I recently saw Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss, and I absolutely loved it. Before the screening, Herzog prefaced by saying that he didn’t want to make fun of the people of Texas nor propagandize the anti-death penalty movement. While I thought these comments were bit odd, after watching the film I felt they were precise. He doesn’t denigrate Texas and you can see from the film an affection he has for this community; a shear curiosity of the case and the larger topic of the criminal justice system in the United States. He made a point of saying that he doesn’t believe that he, as a foreigner, has any right to come into this country and tell us how deal with criminal justice. However he did acknowledge that as a German, he is somewhat sensitive to the issue of capital punishment.
I think there are two perspectives that could be gleaned from this film and I’m interested in hearing people discuss them. One is that the film is fair and balanced in tackling the complex topic of the death penalty and the other is that it’s a one side fluff piece that clearly is there to promote Herzog’s anti-capital punishment agenda.
I am strongly opposed to the death penalty and I found the film to be fairly neutral. Yes, Herzog says that he is against capital punishment but the film doesn’t seem to be strongly advocating one position over another. But do I think this way because I agree with Herzog on this issue? A friend of mine, who supports the death penalty, thought it was a terribly simplistic movie with very little depth. And so I wonder if the only way you can appreciate this film is if you are against the death penalty. I would be very interested to hear people who loved the film but support capital punishment.
What I loved about Into the Abyss is that it’s not a conventional documentary where the case is presented and both sides are argued. Herzog has little interest in the specifics of the case and the guilt or innocence of the defendants. Indeed, he doesn’t give these two guys equal time and with Perry, doesn’t even go into his childhood and upbringing. Why is this? Why is Herzog not focused on retrying the case, which is what most documentaries on this kind of subject do? My feeling is that Herzog is not interested in the case, at least not in the specifics of whether these guys are guilty or innocent. Instead, the film is about the issue of crime, punishment, and communities trapped in hopelessness. By putting this specific case under the microscope, Herzog is questioning a whether a society like this can survive. This film is dealing with many of the same themes that The Interrupters dealt with, another great documentary from earlier this year. All of the people in this film, including the family of the victims, seem to come from a world of violence and destructive behavior. The question then becomes, how do we deal with this as a society? How do we address this level of self-destruction? Or do we not address it at all? Do we simply execute people and keep the rotating doors going.?
Interesting questions. I’m almost through Into the Abyss (watching it on Netflix) and I’ll give my two cents’ worth when I’ve finished the film.
I heard somewhere (can’t remember where) that Herzog shot over 8 hours of footage for Into the Abyss and had to cut most of it in the editing room. I wonder if that might have played a part in the Perry angle.
I’ve always loved how he can structure his films around the culture he is exploring. Grizzly Man is obviously about Teadwell, but you get insights into the lifestyles of those who live near the mountains or make it their livelihood. Here, he looks at the land in which this crime is committed. How many times do they use God as their source of comfort or life’s blood.
An interesting case as well that shows how outside influences weigh into a verdict. 2 suspects, 1 of them has a father who is doing time. His life story actually help’s his son’s defense. And it’s all for a stupid car, which has been sitting unclaimed on police grounds and has a tree growing through it.
Herzog did a miniseries on television called Death Row. I know nothing about it, but wonder if it has to do with some of the cut footage.
Yes, I think Herzog had planned to cover 5 cases but eventually settled on Perry and Burkett (probably due in part to those time constraints); the other cases became the subject of Death Row. Is that miniseries as good as Into the Abyss?
I’ve been thinking about Into the Abyss a lot lately.
Santino, I think you’re 100% right when you say that this documentary is more interested in the larger societal issue than with the specific Perry/Burkett case. The fact that we didn’t get to hear Perry’s backstory really backs that up. I think it’s also very telling that one of the first things Perry says in the documentary is that he’s a Christian. Granted, I imagine there are quite a few death-row prisoners who’ve converted to Christianity over the years, but I was quite intrigued that this was the way Perry frames his case. It’s also telling that Burkett readily admits his own guilt but Perry seems to believe that he’s not at fault. I’m not quite sure what to make of these facts, but I’m sure they play some part in Herzog’s message.
I was also intrigued by the interviewees’ arguments against the death penalty. I remember that one person (it may have been Burkett’s wife) mentioned “an eye for an eye”, which seems ironic to me considering that the modern judicial system is based on equalizing (whether through remuneration or community service or prison sentences).
Overall, I really enjoyed Into the Abyss. There were some incredibly uncomfortable moments with Jason Burkett’s wife that made me feel a bit creeped out, but Herzog sure was fortunate to get such an interview. I really did get a feel for the community throughout the documentary too. Looking forward to exploring more of Herzog’s work in the future, since this was my first.
Haven’t seen Death Row actually. It ran on Canadian TV I believe, but nothing in the U.S.
“A friend of mine, who supports the death penalty, thought it was a terribly simplistic movie with very little depth. "
I’d like to hear what his ‘complex’ reasons are for supporting it.
“It’s also telling that Burkett readily admits his own guilt but Perry seems to believe that he’s not at fault. I’m not quite sure what to make of these facts, but I’m sure they play some part in Herzog’s message.”
Pretty simply explanation without considering individual personalities and actual guilt or innocence—legally, facing a death sentence, it would be a disadvantage (in terms of legally trying to avoid the sentence being carried out) to admit guilt. In Burkett’s case, he’s serving a life sentence, but he does have the possibility of eventual parole, one of the conditions of which would eventually be Burkett taking responsibilities for the crimes that he’s been convicted of.
“How do we address this level of self-destruction?”
By smuggling sperm out of prison to impregnate woman? Yikes.
“Or do we not address it at all? Do we simply execute people and keep the rotating doors going.?”
This is exactly what Herzog is implying and I’m inclined to agree with him. This is what the American perspective is based on and what evidence do we have to support the contrary? I found his approach to be unbiased … one does not propagate bias merely by stating one’s opinion (as he does early in the film). He’s entitled to his opinion (everyone has one and he clears the air by making his known early on). It is commendable that his opinion is not the point of the film. He presents/edits the footage and conducts the interviews without any implied intent. He asks pointed questions, making no mystery of his view on the subject but this doesn’t colour the interviewees answers. The former death row guard he interviews near the end had already formed his opinion (hence the early retirement from his position). The sister/daughter of the victims had already formed hers as well. The others don’t even comment on it.
For anyone who has ever seen an Herzog film, they should be familiar with his penchant for existentialism and this film is no different. He is not interested in plumbing every detail of evidence and fact but rather the humanity behind the events. It is about attributed meaning not about retrying the case or bollocks like that. The film is far from boring and simplistic – perhaps more a reflection of your friend, Santino.
How are these people affected by this incident? How do they handle their situation? This is infinitely more important than quibbling over ‘facts’ we will probably never know. I’m sure Herzog filmed all the conventional aspects found in typical documentaries (hence the 8 hours of footage edited out) but stripped it down to a purely humanistic end. As an Herzog film, it’s consistent with his best work.
The fact that Perry completely denies any involvement with the murders is baffling considering the plethora of evidence to the contrary (taped confession, DNA evidence, witness testimonies…the list goes on). Herzog doesn’t go into Perry’s childhood probably because there was nothing relevant to tell. We already know that Perry’s parents were well off and supported him (admitted by himself and others) and that he simply didn’t want to follow their rules, so he resorted to sleeping in cars and stealing to ‘support’ himself.
Both Perry and Burkett are difficult to read. They both have unfortunate pasts and unfortunate tendencies. This doesn’t prove their guilt but it makes their stories hard to believe.
“which seems ironic to me considering that the modern judicial system is based on equalizing”
What makes you think that? Texas has always been Texas…and this film wasn’t made that long ago. The death penalty has not disappeared. I have a feeling it will be here for a very long time. Perhaps this was the abyss Herzog is referring to. The emptiness one is thrust into by death and the hopelessness of a system based on vengeance.