Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is the new documentary from Werner Herzog, whose recent career resurgence has seen the release of the likes of Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Into The Abyss is accompanied with the TV documentary series called “Death Row”, which goes over other cases.
The film looks at the case of Michael Perry, who was convicted of the murder of three people and who was sentenced to death by lethal injection. Herzog interviews him eight days before the execution in an effort to look at the toll that the murders and the death sentence have taken. Herzog also interviews his accomplice Jason Burkett as well as the families of the two boys and the families of the victims.
Herzog is clear at the start of the film that he is not making a campaign film. While it is clear that he is deeply opposed to the death penalty, he does not allow his documentary to become an issue’s movie. As a result, the film does not seek to prove that the death sentence was unjust or that the boys are as innocent as they now claim. Similarly, he is not using the film as a mouthpiece for the prisoner’s appeals. At one point, Herzog makes this clear to Perry, “I may not like you, but I do respect you.” What Herzog wishes to do is document the huge human cost of both the murders and the execution and imprisonment of the two perpetrators. Most moving may be Burkett’s father, himself under life imprisonment, who deeply and eloquently talks about his regrets, how he was never there to raise Burkett properly and how the whole thing might be his fault.
However, while the film is most certainly a well-intentioned and humanist documentary, it fails to provide a concrete basis. It is clear about what it doesn’t want to be, but it is never fully certain about what it does want to be. Despite Herzog’s refusal to look at the murder case itself in terms of locating guilt, he nevertheless focuses a large amount of running time on laying bare the sordid details of the case – the murders of the three victims, the sheer nihilism behind the crimes and the capture of the killers. As a result, the film jumps disconcertingly from the deeply personal to the deeply impersonal. The film is at its most harrowing when it details the procedure of execution (or as Herzog puts it, in his usual fashion “The Protocol of Death”) or when talking with a former Death House captain who supervised 125 executions before he couldn’t take it anymore. When confronting the impersonal, the film is horrifying, but when it shifts back to the personal – in particular with the interviews of the victim’s families – it never recovers the near schizophrenic contrast between the disturbing coldness on one hand and the raw humanity and warmth on the other.
Perhaps Herzog should have worked more on the structure of the documentary (the Hank Skinner and James Barnes episodes of “Death Row” are much better in this regard, probably because they are half the length), as it carries a valuable and important message that never really comes across. It feels like a missed opportunity, although such qualitative statements seem horribly misplaced when talking about this powerful but fundamentally unfocussed film. Indeed, the film feels set to define what could be a fourth strain of cinema – the others being entertainment cinema, art cinema and political cinema (which often resembles a more didactic strain of either entertainment or art cinema). This fourth strain could be known as human cinema and an antecedent could be Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah, more a testimonial than a film. These are films that are impossible to qualify in terms of art or politics and certainly by entertainment value. They exist on another plane and it may prove to be a while before we are ready to accept them as much as they may deserve.