by Becky Tan
In 1925 Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were sent to prison for life. In various descriptions they were gay or paedophiles or bored or too rich. At any rate, it was Chicago in the ‘20s, a time of prohibition, bootleggers, the Charleston. Perhaps there was a subtle need to test the limits of society, i.e., commit the perfect crime. Loeb and Leopold systematically selected a 14-year-old boy and murdered him. It was not the perfect murder: they left a pair of glasses at the scene by mistake. Locked up once and for all, they became famous; parents warned their children that “Leopold and Loeb would come and get you” if they didn’t watch out. During the hearings, women were asked to leave the courtroom because the topic was “too delicate for their ears.” The League of Women Voters protested and women were readmitted to the proceedings. In 1936 Loeb was murdered in prison. In 1958 Leopold was released and moved to Puerto Rico where he lived a relatively secluded life. The true story has been retold, or at least mentioned, in about 15 films and plays, including Rope by Alfred Hitchcock in 1948 and Compulsion by Richard Fleischer in 1959, right up to the present time when the TV series Mad Men mentioned them. Tom Kalin told the story in Swoon in 1992. The Berlinale brought it back for a special showing.
Justice spared these two young men the death penalty (until a fellow prisoner took the law into his own hand and murdered one of them). Not so lucky are thousands of prisoners on death row in 34 states in the U.S., e.g., 400 each in Florida and Texas and 600 in California although “California isn’t executing at the moment.” In the documentary Death Row director Werner Herzog interviewed five of these prisoners in one-hour segments, which is the length of time that visitation was permitted. He visited the crime sites, talked to family members and witnesses. Each prisoner comes across as a human being, which, as an opponent of the death penalty, might have been Herzog’s goal. Still, they are not innocent. James Barnes is very smart but most certainly a psychopath, a murderer of women, including his wife. But look at the psychopathic family from which he comes. Hank Skinner claims innocence of the murder of his girlfriend and her two sons. Joseph Garcia and George Rivas are two of the Texas Seven who staged a hold-up and killed a policeman. They are famous for having escaped from prison (an event which Herzog said would make a terrific film in its own right). He believes that young Garcia, at least, is innocent, only guilty by association perhaps. Interesting is that although there are seven times more African-Americans than Caucasians in U.S. prisons, in this report all the men were white or Hispanic. There was only one woman, Linda Carty, and she is a British citizen from the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts, facing death because of the alleged kidnapping and murder of a baby.
After this fascinating film Werner Herzog answered questions from the audience which included many film students who were attending the Berlinale Talent Campus. Herzog said that, “no German would support capital punishment; no state should have the capability to kill off anyone for any reason.” He had to plan his questions for the prisoners carefully due to the limitations set by the 50-minute time limit, after setting up cameras in the prison visitation room. He had no trouble establishing a rapport. The prisoners were happy to talk. He said that Texas was very media friendly and there was no censorship from the U.S. He believes that “psychologists are one of the mistakes of the 20th century.”
In another country, Italy, prisoners were happy to act when given the opportunity to perform a play. Theater director, Fabio Cavalli, rehearses and performs plays with inmates in the high security section of Rebibbia Prison in Rome. Two seasoned Italian directors, the Taviani brothers: Vittorio and Paolo, age 81 and 83 respectively, suggested that perhaps the next play could be Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and they should be allowed to film the six-month rehearsals and the final performance on the prison stage. In the beginning of this documentary, Caesar Must Die (Cesare Deve Morire), each man faces the camera and gives his real name and place of birth. Then we see the men disappear into their roles, incorporate them into their being, and at the same time reveal something of their lives as criminals, often members of organized mobs such as the mafia. In a short 76 minutes the film captures us; we believe that they are really actors, even nice guys and we totally forget their crimes much less their victims. They seemed to have been changed by acting out something else, as Cosimo Rega who plays Assius said, “Since I have known art, this cell has turned into a prison.” One man, Salvatore Striano, had been released from prison, but he returned to play his role of Brutus for the film. Imagine: a group of prisoners put on a play and one of them actually becomes an actor in his new-found freedom. I’m not surprised that this film won the Golden Bear as the Berlinale’s best film. There is a dynamic that jumps from the screen in black and white. The powerful music helps it along the way – none of the plink-plunk piano notes that so often underline the action. Responsible for the music are Giuliano Taviani (son of Vittorio), who has composed music for 26 screenplays, and a colleague: talented pianist Carmelo Travia. All of this talent, but I truly believe that the real winner is William Shakespeare, the author of Julius Caesar. The words of Cassius, Brutus, Caesar, or Mark Anthony never hits the audience so powerfully as from the mouths of these prisoners, which shows that Shakespeare is truly a genius, a man whose works are effective everywhere in all situations.
From the grungy prison we go to the beautiful mountains, green meadows, and an isolated chateau in Austria. A woman (Martina Gedeck) travels with another couple to their summer home. The couple takes the car to run errands in the village. They don’t return; perhaps they stayed all night in the village. The next morning the woman, accompanied by the dog Luchs, walks to the village. Halfway there she literally bumps into a wall – a transparent wall (the film’s title is Die Wand or The Wall) which no one could possibly see. We only know that it’s there because the woman has her face screwed up against it. Perplexed, she returns to the house. Gradually, she explores the area and finds that she is imprisoned. Her prison is huge, covering many acres of natural flora and fauna, but still a prison determined by a transparent wall. She accepts her fate, settles in for the long haul (two years by the end of the film), with just Luchs for company and then, in the last minutes of the film, not even a dog; she writes about her experiences in a diary. She is self-sufficient, harvesting the products of the land. The real title could be: Innocently imprisoned in isolation in Paradise. She has done nothing to deserve this, as far as I can see. Julian Roman Pölster directed the film based on the best-seller by Marlen Haushofer which appeared in 1963. The film will certainly raise discussions about society, the meaning of imprisonment, real or imagined.
This last film troubled me. It’s much easier to imagine people in prison for a crime they were thought to have committed – serving out a punishment. That makes them “those people” contrary to me, who, of course, could never end up in jail. Until I saw The Wall and realize that, under some circumstances, no one is safe from a possible lock up.