Life begets death, which in turn begets life!
Written By: Werner Herzog
Directed By: Werner Herzog
Twice during Into The Abyss Werner Herzog takes his camera through the interior of the death room at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Both times his camera languidly takes in the room while ominous and reflective music plays in the background. In both instances his camera finds a digital clock in the corner of the death room, zooms in on said clock, and holds the clock for a second or two. It’s an innocuous moment, but it speaks to the depth of Into The Abyss and to Herr Herzog’s modus operandi in making the film.
Herr Herzog does not deny that he is against the death penalty, he even states as such during Into The Abyss. However unlike other, possibly more popular, documentarians Herr Herzog does not push his belief at the audience. It is always present, and it plays out in contrast to a system that favors the death penalty and a specific family member of a victim who viewed the death penalty as a cathartic moment. But Herr Herzog’s view is not pushed, it rests alongside the other viewpoint of the death penalty comfortably. That is very important to me, and it is one of the reasons why even in the days when I decried documentary filmmaking I was accepting of Herr Herzog’s documentaries.
The languid pace I spoke of earlier is of the utmost importance during Into The Abyss. From the onset we know that the subject matter will involve death and that Michael Perry is slated to die during the time frame of the actual filming of the documentary. From this inevitable conclusion Herr Herzog is able to glean a sense of foreboding. The ominous and dread filled music acts upon the tones of Herr Herzog as the narrator and the desolate landscape of Conroe County, Texas that Into The Abyss’s visuals expose. The crimes are flahsed back to, and we know what happened, we know the result, yet those moments are suspenseful. I do not believe Herr Herzog set out to make a suspenseful film, but that is the direction his film took thanks to the foreboding and dread that permeates the film.
The interviews themselves are the bread and butter of Into The Abyss. This is where we as the audience are given information and where we are allowed into the lives of both interviewer and interviewee. It’s also when Herr Herzog shows why he is such a prolific documentarian. He will not settle for rote or stock answers. He knows how to press his subjects without crossing a line. Herr Herzog is always looking for and bringing out interesting angles and raw emotional truths from his subjects. It only takes five minutes with Michael Perry and Jason Burkett to realize that they are guilty of their crime. They may not admit it outwardly, but their answers and the way Herr Herzog goes about questioning them shows us this truth. It’s not an issue of seeking to expose the truth either, it’s simply a matter of Herr Herzog seeking the raw, and yet stoic, emotions that are within his subjects.
The digital clock in the death room at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville is seen near the beginning and the end of the film. There’s another important image that we get to see via a picture message on a cell phone at the very end of Into The Abyss. There aren’t any flowery anti-death penalty speeches from Herr Herzog during Into The Abyss. Instead he uses low key interviews and the visual cue of modern technological advancements against the Old Testament practice of the death penalty to make his point. The other, pro-death penalty, point is made as well and that’s why at the end of the day Into The Abyss isn’t a film that is about the pros and cons of the death penalty. Into The Abyss shows us the ramifications of the death penalty and it leaves it at that. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a great film, or from a great Werner Herzog film.