Review: Werner Herzog’s ‘Into the Abyss’ Explores Living With Death

By  · Published on November 18th, 2011

The supplementary title for Werner Herzog’s new documentary about capital punishment is “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.” These clauses are placed in a perplexing order that seems, at first, to run in reverse. However, when viewing the film, it becomes abundantly clear why life is not necessarily a linear trajectory that ends in death, with all the mutual exclusivity implied in the assumed separation of these categories. Instead, Into the Abyss argues that death is something one perpetually lives with, especially the certain knowledge of impending death in the case of state-run execution or in the memory of death when one’s loved one has been murdered. The certainty and harsh reality of death not only plagues the prisoner and the victim’s kin, but also profoundly effects a large array of individuals involved directly or indirectly with every heinous crime and execution.

The timing of the release of Into the Abyss is worth noting. In September, Troy Davis was executed in the face of massive public protest and significant lingering doubts as to the fairness of his trial. Many anti-death penalty advocates saw the case as a potentially fatal blow for state-run execution, as it illuminated flaws within the system which in turn troubled capital punishment’s logic of justice. A mere two months later, the Troy Davis case has been almost completely forgotten in the public sphere as the news cycle has turned its lenses to Occupy movements and the ongoing reality show known as GOP debates. The divisive underlying issue, however, lingers, and will certainly crop up again.

Admittedly, despite the tragedy of how far an unfair trial can take a citizen in the Davis case, it’s rather easy for someone who is against the death penalty (myself included, in full disclosure) to point to such a case to make their point. The true challenge is in maintaining that stance against capital punishment in the face of a horrendous crime with a clear perpetrator.

Herzog’s film meets such a case, face-to-face-to-face-to-face…

In 2001, teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were involved in a triple homicide in a gated neighborhood in Conroe, Texas that took place over the theft of a sports car (the dark poetics of costing three human lives in the name of a car is not lost on Herzog or many of those he interviews). Burkett received a life sentence, and Perry was executed in July of last year. The film’s most recent interviews with Perry took place as close as a week before his execution.

Herzog states early on in the film that he doesn’t endorse the death penalty, but (while I don’t believe there is such a thing as “documentary objectivity”) the filmmaker seems completely uninterested in using the medium to convince audiences of his point-of-view. Herzog instead lends his camera to the many individuals directly or tangentially involved in the crime that resulted in a triple homicide, victims’ families, the criminals’ family members and their attorneys, and employees of Texas execution chambers. For a filmmaker whose personality is so thoroughly present in his work, it’s fascinating to see Herzog largely relegate himself to the backseat as he mines through the experiences of others. Along the way we hear from distressed siblings of victims who seek catharsis in execution, a woman who married Burkett after his conviction, an employee of the execution wing of the Texas prison system who has trouble dealing with his grief, police involved with the investigation, a protestant preacher who delivers last rites and, of course, the testimonials of Perry and Burnett. The audience is given a variety of perspectives, none of them easy to accept or reject outright, and Herzog boldly asks us to wrestle with what we learn on our own.

Into the Abyss feels like a stylistic and narrative departure for Herzog, but at the same time somehow fits neatly into his wheelhouse. Herzog has never been a political documentarian in the conventional sense of the term, but Into the Abyss ultimately isn’t a political movie, but a tale of living with death amidst the harsh realities of senseless crimes and controversial punishments. As Herzog rarely interjects with his voice-over non sequiturs that rendered previous nonfiction works like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World as much paintings of a filmmaker’s unique personality as they are insights into the equally compelling worlds depicted, Into the Abyss more closely resembles Grizzly Man in its serious tone and (relative) stylistic restraint. Yet the world-traversing Herzog approaches this subject as he does most of his non-fiction work: as an earnest outsider longing to know more.

In terms of the trajectory of Herzog’s work, Into the Abyss feels like a hybrid of Grizzly Man Herzog and early Errol Morris. The film marks a perfectly stark counterpoint to the dreamscapes of his wonderful 3D caves documentary. However, as a movie about the death penalty, the film is revelatory, blunt, unintrusive, sober, and sometimes devastating. Admittedly, there are several issues the film could have touched further upon rather than exhaustively covering the crime in what is sometimes arduous albeit mostly compelling detail (i.e., class determinations of criminal behavior are touched upon, which are especially profound considering that the crime occurred in a gated community, but never really explored). That said, Into the Abyss is likely the best documentary there is on the subject, and Herzog proves a formidable guide through several controversial conditions of American life: notably crime and punishment, and living with death.

The Good Side: Yet another strong documentary by Herzog, Into the Abyss approaches its controversial subject without pretense, but likewise without feeling a need to be too delicate as well.

The Bad Side: Other related issues are left underexplored, and occasionally the investigative aspect of the documentary feels more exhaustive than compelling.

On the Side: This film started as a project on various death row inmates in Florida and Texas, but after meeting Perry, Herzog decided to focus exclusively on his case.

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