Pondering America’s insistence on capital punishment as the debate rages in theaters

I find myself thinking about Werner Herzog’s death row documentary “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life” a lot lately. You’ll recall it was my favorite film out of this year’s Telluride Film Festival, and striking, it was, for the uncharacteristic Herzog it brought with it. Here was a film ultimately about the beauty of life, and for a man who has made a career of dark depictions that have at times approached near-nihilism, it was a bit unexpected for that.

“Whatever your position on capital punishment, the film is necessary, plain and simple,” I wrote from the fest. “[The film is] crucial viewing for anyone who thinks he or she has an opinion on the matter. It simply isn”t right to have that opinion safely, from a distance. The stakes are too high.”

I was reminded of the film once again when I stumbled across Christopher Hitchens’s recent dissection of America’s insistence on clinging to the death penalty over at Lapham’s Quarterly. It’s a subject the author and journalist has touched upon frequently in his time, particularly around the hanging of Saddam Hussein in December of 2006.

“To be in the company of Iran and China and Sudan as a leader among states conducting execution-and to have pioneered the medicalized or euthanized form of it that is now added to the panoply of gassing, hanging, shooting, and electrocution and known as ‘lethal injection’-is to have invited the question why,” he writes, before getting around to his thesis, and a very Chris Hitchens thesis at that: “The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries.”

The capital punishment debate is particularly punctuated this year. Last month, Damien Echols entered an Alford plea along with the rest of the West Memphis Three (convicted on dubious evidence for the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas), finally taking him off of death row. Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” part of a 15-year on-going documentary analysis of the case, played the Toronto Film Festival last week.

Last night, Troy Davis was finally executed in Georgia after being found guilty of the August 19, 1991 murder of a police officer in Savannah. He maintained his innocence until the end and drew support from the public, celebrities and human rights groups.

Davis’s ability to appeal his conviction after key witnesses changed or recanted testimony that put him on death row was limited in part due to Bill Clinton’s post-Oklahoma City bombing Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and particular piece of legislation is just one of number of things Hitchens takes aim at in his piece.

Read the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly. “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” moves on to the New York Film Festival next month, while “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life” is set for release by Sundance Selects on November 11 and could potentially figure into this year’s Best Documentary Feature race.

Below is Herzog — who also has a death row series coming to the Investigation Discovery channel — giving his ultimate reasoning for not believing in capital punishment. It’s is his “I don’t have an argument, I have a story” take, which he also conveyed to me when we spoke in Telluride. He’ll be the keynote speaker at LA’s Film Independent Forum next month.