Today: April 19, 2024

Into The Abyss

“Before we get started I just want to say I don’t necessarily have to like you, but I respect you as a human being,”

“Before we get started I just want to say I don’t necessarily have to
like you, but I respect you as a human being,”
Werner Herzog informs his interviewee Michael Perry, a man 8 days away from execution for a triple
homicide in the state of Texas, USA. Next, hauntingly, Werner Herzog points his
camera in the direction of the ‘death walk’ Perry will eventually – and does
make – to the gurney, where he’ll go Into The Abyss.

In this, his 25th
feature documentary, Herzog peels away the protective layers of his subjects
with ease, digging deep to reveal the physical and emotional consequences of
murder – both by citizens and the state – and the reality and moral ambiguity,
especially in a Christian country, of the death penalty.

In 2001, Michael
Perry and Jason Burkett mindlessly
slaughtered a mother, her son and his friend in order to obtain a red
Camaro. Herzog talks to both
the convicted murderers and members of the victim’s families. To illustrate the
crimes he uses emotive, real crime-scene footage taken by
the police at the time of the murder in which, hauntingly, we see a baking tray
laid out with dough ready to go in the oven – she was making cookies moments
before she was cruelly slain.

Herzog was granted less than an hour with death
row inmate Perry, in accordance with state law (he can be granted another hour
only after 6 months). Bubbly and wide-eyed, Perry talks about his
impending death and the onset of depression like it is happening to someone
else; at this point it clearly hadn’t sunk in yet or he must have been certain in
his heart a miracle was going to happen. He was just 28 years old.

Burkett on the other hand, is more staid and
content. He narrowly escaped the death penalty after the jury heard a plea from
his father who begged them not to kill his son and telling them his son had
little chance in life because his father was in prison for most of it.
One of the most moving conversations Herzog has is with Burkett’s father, who
is currently serving a 40-year sentence, when he describes the shame he felt at
spending Thanksgiving in prison with two of his sons, both serving time for
their individual crimes.

Primarily concerned with people’s stories,
Herzog has an amazing ability to reach out to them and extract the kind of
tales you’d only find in a Herzog movie. The documentary opens with the
chaplain who accompanies inmates to their execution, explaining his role in the
death procedure. Then, prompted by Herzog, he describes his rather beautiful
encounter with a squirrel – it’s extremely random but terribly powerful. A
formerly illiterate local man, and acquaintance of the killers, remembers
how he once refused to pick up a knife thrown to him by his friend, so he could
attack the man who had just stabbed him in the arm-pit with a long Phillips
screw driver – he had to go to work in 30 minutes, he explained. And perhaps
most compelling of all is the story of the ‘Captain of Death’ who, up until a
change of heart ten years ago, killed over 125 people on death row – sometimes
twice a week. It is stories like these, coaxed out by Herzog, that make Into
The Abyss an exhilarating watch.

However, it is not an issue movie. Herzog makes
clear his stance from the start; as a German, he says, he is respectfully
opposed to the death penalty. However, he never tries to coerce his audience
into any particular view. Instead he explores the themes of life, death – what
it is like to know the time and day you will die – and time from the perspectives
of a man on death row and a grieving family. He looks beyond the facts, past
the black and white, to uncover a greater truth and context that surrounds
these murders and, indeed, any murder – even murder committed by the state.

Did the victim’s families feel avenged after
Perry lost his life? Is it ever ok to take another person’s life even as
punishment for another heinous crime? Can there ever be any winners at the end
of this story? There’s no un-equivocal answers offered to these question in
Into The Abyss, just an ode to the importance of life and the grief and loss
that happens when it is taken. Herzog’s documentary leaves you pondering
many things about life and death – perhaps even about things that never
occurred to you before – and it will stay with you, like all good documentaries
should, for days to come.

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Murder By Decree

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