Renowned filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris visited serial killer Edmund Kemper in prison some time in 1974. In 2008, The Believer Magazine published an interview with both directors who remembered their encounter with Edmund Kemper at the CMF in Vacaville. This is the segment of the interview about Kemper. Please note that there are several inaccuracies about the Kemper case in this interview.
Errol Morris (EM): When Werner and I first met each other, we took a trip to visit this serial killer [Edmund Emil Kemper III] in prison in Northern California.
Werner Herzog (WH): Vacaville, yeah.
EM: There were three of us. And Kemper’s lawyer. To circumvent a lot of red tape, the lawyer identified us as psychiatrists. Werner’s producer, Walter Saxer, came along with us. So there was Dr. Saxer, Dr. Morris, and Dr. Herzog allowed in because—
WH: We were scared shitless because Kemper was a very huge man, fairly young, I think still twenty-six by then. But something like six foot five or six foot four.
EM: I think bigger.
WH: Maybe bigger, yes.
EM: Very large.
WH: Capital punishment was suspended at the time he was condemned. And he chose seven or eight consecutive life terms, but he wanted to die in the gas chamber. And the only way to get to the gas chamber when it was reinstated at that time was to kill someone inside the prison. So the attorney was really scared. And he was in a way relieved that he had some solid men as his guards or his company. And reading all the transcripts of Kemper, I had the feeling that what was interesting was that the man, in my opinion—and I’m speaking of Edmund Emil Kemper—he made a lot of sense. In a way he makes a lot of sense, why he killed and how it all originated.
And at the end, after having killed seven or eight or so coeds, hitchhikers, he killed his mother and put the severed head on the mantel and threw darts at it. And then there happened to be some leftover turkey in the fridge from Thanksgiving. And he called the lady next door, the neighbor, and asked—am I correct? Yeah, asked her if she would like to pick up the turkey leftovers, and she walks in and then he killed her as well, and put her in a closet. And then he fled in his mother’s car and crisscrossed the West until he ran out of money and ran out of gas. And in Pueblo, Colorado, he kept calling the police. [To Morris] You know better what happened there. I think they thought he was kind of gaga and didn’t believe him.
EM: He desperately tried to turn himself in to the police by making repeated phone calls from this phone booth. Now he would have had a cell phone. So I guess it’s easier now for serial killers to turn themselves in. And the police kept hanging up on him. They just—
WH: And he was down to his last quarter to make his last call, and then two detectives actually picked him up at this phone booth. I remember their names because they sound very German: Schmidt and Grubb. And Schmidt and Grubb took him to the police station, and what was smart of them was, they just randomly turned on a tape recorder and Kemper spoke for six hours, pretty much nonstop.
And this transcript is really wonderful—
EM: Quite amazing, yes.
WH: Very, very amazing. And Kemper was, in a way, a very sensitive person. When you looked at his hands, like the hands of a violin player, in a way. I remember he looked like an elephant with a Mozart soul.
EM: Yeah. That’s the way Werner described him at the time. An elephant with the soul of Mozart. I’m not sure that most of the prison authorities would have described him in the same way, but at the time I found Werner’s description very interesting. I thought for a long time about it. It made it situational, as if God in his infinite perversity had somehow mismatched Kemper’s various attributes in order to produce some kind of nightmare, some kind of tragedy. I remember thinking, Yeah, if Othello had been in Hamlet’s place, and vice versa, there would be no tragedy.
It’s so mixed up in my mind—Werner in these early years, graduate school, and what I myself was thinking. I was a very disaffected graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s where I first met Werner. It was just shortly after he finished Aguirre and his films were being shown in the United States for the first time. It was an amazing experience to see Werner’s work. There was really nothing quite like it in America at that time, and probably not since that time.
And I became really fascinated by Werner’s films. I’m thinking about it even now, now that we’re talking about it, our attempts to understand what people are thinking. What is going on in another person’s mind? How do they see the world? Kemper was a perfect example. I would drive every day from Berkeley to Santa Cruz and I would attend the Kemper trial. I became a regular fixture. And I would say the trial transformed my thinking about many, many, many things.
In those days, murder trials were chopped into two pieces. There would be a guilt and innocence phase and a penalty phase.
And there was this wacko psychiatrist, Dr. Joel Fort, who took the stand and said that Kemper was not even neurotic. Kemper had killed a dozen people. He had killed his grandparents. He had been put away in a juvenile facility, released under California law when he reached eighteen, and then went on to kill eight more people. And Kemper had described how these murders occurred. He would pick up women hitchhiking. He would be killing a woman with a knife and talking to her, saying, “I hope this isn’t really unpleasant. I hope you’re not uncomfortable. I hope this is not too frightening.”
So, the psychiatrist—I’ll make this as short as possible—the psychiatrist took the stand and said, “You know, this man is not even neurotic. Not only is he not psychotic, he’s not even neurotic, because he can’t empathize with the victim. He has a sociopathy or a psychopathy. He can be completely dispassionate while he is killing another person.” And I started to wonder—I still wonder about this stuff—I started to wonder how in god’s name does the psychiatrist know what Ed is thinking? Maybe Ed has this fantasy of being in control. Maybe in this writing after the fact he imagined himself as being dispassionate. Perhaps he was completely out of control, deeply psychotic. This kind of discrepancy between the accounts that we provide about ourselves and the world.
And I think it’s very much—in a different way—but it’s very much in your films as well, and something that deeply inspired me.
The Believer Magazine March 1st, 2008 | Issue Fifty-Two
Credit to researcher Tata Gogua for finding this, and to Erin Banks for sharing it on the Facebook page The Edmund Kemper Discussion Group.