Into The Abyss (2011)


Director: Werner Herzog

Release Date: November 11th, 2011 (US limited); March 30th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Crime

Werner Herzog opens his haunting documentary, Into The Abyss, by conducting an interview with a reverend. During the short conversation between the pair, Herzog asks the reverend about a confrontation with a squirrel, which provokes an analogy entailing how the man of faith is unable to prevent death row inmates from dying. The individual in question, Richard Lopez, often spends the final moments of a death row inmate’s life with them, powerless to stopping their demise. The issue of death in real life and as capital punishment dominates the remainder of the documentary and acts as the subtext to a powerful and harrowing piece of work from Herzog.

Into The Abyss hones in on one particular case and the subsequent fallout. Herzog interviews Michael Perry, a man convicted of murdering Sandra Stotler in her home back in October 2001, and who is set to be put to death by the state of Texas in eight days. Perry maintains his innocence, instead positioning the blame on his accomplice Jason Burkett, who is serving a life sentence. Burkett, along with friends, family members, acquaintances and officials, give their thoughts on the dreadful situation — which also saw Stotler’s son Adam and his friend Jeremy killed — and on the cause for execution. Rather than focus on guilt or innocence, Herzog sets out to discover the reasoning behind why a human being kills, the role of the death penalty and the relationship between the two in regards to morality and rationality.

Werner Herzog is among the most influential filmmakers of any generation. During Into The Abyss, his inquisitiveness and fearlessness provide the basis for Herzog to delve into the subject matter without any influential bias. He asks tough questions, but not in the general sense. The German does not want to know if the accused believe that they are innocent, or if they do, why (although these details unconsciously become apparent). Herzog’s primary aim is centred on the present, on why people commit such atrocities, on the death penalty and its subsequent effects. He gently prods his interviewees and always appears to have their utmost respect. In documentary filmmaking, the relationship between the interviewer and their subject is key. It is paramount that there is an element of trust between the pair, otherwise questions become burdening and answers will be insincere. Throughout Into The Abyss, Werner Herzog’s effective interviewing abilities work so well that even when he is asking seemingly irrelevant questions (about a squirrel, for instance) he still receives an unmistakably relevant answer.

Much of the documentary plays out in a low-key manner. Herzog never appears on camera, his questions are often short and to-the-point and he allows for a quiet, unsettling atmosphere to generate through silently lingering shots — either of his sombre interviewees or of disturbing police footage from October 2001. The audience is always shown the aftermath of events, be that of a stolen car that has been left abandoned as it becomes a part of nature in an overgrown, wooded area or where cookie dough remains uncooked on a kitchen workshop. This notion that something out-of-the-ordinary has happened and all that is left is an unquestionable stillness plays well with the overarching theme which encapsulates the irrationality of murder and the abnormality of punishing murder by taking another life, along with the innate silence that follows. Although Herzog states at the beginning that he is against the death penalty, there is never an incline of bias one way or the other. Each of the individual interviewees have a different answer in regards to whether they believe punishment by way of death is acceptable, and each view is presented fully and concisely.

The documentary delivers interviews with a host of individuals who have been affected either by the specific case, or capital punishment in general. Through these, the importance of life and living slowly begins to peer out ahead of the cloudy subject of death. This is particularly true in regards to Herzog’s conversation with the father of Jason Burkett, who is also serving a lengthy prison sentence. Burkett’s father, worn out by drug use, alcohol abuse and the tribulations of the ordeal involving his son, talks about his insufficiencies as a father and partially blames himself for the murders as a result of his self-admitted failures. In doing so, he vicariously stresses the gift of living and offering a chance to others. Fred Allen, who formerly worked as a captain of a death house team, also speaks to Herzog. Allen’s experiences and the strain of his previous job sees him offer a valuable contribution to the death penalty debate — to which his affiliation has now shifted. These are just two of a number of conversations fragmented throughout, conversations which fluctuate from touching to troublesome to hopeful, but which are striking and poignant nonetheless.

Questions have been raised by viewers of Into The Abyss regarding why Herzog ignores significant facts aligned with the case. The most prominent of these issues that the director chooses to disregard is the omission of any mention or input from a key witness, Kristen Willis. The consensus amongst those critics and audience members who feel that this is a problem whittles down to questioning the legitimacy of the piece in regards to it not communicating the full and complete story. This is undoubtedly the case. Leaving out a significant fact in a documentary that is revising a murder case will definitely raise questions over the film’s content and the filmmaker’s true intentions.

However, Into The Abyss is not a revision of the triple-murder case, and it never intends to be. It is apparent that Herzog has deliberately refrained from raising the issue of Kristen Willis because his intention and his vision for the documentary is not to create a CSI-type, purely factual recount of a crime. No, Herzog clearly has a purpose beyond the actualities: he wants to explore the moral equation, the emotions connected with murder and state-induced-death, and most importantly Herzog sets out to discover who and why as opposed to what and when. If a piece of information (regardless of its significance to proceedings) is not relevant to the ambition of the documentary, then surely its inclusion is not necessary.

Werner Herzog’s unprejudiced outlook and calm demeanour enable him to delve into the reasoning behind why people kill and the effects of killing, by way of emotional, genuine interviews and from a variety of viewpoints, leaving the answers up to audience interpretation. Regardless of any existing complaints surrounding missing information, there is no doubt that Into The Abyss is an incredibly profound piece of work.

Credit: The Atlantic
Credit: The Atlantic