Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and a Grave

by Scott Adlerberg

I know I'm not the first person to say this, but is there any true crime weird and disturbing like Wisconsin crime weird and disturbing?  The most recent example is none other than the saga recounted in the Netflix series, Making of a Murderer.  

Going back in time, there's the plague of depression and madness that gripped the economically depressed town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th century, a story that the book and film Wisconsin Death Trip chronicles memorably.

More recently, there was Jeffrey Dahmer, and before him, of course, there was the most famous Wisconsin grotesque of all, Ed Gein.  I may be wrong here, but I think Gein, in one way or another, has served as inspiration for more fictional killers - in books, in film, on TV - than any other murderer.

Which brings me to a good story.  It's the story of a true crime film project that was started but never got finished, and to this day, I think if I had to pick one crime documentary I wish had got completed, I'd pick this one.

I'm talking, of course, about the Errol Morris - Werner Herzog Ed Gein project.

The story, from what I know of it, goes like this:

Errol Morris attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and graduated from there in 1969.  He'd already been interviewing mass murderers - Ed Kemper, Herb Mullen and John Linley Frazier, all in Northern California - when in 1975 he went to Plainfield, Wisconsin to interview people in the town where Ed Gein had lived and killed.   He then started doing interviews with Gein. At this point, Gein was locked up in the Mendota State Hospital.  Morris was an unknown, an aspiring filmmaker you could say, but while out in California working toward a philosophy Ph.D that never came to pass, he had met film producer Tom Luddy, who introduced him to Werner Herzog.  Morris and Herzog, two eccentrics, hit it off, and according to all accounts, though Herzog was already considered one of the world's great directors and Morris had never shot so much as a foot of film, Herzog treated Morris as an equal, someone as obsessed as he was with losers, fanatics, weirdos, killers, and so forth.  In the summer of 1975, when Morris was absorbed in his Wisconsin investigations, Herzog and Morris discussed whether Ed Gein's mother's body was actually in the coffin where she was supposed to be interred.  Gein had dug up many bodies in Plainfield Cemetery before he was caught, and the graves he violated formed a circle around his mother's grave.  Psychological transference by Gein, who was unable to dig up the one grave in the cemetery that truly mattered to him? Or had he also dug up his mother's body?  Morris and Herzog discussed the matter, and they set a night and time to meet in the cemetery and dig up Gein's mother's grave to find out once and for all whether it contained her body.  As it turned out, on the scheduled moonlit night, Herzog arrived, shovel in hand, ready to dig, but Morris didn't come.  Morris had reconsidered the idea and backed out.  Herzog did not open the grave, and though Morris returned to Plainfield and did hundreds of hours more interviews with residents there, including interviews with town multiple murderers who came after Gein, perhaps influenced by him, he never did complete the project.  He'd been planning to call it Digging up the Past.

Oh, well.  What would have happened if Morris had shown up that night?  I suppose it doesn't matter anymore.  Herzog encouraged and helped Morris in his formative filmmaking years, and Morris has gone on to become one of the best documentarians around.  Herzog, well, is Herzog.  One film neither made does nothing to tarnish their careers or reputations, but I sure do wish Errol had shown up that night, they'd dug up Ed Gein's mother's grave, seen what was there or not there, and made a movie about it.

1 comment:

Al Tucher said...

That would have opened up another true crime possibility--the two directors turned grave robbers.