Werner Herzog has been making documentaries almost as long as he has been making films; indeed, many of his most celebrated fiction films, including Aguirre, Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Fitzcarraldo, documented aspects of the lives of real-life figures. Although he has recently made further excursions into dramatic features (Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and the David Lynch-producedMy Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), the bulk of the celebrated German director’s output this century has been documentaries: Grizzly Man,Encounters at the End of the World and, most recently, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
His latest documentary, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, accompanies a three-part television series interviewing convicted felons on America’s Death Row, and the release could hardly be timed, coming at the end of a week in which Japan – which, along with the United States, is one of only two modern democracies with the death penalty – hanged three convicted criminals, the country’s first use of the death penalty for more than 18 months. (“We have judged that it is difficult to immediately abolish the death penalty, considering the current situation where the number of violent crimes does not fall and crimes continue,” Japanese prime minister Noshihiko Noda commented, suggesting that capital punishment is not acting as a deterrent.) Judging by the title – which, presumably, is intended to invoke his countryman Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous warning that “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” – we should be primed to expect a condemnation of capital punishment as a concept, especially as his narration for the TV series makes explicit his feelings on the subject. He might just as easily have called the film “An Eye for an Eye,” leaving the audience to affix Gandhi’s famous continuation “…makes the whole world blind.” Despite Herzog’s own views on state-sanctioned murder, however, it could be argued that by exposing the brutality of the Death Row inmates’ crimes – presumably to avoid ‘sugar coating’ the crimes themselves – the television series arguably made a stronger case for, rather than against, capital punishment; however horrific death by lethal injection might be, the methodology pales beside the often lurid descriptions of the crimes themselves.
Anyone familiar with the benchmark true-crime documentaries such as Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, or Joe Berlinger’sParadise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – both of which re-examined cold cases and were ultimately instrumental in getting wrongful convictions overturned – might be expecting Herzog to be on a mission to expose some injustice, perhaps to draw attention to one of the many Americans awaiting execution whose convictions are questionable. It is certainly arguable that Herzog would have been on safer ground arguing his point by dealing with unsafe convictions. Ever the contrarian, however, Herzog takes the more difficult path, letting the audience draw its own conclusions as he examines two very different killings: a brutal, senseless robbery-homicide carried out by teenager Michael Perry in October 2001, and Perry’s subsequent State-endorsed execution, carried out in July 2010.
Herzog’s approach is simple, juxtaposing interviews with Perry and his accomplices, members of the victim’s family, a repentant former Texas State executioner (who now feels that murder is wrong “even if it’s the law”), the prison chaplain trying to make peace with the idea of killing in the name of justice, and others in the wake of the ripple effect of a violent crime and its no less tragic consequences. Borrowing Errol Morris’s gently probing style (we never see the director, though his unmistakable voice is often heard off-screen), Herzog sets out to explore the crime and its consequences from all angles, allowing the story to tell itself, without giving in to the documentarist’s constant temptation to shape the story in the service of drama. Instead of voiceover – which the Death Row series employed, albeit sparingly – Herzog opts for sporadic on-screen captions to fill in the blanks. But what is Herzog trying to say, exactly? There is no doubt that Perry is guilty, nor that the crime was particularly brutal; it is even likely that Perry is at least tangentially connected to two other senseless killings, for which he was never charged. In showing us Perry’s impoverished upbringing, is Herzog appealing for clemency on the basis of environmental factors? In letting us into the lives of the victim’s families, and comparing them with those of the convicted killers, is he trying to make a case for there being victims of violent crime on both sides of the fence? It’s difficult to say. In taking a hands-off, make-your-own-mind-up approach to what could, and arguably should, have been incendiary material, Herzog reminded me of another great director squandering a mouth-watering material: Oliver Stone’s film El Comandante, in which the director went to enormous lengths to secure an interview with Cuban revolutionary-hero-turned-oppressive-authoritarian Fidel Castro, only to ask him a series of largely inane questions, apparently while drunk.
Nietzsche may or may not have been onto something when he said that if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you, but at least you knew what his point was. With Into the Abyss, Herzog’s intentions remain frustratingly unclear, lost in the timidity of his interview questions, and the unfocused way in which he assembles his material. It’s a pity, too. Herzog is one of the few documentary filmmakers whose work has the exposure and power to shape minds, and between them, Into the Abyss and Death Row could have, at the very least, provoked debate about a vital issue, especially in the United States, where 34 states still have the right to execute prisoners, even if only 16 of them regularly exercise it. Instead, all Herzog’s film is likely provoke is a lot of head-scratching. ★★★