If it’s not already obvious from the nature of his previous works, Werner Herzog makes it clear precisely where he stands in his latest documentary film right from the outset in his face-to-face meeting with a young man convicted of three murders, sitting on death row in a Texas penitentiary and facing the death by lethal injection in eight days time. He’s not there to try and help the young man secure a pardon, he’s not even necessarily searching for the truth, and he certainly doesn’t have to like the young man sitting in front of him behind a protective screen in a maximum security prison, but he is a human being and Herzog doesn’t believe any human being should be subjected to a practice as barbaric as the capital punishment. What really interests Herzog in this documentary feature however is the experience of staring into that abyss.
The humanitarian viewpoint and the nature of how men react to extreme experiences is of course characteristic of Herzog’s work as a director of feature films and documentaries, but this particular standpoint expressed in Into the Abyss will be evident – and even the wording will be familiar – for anyone watching Herzog’s documentary series, Death Row, currently being shown on UK television on Channel 4. In the series, similarly stating upfront that he’s not there to like his subjects or appeal on their behalf, Herzog interviews a number of inmates currently awaiting punishment on death row and looks into the history and details of their cases. The question of their guilt or innocence is left for the viewer to decide, or rather, in most cases the evidence seems relatively clear-cut, the judgement already made anyway by the court of law in Texas and sentence passed with little likelihood of it being commuted. Herzog’s real area of interest in the series then is in how each of the men feel about impending death and how they cope with this uncommon and unnatural experience.
While the process is familiar then, the actual purpose of the feature length subject derived from these encounters in Into the Abyss is somewhat different in the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. These two young men, in their teens at the time of the crime back in October 2001, have been found guilty of the murder of a woman in her home, killed simply because Perry and Burkett wanted to steal and drive around in her car. In order to get into the gated community where she lived however, two other young men, one of them the son of the murdered woman, were also murdered by the pair. Using actual crime scene footage and interviewing the law enforcement officers involved in the investigation, Into the Abyss clearly highlights the disproportionate violence and needlessness of the murders for the theft of a car, but it’s a case nonetheless that seems no more horrifying in its senselessness than other crimes covered in his Death Row series.
The film’s subtitle however, A Story of Death, A Story of Life suggests a wider perspective beyond the crime itself, and even beyond the actions of the criminals and their fate. That theme is approached in a number of ways that are typical of Herzog’s sense of vision and structure, as well as his ability to pick up on quirky little details that strangely manage to get directly to the heart of the matter. This technique is evident right at the outset, in his interview with the priest who works closely with the men through their last days before the death sentence is carried out – a task that is visibly a struggle for a man of God to deal with. Picking up on a seemingly irrelevant quirky detail about squirrels that the reverend has described about his excursions on a golf-course, the question of life and death is brought into sharp focus for the man and it’s enough to make him choke-up in front of the camera.
There’s a similar realisation and a sense of symmetry brought out in the last man interviewed in the film, a prison warden, Fred Allen, who has overseen the final moments of more than 125 prisoners condemned to death in the Texas penitentiary. His sense of carrying out the law and his duty was however shattered by one particular case that brought a full realisation of the weight of what he was being asked to do on behalf of the state, forcing him to reconsider his life and attitude towards the death penalty. Herzog also focuses on odd little facts relating death to life in the relating of a story about tree growing up through the stolen car at the centre of the crime while sitting in the car pound, and through a rainbow that connects the growth of a new life in a pregnant woman associated with the case. The primary focus of the film however, while it is one that similarly seems to engage Herzog’s interest in people who have looked into the abyss and have had to deal with the extremes that life can offer, differentiates from his TV series in its consideration of the victims.
It’s not difficult to imagine who the real victims are here. In this Story of Death and Story of Life, it’s those who lost their lives in the senseless crime as well as their families who have to live with the loss. The sister of one of the dead boys, Sandra Stotler, and the brother of the other, Jeremy Richardson, interviewed here are clearly still devastated have had to endure much over the years, and Herzog accordingly gives them much more time in the film than the relatively brief interviews with the perpetrators, realising perhaps that they also have had to deal with extreme experiences. But Herzog also looks beyond this, at the local community and the violence within it, and sees that everyone connected with this case is, in a way, also a victim. In how this relates to the Death Row experience and Herzog’s standpoint laid out at the start of the film, it’s made abundantly clear – particularly from those like the Reverend and the former Death Row Officer who are only peripheral to the case – that the implementation of the death sentence resolves nothing, but only serves to create more victims, innocent and guilty alike.