Thursday, August 1, 2013

FI: Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life
US/UK/Germany, 2011
Written and Directed by Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's philosophical narration style is so iconic, it has spawned viral videos and inspired a regular character in comedian Paul F. Tompkins's arsenal. But in Into the Abyss, Herzog's examination of the death penalty through the prism of a Conroe, Texas murder case, his voice takes a back seat, mostly appearing when Herzog questions one of his subjects. That doesn't mean the film isn't shaped by Herzog's authorial voice, as his interest in the dark spots on humanity's soul and his compassionate humanism are both evident throughout the film. He makes his anti–death penalty sentiments clear early on, but the film itself is not polemical or hectoring. It simply spells out the details of a single case—one of hundreds of capital cases tried every year—using crime scene footage, evidence, and interviews with police, the criminals, the victims' family members, and various people who work in the death house.

The case at the heart of the film involves two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, each convicted for separate incidents within the same series of crimes: The two broke into the home of Sandra Stotler (an acquaintance's mother) and murdered her in order to steal her car. Later, they killed Stotler's son and his friend in a failed attempt to cover their tracks. They were eventually captured in a shoot-out, tried, and convicted, with Perry receiving a death sentence for Stotler's murder and Burkett getting life for the other two. Neither the heinous nature of their actions, nor their guilt or innocence—despite Perry's protestations—are ever really in question. Herzog is more interested in their stories, the feelings of the victims' families, and what their experiences say about one of the thorniest issues in American politics. Ultimately, the film is not so much about crime and punishment as concepts as it is about the trauma both have on actual people in the real world.

Into the Abyss was originally intended to cover several cases, but Herzog increasingly focused on Perry as his time grew short—Perry was scheduled to die only eight days after his interview. The other footage became a series of short films—eventually airing on Channel 4 in the UK and on Investigation Discovery as Werner Herzog's On Death Row—and, at a screening of Aguirre, The Wrath of God that I attended in June, Herzog indicated another set of films would be forthcoming. Even without having watched the shorts, it's easy to see why this topic fascinates him so much. He seems to be seeking for a deeper truth, one about American society, poverty, violence, justice, and the sanctity of each individual life. I'm not sure he's found it, here, but that doesn't detract from the experience of watching the Into the Abyss. It's not a film about answers, only questions of the most profound, troubling sort.

Edited to add: If you're interested, Into the Abyss is available for streaming via Netflix in the US.

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