By this point, German director Werner Herzog is a pro at jumping back and forth between fact and fiction. In the 1970s and 80s, he made some truly great and mysterious movies — Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo. But in the past half-decade or so, he has become as known for his documentaries (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) as for his feature films (Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). His latest doc, Into the Abyss, investigates a Texas triple homicide that led to a death row sentence for one of the perpetrators. Herzog interviewed him, his accomplice, and all the family members involved for a film that is moving, shocking and darkly humorous. Herzog spoke to TIME in September following the opening night premiere of Into the Abyss at the Toronto Film Festival.
What’s the first thing you say when you sit down to talk to death-row inmates?
I tell them, ‘Your crime is abominable and monstrous, but I will still treat you as a human being.’ I see a human being in front of me. I wear my suit, which I hardly ever wear in my life, out of respect.
What did you discover in Texas?
You shouldn’t expect from me any Texas bashing. I’m not in that business. In my film you see a man like Fred Allen, the former tiedown captain whose job it was to strap you down for the lethal injection. He did 125 executions, believing in the value of capital punishment. But one day, he has a breakdown, starts shaking violently and cannot stop crying. He changes his mind, changes his life and quits his job at the cost of losing his pension. There’s a man who, when I look at him, he’s the best America can offer. And he’s a Texan. Sometimes America has people who are considered national treasures, like a great old blues musician. This man should be a national treasure.
Because he has such a phenomenal integrity and he has an experience that sets him apart from anyone, and he’s as trustworthy as anyone on this planet. But you find this kind of solid good man easier in mid-America, in the heartland, than in Hollywood or in Boston or New York. There is this snobbish attitude where the heartland is referred to as the flyover states. I really really dislike this attitude. What a snobbery. The people who say that do not understand what America is about. When it comes to capital punishment, I do disagree, I respectfully disagree with many of them. But I still like these people a lot.
(MORE: Read Richard Corliss’ review of Herzog’s Into the Abyss)
Even though you’re not a citizen, it seems like you know about — or at least think about — America more than many Americans.
I could not become an American citizen. I would not like to become a citizen of a country that has capital punishment. It’s a question of principle. I wish it would change. In Europe it changed because there was this intense experience of Nazi Germany.
You’ve talked about how many people in your generation, your peers, could never support capital punishment because of the Nazis.
We have seen the barbarism of a state-ordered industrialized program. It’s not an argument. It’s only a historical experience that we still sense within us. America has not had this experience.
Where were you on the day that the subject of your film was executed? Did you take note?
I don’t remember where I was but of course I knew that there would not be a last-minute reprieve or clemency. I knew he was going to die and I knew exactly to the minute when he was dying. But I don’t remember where I was. And it’s a terrible thing to be reminded by looking at your wristwatch. It’s six o’clock. Now they open the door, it takes 20 seconds to get him on the gurney and it takes 15 seconds to tie him down and then he has 30 seconds for a last statement and then the lethal injection starts to flow. And then you can tell within the next 2-3 minutes, he will be dead. You can watch your wristwatch and know all that.
(VIDEO: Q&A with Werner Herzog from 2009)
Did you do that, look at your watch?
In a way, I didn’t want to look at it, but somehow I felt like taking notice. It’s six o clock and this is it. Awful, awful, awful.
It seems like in addition to being a film director and a documentarian, you’ve also become an amazing interviewer.
I’m not an interviewer. I have conversations. And I know the heart of men. And I know it because I have had very fundamental experiences like traveling on foot. The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot. I have to say it as a dictum now. I’ve walked from Munich to Paris, but I’ve also done some other much longer traveling on foot. I’m not a backpacker. I’m not a hiker. I travel without barely any luggage. Just a second set of underwear and binoculars and a map and a toothbrush. That’s about it. And you’re unprotected and you have to talk to people and ask them to fill your canteen with water because there’s no creek for dozens of miles around. And you have to approach people and ask them for certain favors.
You really learn what men are all about. I wasn’t able to talk to any of the people in my film for more than 60 minutes. You have to immediately dig deep into the recesses of their soul. There are no techniques. Nothing you could ever learn in film school. You have to have it in you.
Do you think, especially with American subjects, that your accent helps people open up to you?
I don’t think they notice my accent very often. But they can tell from miles away if someone’s a phony. Those on death row, they can tell from five miles.
(MORE: See Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God on the All-TIME 100 Movies list)