Into the Abyss, released in 2011 and directed by Werner Herzog, is a documentary film that focuses on death row in America. The film follows two men in Texas convicted of a triple homicide. One man – Michael Perry – is on death row, while the other – Jason Burkett – has been given a life sentence. Herzog interviews both men, as well as people affected by their crime, including families of the victims, an ex-prison guard, and a death row reverend.
Into the Abyss is not at all preachy about the death penalty issue. Herzog states at the beginning of the documentary that he completely opposes capital punishment, but the film as a whole makes no judgements. Perhaps this subtlety makes the issue even more ripe for debate. My boyfriend and I had a discussion about the death penalty after watching Into the Abyss. Boyfriend wasn’t sure whether or not Michael Perry should have been killed. It was surprising, as boyfriend pointed out, that neither Perry nor Burkett – even after ten years in prison and a guilty verdict – would admit what they had done, and continued to blame each other. Perry even used his last statement to forgive the family of the victim for putting him on death row. Boyfriend thinks that people like Perry and Burkett are sociopathic, and can’t be part of society. It’s no fault of their own, he says, but they have to be killed. I don’t agree. I think while perhaps it’s true that people like Perry and Burkett can’t be part of society, they can have some sort of quality of life away from society. Being able to read, think, and be alone.
In both Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss Herzog comes across as a very likeable documentary maker, an engaging and friendly interviewer. Maybe it’s his German accent, or the fact that he’s an older man. Or perhaps it’s something more practiced and premeditated. Herzog makes conversation with people easily. He treats everyone with respect, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, but still manages to ask tough questions. He’s very good with people. The opening where Herzog talks to The Reverend Richard Lopez, a man who worked beside the death row death bed, is particularly striking. The Reverend talks about stopping for squirrels in his car, saving them, and wishing he could do the same from those on death row. He cries. There are lots of lingering cameras, in Herzog’s films, which also serve to bring the viewer closer to the documentary’s subjects. Herzog lets the camera hold on people’s faces after they are done speaking, which somehow makes you feel like you see a touch more truth in them. (I’m sure the emotive music playing over the top has something to do with it, as well). Interviewing people is an art, and Herzog has perfected it. He knows not only the right questions to ask but how and when to ask them, and how to respond.
Into the Abyss is quite a long film, but it held my attention throughout. A fascinating and very human documentary.
Into the Abyss was directed by Werner Herzog. His other documentaries include Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog won the Grierson Award for best documentary for Into the Abyss at the British Film Institute Awards in 2011.