With an output rate that would make Woody Allen envious and a string of classics ranging across four decades, the prolific German filmmaker Werner Herzog has built up a devoted international following and critically gilded canon of work that most directors can only aspire to. This includes a recent spate of documentaries that look with awe at the power of nature such as last year’s brilliant Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog is fascinated however with the sometimes cataclysmic clash of nature and man, both fictional and factual, from the likes of Aguirre Wrath Of God and to Grizzly Man. Now Herzog has taken a more definitive step towards the flawed nature of man with his latest work Into The Abyss, a calm yet unflinching examination of the death penalty in America shown through the prism of one particular crime. Many of Herzog’s films can claim to look into an abyss, whether it is literal or metaphorical. Whichever way you view this latest work, it is arguably one of his strongest pieces yet.
In October of 2001 Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two teenagers with troubled backgrounds living in Texas, broke into the house of a fifty year old nurse Sandra Stotler with the intention of stealing her sports car. The crime ended with her death, as well as that of her son and his friend who were ambushed upon their return to the house, led into a wooded area and killed in order to gain possession of the remote control device needed to open the gates of the housing community where they lived. It is a crime noticeable for both its callousness and stupidity. Perry and Burkett where arrested days later after a shootout with police and proceeded to blame each other for the events that took place. Burkett was sentenced to life imprisonment whilst Perry was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out in the summer of 2010. Herzog interviews the two men at their respective prisons (Perry was only eight days from execution during his interview) as well as members of the victims’ families and some of those directly involved with the process of state executions.
From the outset Herzog makes his views clear to the two men and to the viewer; ‘I don’t have to like you, but I don’t think human beings should be executed.’ His view is a humanist one, not political despite its release coming just ahead of the Republican presidential nomination in America. Despite not shunning away from the horror of the crimes committed, judgement is not heaped upon the convicted men. The conversations with them are quietly unnerving; despite having claimed his innocence Perry views his impending death with serene calm whilst Burkett discusses the troubled relationship with his father who is also imprisoned in an adjunct prison ward for a separate crime. Their pasts and backgrounds are referenced but are not used as an excuse. Instead a complex tableau is woven on both sides with family members of the victims revealing how they have been affected by the tragedy and whether or not they feel the execution will heal their pain whilst Burkett’s father holds himself responsible for his son’s wayward lifestyle. Compared to the pacing of Herzog’s fictional work and some of the documentaries, there is a unique stillness to the imagery and the tone that is tremendously sombre and effecting. The camera roves effortlessly and holds on the smallest of details; the scattered, rural landscape that prisoners pass through on their way to the ‘Death House’, the faces of interviewees left hanging at the end of questioning and not given the mercy of a quit cutaway. Rather than adhere to standard rules of documentary filmmaking, Herzog is drawn to what he refers to an ‘ecstatic truth’. The point is made not through a deluge of facts and figures but instead a hidden narrative construct takes us on a journey through the incredible true story and in doing so deepens the emotional response.
There’s plenty of emotion on display here. The tale is tragic on both sides and the interviews are to the point, precise and devastating. Herzog’s trademark accented narration is toned right down and he never appears directly onscreen. There is a stillness in both the one to one and interviews and the establishing shots between them as though the camera itself is respectfully treading away from anything exploitive. Crime scene footage is seen but never lingered over. Out of the remnants of the tragedy, it is the small fleeting moments of humanity that move the deepest. An anecdote about squirrels on a golf course manages to evoke tears from a prison chaplain whilst a former captain of the ‘execution team’ recalls the exact moment when he realized he could no longer carry on with his job. The film is separated into individual chapters covering the crime, the aftermath and the debate surrounding capital punishment. The last chapter is optimistically titled ‘The Urgency Of Life’, and we focus on the acceptance of the various parties involved as they discuss how the execution has and has not restored equilibrium to the situation. Rather than end on a bleak epilogue Herzog pulls off an odd, vaguely amusing and hopeful vignette. One of the final shots is a phone screen capture of an ultrasound scan revealing a child. To say anymore may rob its power, but it’s a beautiful little grace note that only this director could pull off.
I had the good fortune to see Into The Abyss at a preview screening followed by a live stream Q and A session with Herzog himself. It was a fascinating experience to hear the man give insight into his method and viewpoint on his work and how he tackled the more stressful aspects of the production. The film is being released as a companion series, On Death Row screens on Channel 4. Though at time of writing I have only seen half of the episodes, it has all the merits of the main work itself; sombre, thoughtful and astonishingly balanced in approach to its subject. With these projects Herzog is staring death in the face. And death stares straight back.