Into the Abyss Dir. Werner Herzog

[IFC Films; 2011]

Styles: documentary
Others: La Soufrière, Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile

Death fascinates Werner Herzog. The legendary German director, now 69, has been trying to get professionally intimate with death since at least 1977’s La Soufrière. In that short documentary, Herzog drags a tiny crew to Guadeloupe, an island due at any moment to be annihilated by a volcanic eruption. Herzog read that a lone peasant refused to leave the island and felt compelled to interview him. When he arrived, the man told Herzog that he’d accepted his fate and put himself in the hands of God.

That same acquiescence to death permeates Herzog’s new documentary, Into the Abyss. Michael Perry, the figure at the film’s center, is scheduled to be executed eight days after Herzog’s last opportunity to interview him. Perry and a friend, Jason Burkett, murdered three people in Conroe, Texas while trying to steal a sports car in the late 90s. Herzog never gets too interested in their guilt or innocence, only building the crime’s narrative so he can find a perch from which to consider the irrevocability of death, however it arrives. He interviews Perry, Burkett, the victims’ surviving family, police officers, and ultimately a former death house warden in an effort to give a comprehensive look at one man’s death, why it is happening, and how it will occur. Although Herzog doesn’t narrate, you can sense his power as an interviewer. The film opens with Herzog speaking with the death house’s pastor, Rev. Richard Lopez, about his off-duty relaxation; in the middle of talking about his golf game, the pastor crumbles, overcome by how close he came to nearly killing squirrels with a golf cart. As with most Herzog, you could read it as comic if you wanted, but the gravity of Herzog’s approach to the situation is unmistakable. One of his most striking realizations in the film is how thin the membrane is between professional and personal for people who traffic in state-assisted death. The psychic wall these positions demand can’t help but crack, sometimes.

Perry, like the man on Guadeloupe, insists that he left himself in God’s hands. He was executed on July 1, 2010. Burkett, now married to a legal advocate who reached out to him, is in prison for the next several decades at least. His father is in the same position. Herzog doesn’t ignore the community in which his film takes place. The people of Conroe are not generally well off or enlightened, but Herzog inevitably builds deep connections with everyone he speaks to. He refuses to inflict his own narrative on them. Eventually, Herzog interviews Fred Allen, the former warden of the Huntsville death house where Perry was eventually executed. Allen watched over a hundred men eat their last meal before leading them into a room, strapping them down, and watching them die. Allen, like Lopez, broke. He gave up his pension to get out of the system early, and it is with him that Herzog has his most affecting interviews. Allen quit well before Perry was put to death, but his knowledge of the process and the way he understood both his duty and his reticence is crushing.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Perry is a piece of shit. He and Burkett each say the other actually committed the murders, but regardless of the truth, it’s apparent neither was destined for great things. Herzog almost seems to have selected this particular crime because of its banality, because of the simple stupidity behind it. Herzog’s not interested in the flaws of the American legal system. Although Texas has undoubtedly executed innocent people, Herzog’s more interested in considering an execution’s effect on the living. Herzog himself is unabashedly opposed to the death penalty; in the press packet, he says “I do not even have an argument; I only have a story, the history of the barbarism of Nazi Germany.” Here on the internet, the reductio ad Hitlerum is usually tossed off, but coming from a man born in WWII Germany, the point has weight. Regardless, Into the Abyss only glances at politics; when the one remaining family member of Perry and Burkett’s victims confesses that she felt relieved during Perry’s execution, she also admits life without parole would’ve given her the same relief. What Herzog’s film is far more interested in is the willful taking of any life, and what it is that connects even highbrow documentary viewers with the kind of trash that would kill three people for a used Camaro. That we are alive is all we have to share, Herzog suggests, and that’s enough to discount any effort to end life.

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