child on her phone, and when that child is born their dash will begin. The absurdity that Herzog presents to us is that life can be taken away both through happenstance or through ritualised murder, and we all need to find a way to live our dash before that point.
By Alfred Joyner