The German auteur Werner Herzog has devoted a good portion his most recent work to the American criminal justice system.
In 2009 Herzog directed Nicolas Cage in a remake of Bad Lieutenant. Herzog famously moved the setting from New York to post Katrina New Orleans “after the collapse of civil order” (Herzog interview, jump to 13:50). Bad Lieutenant confronts police brutality and corruption with typical bombast and a twisted sense humor. He says “Let’s be as vile and debased as it gets right away… just… and never let the audience down from there.” Also there’s an iguana.
I suppose a serious man would argue he’s being flippant about a system that destroys thousands of lives for the sake of political patronage and prison dollars (Read the amazing eight part series “Louisiana Incarcerated” in the embattled Times Picayune). I don’t think that’s giving him enough credit. Herzog keeps exploring and critiquing the criminal justice system. Besides Bad Lieutenant he’s recently released “Into the Abyss” and “On Death Row” which take a unique look at the death penalty.
If anything, Herzog is just following themes isolation and violence where they take him. Before focusing on the US South, Herzog was interested in how people deal with solitary confinement and isolation in Grizzly Man, Little Deiter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn.
This stuff is always kind of a pain in the ass to watch because it’s unconventional. He never plays the right music and doesn’t bother much with straightforward storytelling. The fact that he made the somewhat conventional On Death Row to complement Into the Abyss underscore his willingness to challenge and evolve the documentary.
I’d argue that he’s taking us closer to the subject, and making audiences feel or know their subjects in a way that’s better and more meaningful than traditional fact based documentary. But what do I know? Maybe he’s just making the same old stories more fun for a chattering class…