Cert: 12 A Runtime: 107 mins Director: Werner Herzog Starring: Werner Herzog, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry
Werner Herzog is a very dark director, I have recently came across his series Death Row on Channel 4. It is very gripping and you can see that Herzog has a great interest in the capital punishment system in the USA. Into the Abyss was his feature length documentary that has been released in cinemas this month, the documentary follows the story of Michael Perry, a 28-year-old inmate on death row with eight days left to live, and his accomplice Jason Burkett who got a life sentence due to his imprisoned father’s testimony. These two young men were convicted of a pointless triple homicide which occurred in Conroe, Texas in 2001. Even though the evidence against them was solid, they claimed their innocence.You know and value Herzog because he’s one of few these days who can offer a glimpse of cosmologic infrastructure. The wheels and chains that move the world beneath the stories we make up to describe it. What he does, is that he frames chaotic nature where it has a story to tell – say a man living with bears, or an island about to explode – builds this as opera while maintaining the illusion of spontaneous life, blurring document with fiction, then uses this to bring to the surface an image that explains the madness of those stories. A boat being tugged over a hill, as pure as this.As with Caves the previous year, the film is talky, dependent on people being able to conjure an experience we only have a handful of images for; the crime scene, dried blood still spattered on the walls, the quietly ominous-looking execution chamber, the prison cemetery lined with crosses of the executed.And this is the whole point.
Here is a story of immense, sobering power, interviewing a man who will be dead by Monday, but of course Herzog cannot film the moment, much to the chagrin of many. He has to tell a story around it.No, the point is that we only have words, memories, stories to say. Many of these are recounted in the film. The execution itself is pieced together from objects and testimonies, very much like we would process a memory. But these stories are still powerful enough to decide life and death. Two were convicted for the crime, and going beyond who pulled the trigger, since both planned for it, only one was sentenced to die.This is what is so sobering to me; one man just had a better story to tell the court, more touching drama to explain his being, and we get to note this in the film for a clear effect, he’s just more agreeable to listen to, appears more responsible, more level-headed and contrite, whereas the other is just a little wacky. Asked about a story, he blurts out something about monkeys and camp. Herzog himself is markedly disinterested in him, whereas a lot of time is devoted to the man who isn’t going to die, a long soliloquy by his guilt-wracked father – serving life in the same prison – that we presume is as sentimental as he pled to the court with it. His misty-eyed wife recounts a tale of rainbows and magic love about their first encounter. This is movie material, the other simply isn’t.So even though this seems more streamlined and ordinary for Herzog, talky opposed to visually primal, it is as pure as he ever delivered.The whole system we have devised to support life, call it state, society, civilization, is not an infallible, impartial machine but hinges on the bias of storytelling and appearance. The law is arbitrary, equally chaotic as what is meant to organize. At the bottom of that, there is only time and emptiness.Observant Herzog fans will note that he used this intertitle – ‘Time and Emptiness’ – for the closing segment of his Buddhist documentary Wheel of Time.