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German screenwriter, producer, actor and director Werner Herzog's
twenty-fifth documentary which he wrote and narrated, is an American
production about capital punishment which lacks the presence of Werner
Herzog's characteristic voice-over. It tells the story about 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
Though opposed to capital punishment Werner Herzog, who has gone into more than one abyss during his impressive career, does not question the matter of guilt in this illuminating and thorough documentary which is told through a wide variety of interviews with people who were involved in the case. Werner Herzog has a profound way of depicting individuals and their surroundings, and his fascination with unadaptable, eccentric and ill-fated people is evident in this psychological study where he gets the most out of the people he interviews and emphasizes that everyone has lead a significant life and has unique stories to tell.
Werner Herzog draws a multifaceted portrayal of a seemingly peaceful community and brings out its darkest as well as some of its brightest sides. This documentary is subtitled "A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life" which is quite an accurate description, but this is also a story about family relations, traumatic childhoods, grief, redemption, faith and love, where the possibility of hope is present even in the worst imaginable circumstances. The severity of the vile crime which stands at the center of this story is underlined by composer Mark Degli Antoni's efficient instrumental score which creates an unsettling and obscure atmosphere. This unsentimental, humane and at times humorous documentary which has some memorable interviews, is acutely directed by one of the most engaging and genuine storytellers in the history of cinema.
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.
The story here is about death-row inmates awaiting execution in a Texas penitentiary, structured so that we absorn not just the heinous, meaningless crime but the broader world that leads up to it, allows it to happen, is dependent on and reflects it. Broken homes, unemployment, casual street violence, Herzog provides enough background detail to ground this in a larger systemic failure: so-called civilized society as only a facade of chaotic nature left to seed.
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.
The bitter, hard-to-swallow truth is that this guy's life is simply better movie material, makes for a better story, and this decides life - notice too his wife's sappy story about their first encounter, misty-eyed soap as it is.
So even though the film seems more streamlined and ordinary for Herzog, talky opposed to visually primal, it is as pure as he ever delivered, perhaps without himself knowing it.
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 emotion. 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. See if you can spot the powerful connection between these two, the floating worlds and ritual they portray.
He's taken us into a forgotten cave; alongside bears; to the end of the
world; and now Werner Herzog takes us straight into the mind of a
madman, in a documentary about what causes people to kill and what
society's attitude to such people should be.
Herzog concentrates on just one case, which is more than enough to make his points. Although he doesn't appear on screen, Herzog's voice is important. He dons the role of interviewer, which I believe contributes to the film's power. He asks very precise questions, persists when necessary, but does so in a very innocent, nonchalant way, sometimes even cracking a joke with his subject, who is usually an emotional wreck. And why not? They give more of themselves to someone who they feel is on their side, and we get an insight that is much more accurate than it otherwise could have been.
Michael Perry was a boy when he was convicted of killing a nurse and suspected of killing two youths in 2001. The state of Texas executed him eight days after the film's release. His accomplice to the latter murders, Jason Burkett, received a life sentence. These and other relevant people, such as family members and prison officials, are interviewed to gain a broad range of views on what has always been a difficult political and moral topic.
Documentaries tend to stand back from their topics; Herzog gets right up under their nose. At times I felt he was oblivious to his audience, as though trying to satisfy his own curiosity. And that's why he has always been highly respected: his selfishness is the key to his charity.
All interviews are incredibly moving, not just because almost all involve tears, but because I felt that interviewees had nothing else to reveal and what they did reveal was utterly sincere. This docu-drama uses actual police footage of the crime scenes which, when accompanied by an austere soundtrack, gives the film a sombre, eerie tone.
There's no doubt about it: the crimes were heinous. Both Perry and Burkett blamed each other. Both denied involvement. What's clear is that the crimes were unprovoked and victims perished needlessly. (We're led to believe that people were murdered for the sake of a red sports car.)
Although Herzog states unequivocally that he is anti-capital punishment ('I don't think human beings should be executed. Simple as that'), he never proselytises. He produces an equal account of the merits and pitfalls of state-sponsored execution and, like any objective filmmaker, allows his audience the final say.
In Conroe, Texas, 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett broke into the
home of an acquaintance, Jason Stotler, in the hopes of stealing a new
car. When their plan began to unravel, Perry shot and killed Stotler's
mother. After dumping the body, they then killed Stotler and another
friend in order to regain access to the house inside of a gated
community they had been locked out of. Shortly thereafter, the duo was
arrested after a haphazard shootout and brought to justice. Perry was
sentenced to death, Burkett to life in prison. With Perry's execution
right around the corner, filmmaker Werner Herzog journeyed to the
maximum security prison in Huntsville, Texas in order to interview the
culprits, get the details of the case, and have a look at the concept
of the death penalty.
Perhaps the preeminent voice in documentary filmmaking, Herzog has spent the majority of his illustrious career crafting his approach and that shines through once again here. What I love about Herzog's documentaries is that there's never any question as to how he feels about his subject matter and yet you never feel as if he's forcing it down his throat. At the outset of Into the Abyss he states (off-camera) that he is against the death penalty and at times you can tell that his film is sliding toward his side of the argument. A very compelling portion of the film involves Herzog's discussions with a man who spent his entire career strapping the condemned to a gurney until a series of events led him to jump to the other side of the argument. Still, however, Herzog allows the audience to judge for themselves, choosing to let the camera roll while laying out the facts. My impression is that Herzog would like to start a dialogue concerning the matter rather than shame proponents of the death penalty into submission.
At the same time, Into the Abyss pulls no punches in its portrayal of both Perry and Burkett. While both profess their innocence, Herzog quietly points out the holes in their respective stories and makes it clear that there is virtually no evidence to support their claims. These two were morons with a history of bad and violent behavior who finally escalated their actions. Perhaps their greatest mistake was being so stupid as to believe they could get away with their crimes when clearly neither one of them had the mental capacity to outsmart a brain damaged dog, let alone a team of police detectives. The film uses splices of the videos investigators shot at the crime scene and accentuates the footage with interviews with the detective in charge of the case and the family members of the victims. It is a dark light that is shed on Perry and Burkett and Herzog makes no attempt to turn them into the martyrs they would have you believe they are.
The only real issue I had with Into the Abyss is that it simultaneously tries to cover too much ground and doesn't reach quite far enough. Herzog takes the time to highlight a fairly extensive interview with Burkett's father, himself in prison, in an effort to illuminate Burkett's difficult childhood but then doesn't do anything with this information. It seems as if the film goes halfway toward building a bit of sympathy for at least Burkett, if not Perry, and then abandons the idea. There are also a handful of interviews that don't seem to serve much of a purpose. At the same time, because of the nature of how Herzog shot the film, his "turn on the cameras and see what happens" style, there are times when Into the Abyss seems a bit purposeless. There's no great statement made and again, while I appreciate that he didn't take to the heavy-handed preaching tactic used too often in these documentaries, this leaves the film devoid of a lasting impression. It's a good film and one that is certainly worth watching if for no other reason than the conversation it could lead to but it lacks the punch that I would have expected it to display.
Please see my reviews at thesoapboxoffice.com
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Werner Herzog's new film is a meditation on what it is that makes us
kill; us, as in the struggling, sub-literate underbelly of Conroe,
Texas, and us, as in a society which evidently believes that putting
inmates to death will somehow absolve us of the guilt of breeding a
society in which three people will give up their lives for a red Chevy
Camero. In a nice moment of Herzogian "ecstatic truth", it is revealed
that a tree grew through the chassis of the Camaro while it was parked
in a police impound lot.
Herzog relentlessly interviews the two men convicted of the crime, Jason Burkett, who will be eligible for parole in 2041, and Michael Perry, who was executed by lethal injection eight days after Herzog interviewed him. He also interviews the surviving family members of the victims, the death row chaplain, the captain of the team of law enforcement officers tasked with preparing those to be executed, and some of those who had shared Perry and Burkett's environment at the time of the crimes. Perhaps most perplexing is the interview with Burkett's wife, who makes it clear that she is not a "death row groupie", despite stating that she was in love with Burkett before she ever met him. The interviews shed light on a society in which I suspect I wouldn't last six hours: the brother of one of the victims, who was arrested for parole violations at his brother's funeral; the acquaintance of Burkett's, who hasn't been in trouble with the law, "just the one felony", who Burkett stabbed in the side with a phillips-head screwdriver "about that long", and who learned to read in prison; the surviving relative of two of the victims, who seems to have lost all of her relatives, "and the family dog", to violent death and illness. Burkett and Perry maintain their individual innocence, blaming each other, with Burkett implicating a third man present at their capture, who would appear to be a figment of his imagination.
Every bit as harrowing are the interviews with Burkett's father, a multiple felon who takes responsibility for raising a son like Burkett, and the two prison officials, the chaplain who witters on about not running over squirrels on the golf course, and the prison official who had seen to the wants of those about to die before strapping down their left ankles to the gurney. After presiding at the execution of Karla Fay Tucker, he was essentially haunted by the memory of all those he had strapped down, and wound up quitting his job.
And that is perhaps the question at the heart of Herzog's film: is it more absurd to kill three people for a red Camero, or to kill hundreds of people for an abstraction called "Justice"?
I have seen many Herzog films: Encounters at the End of the World,
Rescue Dawn, Grizzley Man, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, just to name
a few. I have always been fascinated with his work.
Herzog documentaries are notable for using locals instead of professionals to give it a ring of truth. It makes for a more interesting story.
This film was made 8 days before Michael Perry, a man on death row convicted of murdering Sandra Stotler, a fifty-year-old nurse, was to be executed. He was suspected, but never charged, in two other murders which occurred in Conroe, Texas, with his accomplice Jason Burkett. Perry was convicted eight years earlier of the October 2001 murder, apparently committed in order to steal a car for a joyride. Perry denies that he was responsible for the killings, blaming Burkett (also appearing in the film) who was convicted of the other two murders. Burkett, who received a lesser life sentence for his involvement, likewise blames Perry.
The tales of all involved, especially the inmate's father, and the warden, were fascinating.
In September 2011, two events reignited the death-penalty debate in
The first came on the seventh of the month at the Republican Presidential Debates in Simi Valley, California. Texas governor Rick Perry was asked by an NBC News correspondent whether he was able to sleep at night, given that his state had executed 234 inmates during his time in office. Before the question was even finished, the audience broke into rapturous applause, cheering the body count.
Two weeks later came the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, who had spent 20 years protesting his innocence on death row for killing a security guard in a parking-lot altercation. Nine former witnesses signed affidavits retracting their original statements and claiming they had been coerced by police into identifying Davis. However, in spite of this, and significant pressure from an array of human-rights groups, the Supreme Court refused to overturn Davis's death sentence.
Coincidentally, German filmmaker Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life premiered at the Toronto film festival in the weeks between the Californian GOP debate and Davis's execution. The documentary focuses on three murders that took place in a rural Texas town in 2001, for which Jason Burkett and Michael Perry received a life sentence and the death penalty respectively. Due to the film's timeliness, it was rushed for a November release and has now landed on UK screens. Yet while Herzog enters the film making no bones about his opposition to capital punishment, he refuses to exploit his tentative subject for his own political purposes.
From the outset, Herzog has clearly gone to great lengths to avoid the sort of manipulative didacticism popularised by Michael Moore that has blighted mainstream documentary for the past decade. Whereas he might have chosen to focus on cases of questionable guilt in order to make his case, Herzog opts for a series of murders which are straightforward and frighteningly trivial in their motivations. Both Perry and Burkett continue to place blame on each other, but according to a local cop, who talks us through the case in the film's opening minutes, the two young men killed a middle-aged mother and two teenage boys, all in order to steal the woman's red convertible. Interviewing Perry days before his execution, the victim's families and the state officials involved in the lethal injections that take place in Texas - an average of around two per month since 2001 - the film offers a sombre meditation on the barbarism which survives in modern civilised society.
Yet there remains in many of these interviews an aching humanity achieved through the plain spectacle of real people talking about deeply affecting moments in their lives. Their candour brings a distinctly life-affirming quality to film, which Herzog comes dangerously close to ruining by his recurring need to put words into the mouths of his subjects.
With his last project, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explored the Chauvet caves and the ancient pre-historic paintings that adorn their walls, Herzog was free to rhapsodise as much as he liked. He brings a similar compulsion to impose his own poetic meaning onto the images to Into the Abyss. During one of the film's most heartrending interviews, in which a former state executioner explains the moment he realised he couldn't continue, Herzog asks 'Was this the first time when you felt like yourself?'. Needless to say, the interviewee looks rather nonplussed. In moments like this, Herzog comes across like an aloof auteur shamelessly attempting to envelop his subjects into his own poignant conception of events.
While he abstains from narration and never strays from behind the camera, his unmistakable low drawl is a constant and manipulative presence. Similarly his carving of the film into chapters, complete with such melodramatic titles as 'Time and Emptiness', feels like a needless framework that only compromises the manifold beauty of the film.
With Into the Abyss, Herzog stays true to his word and doesn't allow partisan fingerwagging to distance us from the horror of capital punishment. Unfortunately, his heavy-handed poeticising has much the same effect, interrupting the flow of what is an otherwise gripping and unassuming conversation about the shadowy border between justice and revenge, and the inimitable value of human life.
Herzog's work may lend itself to interpretation more than most. And
while it may just be a quibble of emphasis, I would not, as the other
two reviewers here have, say this is essentially a documentary about
'capital punishment'. Just as I would not say "grizzly man" was really
a documentary about bear attacks. Herzog lets it be known he doesn't
approve of the death penalty, but mostly, like most Herzog
documentaries, this just struck me as a portrait of (as another
reviewer put it well) the "ill-fated".
Certainly, if you go into this thinking you're going to get Michael Moore style anti-death penalty agitprop, you're going to be disappointed. This is a series of interviews with a Texas death row inmate scheduled for imminent execution (an inmate Herzog has characterized in interviews as a "truly frightening" human being) and the lives of some of those either the case, or the Texas Death Penalty system generally, have touched upon. It is probably the least sensationalistic account of its sort put on film. And for that alone, Herzog deserves praise.
Having lived in Houston for many years and knowing this area just north of it pretty well, I can say Herzog is able convey a lot about the area and its people, through the lens of this horrific act, very well.
Well, once more, what is it about, if not capital punishment.... I think Herzog in a related context (his "On Death Row" documentary series) may have put it best when an attorney he was interviewing noted 'we all have a need to humanize' and rationalize these people who have done terrible things, and Herzog stopped them to say "I don't humanize them. I don't want to humanize. They simply are human beings". And that's kind of how I saw 'into the abyss'. It's not an attempt to rationalize or humanize a triple-murderer, nor is it an attempt rationalize, demonize, or humanize state sanctioned execution. It's just portrait of a piece of life as it is now lived.
Into the Abyss is Herzogs most haunting piece since his 1979 remake of
Nosferatu and to me, it would appear to be his most personal work to
date. Herzog has always been an outspoken warrior against capitol
punishment, so I assumed this would be preachy, overstated, and direct.
To my surprise this is one of the most understated documentaries on
death row inmates and those around them I have ever had the pleasure of
Centering around the homicides committed by two Texas youths over a car in the early 2000's and the consequences felt by all the people involved, Into the Abyss isn't about guilt or innocence, nor is it about wrong or right. Into the Abyss is about staring the reality of it all in the face.
Herzog leaves no stone unturned as he interviews the perpetrators, the victims families, the wife and father of one of the prisoners, the prison chaplain, a series of acquaintances, the police captain, and a retired prison guard that was once the modern day equivalent of the town executioner. None of whom dwell on the deaths of those killed or the upcoming death of Micheal Perry (the inmate that was given death) but life after the events. How their worlds were effected is the topic and even though Herzog states clearly he opposes the death penalty he never harps on it.
The subjects that are interviewed were obviously hand picked with care and it all amounts to an eerie retrospect on how the world misses the big picture when it comes to taking the life of another for crimes they have committed. Easily the most jaw dropping documentary of the young 2010's decade. I cant think of another film that got me so emotionally involved while seemingly dancing around the main subject. Herzog has done it again, but I cant call it triumphant. No, Into the Abyss isn't a triumph at all. It is an epic tragedy that should be watched by those both pro and anti capitol punishment.
The art of making a real documentary has become lost in recent years
with filmmakers consistently using stylistic editing and asking
questions only to prove the point there trying to make. One thing that
struck me with "Into The Abyss" by Werner Herzog was how brilliantly he
stayed on task of what he was trying to say. He clearly states once
that he does not believe in the death penalty.
The thing that impressed me the most was how he was never on screen and only asked honest and pertinent questions to all his interviewees without leading them to the answers he wanted. He probed but always let the person say exactly what they wanted to say. He never tries to excuse or romanticize the crime led the one person he interviewed to death row but is firm in his belief that capital punishment is just as much a sin as the crimes perpetrated by the death row inmates
As I understand it, The United States is one of the last few developed countries that still imposes the death penalty and Texas has the highest rate of death row inmates and the lowest rate of appeals for death row inmates in the nation. While pondering that question you have to ask yourself, "why is that?" is crime being any more deterred by this, I would say no since they still have the highest rate of death row inmates even to this day.
The commentary by the different people that Herzog talks too is extraordinary. The two that I found to be the best were the father Jason Burkett who is also in prison and the man who was once captain of the guard where Perry was to be executed. This mans conclusion on why the death penalty should not be used is perhaps the best and most profound.
Herzog poses no enlightening statement at the end and even provides no commentary minus the questions he asks the people he interviews and this is perhaps the best way he could have approached this subject. He let's the viewer determine for themselves what they want to take away from the evidence he provides.
This is a hard film to review but is a film that should be seen, and the two questions stuck with me even after the film was over, Who has the right to take another life? and, Is there a point where the taking of a life is not a sin?
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