Film: Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)

As Werner Herzog goes face-to-face with convicted murderers, his latest documentary explores the death penalty, the hearts of psychopaths, and squirrels

-Kathryn Bromwich

“Tell me about your encounter with the squirrel.” In the opening scene of Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s apparently light-hearted question immediately digs deep into the heart of the film. The pastor being interviewed, up to then cheerful and full of platitudes, gradually crumbles and starts to cry. Although he can brake his car for a squirrel, he says, there is nothing he can do to stop the execution of the young man he is about to administer last rites to.

This is the latest in Herzog’s string of recent documentaries, and explores the issue of the death penalty in the United States. The choice seems almost too straightforwardly political for Herzog, whose preoccupations are usually more metaphysical and, well, recherché. However, Herzog is not only preoccupied with the question of whether or not the death penalty is immoral: he establishes early on that he is firmly against it. The film goes further, focusing on the disturbing impact of the execution on the individuals who actually have to perform it, the effect the murder has on the families, and, most importantly, what the motivations or reasons behind the crime could have been.

Herzog chooses a single, gruesome case to address the wider topic. Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, who were teenagers at the time, are accused of murdering a woman, her teenage son, and his friend. The woman had been baking cookies when she opened the door to them. The object of the crime, horrifically, was a joyride in the woman’s new red convertible. Herzog does not shy away from the futile and brutal nature of the offence, showing in painful detail precisely what happened. There is no doubt that the defendants are guilty, although both accuse the other and plead total innocence. Burkett is sentenced to life, Perry is sentenced to death.

Herzog aficionados will be familiar with his ability to find the weird and the uncanny in even the most normal circumstances. With this group of characters, who range from the simply grieving to the deeply disturbed, he finds a new level of strangeness. Despite his limited interview time with the defendants, Herzog’s penetrating questioning brings to light their most disconcerting characteristics. Both Burkett and Perry demonstrate cold, psychopathic qualities and subtle signs of mental illness; however, it is never clear whether this is a result of the long incarceration or the cause of it.

Perhaps the most shocking character of all is the wife of Jason Burkett, who met him after his incarceration whilst on his legal defence team. Described by Herzog as a “death row groupie”, she smiles beatifically when speaking of her “totally innocent” husband, who is in jail for life for the murder of three people. Due to prison security they have shared no more than a kiss, but in a grotesque kind of Immaculate Conception she has somehow become pregnant with his child.

The only small shortcoming, perhaps, is Herzog’s trademark use of choral music. In his previous works, the music is matched by spectacular backdrops in the Amazon rainforest or the Antarctic. While the subject matter here warrants dramatic music, the contrast with the drab prison surroundings is at times disproportionate. Majestic and grandiose, the music jars slightly with the visual understatement of the film.

Thought-provoking, unsettling and brutal, Into the Abyss is a restrained film with an after-kick, the impact striking fully a few days afterwards. The tone is balanced and non-judgemental, but at the same time we are never left in doubt as to Herzog’s own opinion. The most interesting part, however, is the film’s study of the human heart: the depths it can descend to, the terrors it can put up with, and the things it can’t.

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