Into The Abyss – A Tale of Death A Tale of Life

Here he differs from every bleeding-heart liberal or hysterical preacher who picks up a camera and slams his point home with fact and fury. Herzog is only interested in humanity.” – WatchingCattle on Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss.

After writing this article I sent it to my lady to do me the massive favour of proof reading it for me. She did and replied, “The bang of man-crush off it is amazing…I’m sure you realise and appreciate this? I know I do!”

And yes I’ll admit it I have a total man crush on Werner Herzog. But so what, anyone whose seen Fitzcarraldo probably does too and if you don’t, I don’t like you and you should probably stop reading now.

He’s dressed in a strangely coloured, extremely dark, green suit made of what could be hemp or a robust velvet. The buttons seem to be made of thick pieces of pine. He looks exactly like he’s always looked – he seems to have been born middle-aged and simply grew into it, becoming more and more the visual archetype of a film director legend. Look up the phrase “legendary filmmaker” and there he’ll be. Him and Marty and Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch and other such crinkled middle aged men who you just can’t imagine ever having been young and filled with the idiotic gusto of lads or boys or whatever term you see fit. Even though the cinema I’m sitting in and the cinema he’s walking into are separated by 300 miles and the images we’re seeing of him have been beamed into space, bounced off a satellite, beamed back, decoded and transmitted onto the lovely IFIs screen one, there is still an audible murmur and a sense of revery in the cinema as he saunters towards the stage with a gait and a confidence that just screams ‘I am fucking bullet proof’.

Of course he’s not actually bullet proof. He was once shot with an air rife during an interview. He continued said interview nonchalantly dismissing the incident by saying that “it was not a significant bullet”. Let that sink in there for a second…it was not a significant bullet. Everything about Werner Herzog is fucking cool. He’s not just vying for (and in my book actually maybe winning) the title of ‘greatest living filmmaker’, he also seems to be a sort of effortlessly cool, uber-european head-case. Place him in any room on earth and he’ll be the most fascinating person in it. He’s here, or more accurately ‘there’ in London, to do a Q&A with fans after a screening of his latest documentary Into The Abyss – a film about the death penalty, about the events which lead to Michael Perry and Jason Burkett being convicted of three counts of murder, about the town they are from, about the victims families, about the men who carry out the executions and about God.

It’s a film which has the hallmarks of any Herzog documentary in that it is probing, insightful, wonderful to watch, thoroughly personable, effecting, gripping and in the end unforgettable and utterly, utterly brilliant. From the moment he opens his mouth I wish that everyone I know could be there to listen to him. Sure he’s not here in the flesh but still, when and how he speaks is so eloquent, matter-of-fact and downright inspiring that I could try to simply transcribe as much of the Q&A session as possible but to be true to Herzog’s style I decided that I couldn’t just bombard you with the facts of what he said. This will get us nowhere. Suffice to say that pretty much every word the man said was captivating and this article will only scratch the surface. And besides, as anyone who as ever transcribed anything will tell you, it’s fucking boring,

The weight of a Werner Herzog film is all encompassing. When it is suggested to him that the film (which has the full title Into The Abyss – A Tale of Death A Tale of Life) could have the added subtitle ‘A Tale of God’, he replies:

“Almost everyone in the film is invoking God – the victim’s families , the murderers are invoking God, there is a presence of God and also there is an absence of God, why was he not there?”

It is this weight, these heavy themes of humanity, society, ethics, beliefs, God and death that are recurring themes in all his films. When asked if he fears death he states:

“No, I do not, period…Our presence on this planet is not sustainable. We will dwindle away and disappear like dinosaurs. If it happens tomorrow it does not make me nervous”

This fear of death may be absent but he does not take it lightly. For a film about capital punishment it is perhaps surprising – and in another way unsurprising – that Herzog would not watch the execution of the film’s protagonist, or that of any man or woman.

“No I did not attend and I would never go to an execution. It’s something I would never want to witness. Having heard from people who have, it is the last thing you would ever wish your worst enemy would see and have to witness…even if you gave me a million dollars to cover it on camera I would say no, I would throw the money back at you.”

In one of the first scenes of Into The Abyss Herzog openly and frankly states that he does not agree with capital punishment. It is this frankness I suppose that makes Herzog unique. He is not objective. When asked about how and why he decides to make documentaries he says:

“They [the ideas for films] come at me like burglars in the night and one of them comes wildly swinging at me so I better deal with that immediately. In a way there is no real plan – the films always found me. I’ve never planned a career, it was always a wild slalom between documentaries and feature films…my documentaries, most of them are feature films in disguise, they are stylised, they are partially scripted, partially invented because I try to reach a deeper stratum of truth beyond the mere facts. I want an ecstasy of truth….Facts will never illuminate you, truth will illuminate you…What is so wrong with the documentaries I see every night? They are fact-based, there is some sort of righteous tone in it – this is not right, cinema vérité is not right this is the accountants truth.”

He goes on to say:

“I am trying to find something that is deeply embedded in poetry, for example, when you read a great poem you immediately know that there is a deep truth in it and you don’t have to analyse and vivisect the poem. You instantly know it. Sometimes in cinema there are great moments of great insight where you know you have been illuminated and if I ever reach such a moment in cinema I have not lived in vain”

For the final words from Herzog I have to paraphrase a bit. He is asked if the experience of making the film has changed him and he says frankly (as always) and flatly: “It hasn’t changed my life. It has changed some perspectives.”

Isn’t that all we can ask from a film experience?

So is Into the Abyss any good? Werner Herzog’s documentaries are, as he says, “feature films in disguise” and, as such, Herzog is still the most fearless and skilled filmmaker around. Narratively the film opens with a prologue in which a chaplain (who essentially accompanies the convict during their last moments) speaks directly to Herzog and his camera. He is elusive and pious, proud to serve almighty God. Herzog manages, with a single question, to reveal in him his own humanity – stripping away the rhetoric and revealing the pain of the larger subject. It is utterly compelling and from this moment on I was transfixed. The film does not shy away from the darkness of the acts it discusses. The crimes are described in great and harrowing detail, the crimes themselves are monstrous and senseless.

To say that Herzog’s documentaries go to places that others simply won’t delve is an understatement. He is not interested in presenting the murderers as beasts or as angels, as victims or as anything other than young men. He openly states that he doesn’t believe in capital punishment but his is not the crux of his film. Here he differs from every bleeding-heart liberal or hysterical preacher who picks up a camera and slams his point home with fact and fury. Herzog is only interested in humanity. Everyone here is human, everyone is allowed to speak their mind. The back stories of the protagonists are not fleshed out in voiceover or by printed facts. The film is pushed forward by tales told to camera by the people involved. There are no talking heads, no wardens, no governors, no members of anti-capital punishment watchdogs, no volunteer groups, no devout Christian ‘eye for an eye’ old testament-ors. There are simply conversations with the condemned man, his accomplice and their acquaintances. There are conversations with the families of the victims, whose lives are shattered by the actions of the murderers and there are conversations with a man who has carried out over 100 of the executions in the state of Texas.

Unlike the Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Encounters at the End of the World, here Herzog is speaking with ordinary people – their lives would be unexceptional were it not for the tragedy that unfolds before them. Herzog’s ability to simply talk to these people so calmly and to set them at ease is uncanny. It’s Herzog’s own humanity which elevates these encounters, he seems so at ease with both the victims families and the perpetrators – not scientists or social escapees discussing something beautiful – here are regular folk narrating, reliving and emotionally investigating the experience as old as time. The devastation of murder and loss is presented here with a stillness and ease by a man whose own connectedness to humanity allows the experiences and meditations of the participants to flow from them with a candor rarely witnessed in films about such harrowing events and such controversial themes.

In the end, as with all Herzog’s work, there are no easy answers. He doesn’t want to draw pointless conclusions. One thing repeated throughout the film which rings true is that, either way, no one has ever had a Lazarus or Jesus like resurrection by the execution of their murderer. If all acts which lead to the death penalty are both futile and tragic, it follows that capital punishment, as a form of punishment, deterrent and as closure for the victim’s family is also both futile and tragic. Herzog’s film is, as he would probably concede, not going to change the world. It is a document of tragedy, yet as an experience, this is far from futile. Highly recommended.

Into The Abyss is being shown exclusively at the IFI.
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