Jonathan Mirsky: China’s Death-Row Reality Show

Until it was taken off the air last December, one of the most popular television programs in China’s Henan province, which has a population of 100 million, was “Interviews Before Execution.” The presenter was Ding Yu, a pretty young woman, always carefully dressed with colorful scarves and blouses; in each episode, she would interview on camera a condemned murderer who was about to face a firing squad or a lethal injection.

Photo: Ding Yu interviewing a prisoner

Jonathan Mirsky: China’s Death-Row Reality Show

Until it was taken off the air last December, one of the most popular television programs in China’s Henan province, which has a population of 100 million, was “Interviews Before Execution.” The presenter was Ding Yu, a pretty young woman, always carefully dressed with colorful scarves and blouses; in each episode, she would interview on camera a condemned murderer who was about to face a firing squad or a lethal injection.

Photo: Ding Yu interviewing a prisoner

Werner Herzogʼs latest film uses the camera as a geiger counter to locate some of the more toxic elements of the American cultural psyche as seen through the questing mind of a pseudo-squeamish European. Here the setting is small town Texas’s well-traveled road to death row. Once again, in his soft, Teutonic off-camera voice, Herzog insinuatingly and gently coaxes his interviewees while his camera registers a more ambiguous, startled fixation on people and places, plus a willingness to stare bluntly. Director and camera are like good cop, bad cop.