Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life
2011, USA, UK, Germany
A documentary about two men convicted of a triple murder in Texas and the aftermath of the event. One of the two men, Michael Perry, received the death penalty, while the other, Jason Burkett, received life in prison. The film explores the men’s lives and the various individuals connected to them and the crime.
One could easily make a case that Werner Herzog has only ever made one film. Or more precisely, dozens of films made over and over again. Over countless features and documentaries he has lost us in the jungle, taken us to the ends of the Earth and to the darkness of the solar system. He has captivated us with monsters, killers, lunatics, and dwarfs. All his efforts are singular and collective, and focused on the incredible vastness, beauty and incomprehensibility of the human spirit. In his documentary ‘Into the Abyss’ he details a crime that can be seen as nothing but worthless: two young boys want to steal a car from a friend’s house but learn that his mother is inside. They decide that it would be much easier to simply kill this woman and take the car.
Just like that.
They then realise that the gated community from where they took the car has locked gates and an electronic key is needed. It is around this time that their acquaintance returns with a friend and they succeed in luring them into the woods and killing them both.
Just like that.
The simplicity and utter senselessness of the murder is in many ways a gift to Herzog because he doesn’t want to make a whodunit, nor is it an issue film, Herzog is no preacher, he is an artist and he uses the details of the murder, the childhood of these boys, the environment in which they lived and the feelings of all the people involved to create an amalgam of emptiness.
There are some narrative problems: the version of events and names of the killers and victims are declared swiftly, which made me a little confused as to who did what and who was whom, there are also some interviews that feel too rushed, though equally it’s a credit to Herzog that he got so much, because the 100 minute documentary was taken from roughly four hours of film. Such is the wonder of Werner Herzog that he can get such rich material form so little time. The man asks questions that only he would think of, always slightly left of your average. His first interview involves a reverend who stays with the prisoners while they are put to death and it is a master class in getting from an interviewer exactly what you want. Any other person would have left that interview with nothing but Herzog and his strange way of looking at people found an ecstatic truth. He also has a voice that I could listen to all day.
‘Into the Abyss’ could not be a more succinct name, for the abyss is there in every eye in the film. The murderers, the victims, the families and the collaborators stare deeply into their own darkness and it seems to stare back at them.