Into the Abyss

Screened at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival.

Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog’s intensely personal exploration of his deep discomfort with the death penalty in the United States. And when Werner Herzog gets personal, things get a bit weird. I grant you that this should by rights appeal to me. Herzog could have made a politically charged jeremiad indistinguishable from any of a zillion treatments of this polarizing subject. Instead, he made what feels like an odyssey of the mind — a sincere effort by him, Herzog, to understand two killers, their crime, its impact on the victims’ families, and how it feels to face your impending death at the hands of the state of Texas.

I can further advise that Herzog gets some pretty astonishing interviews. The best is with the father of one of the killers (not the one sentenced to die): a man who has spent nearly his entire life in prison, who blames himself for his son’s crime, and who is filled with what seems like too much regret and shame for one person to bear. The death row inmate is also a doozy — a clearly disturbed kid who never had a chance. There is no question but that he and his former friend, who’s serving 40 years, are guilty. Herzog does not suggest that some grave injustice has been done; indeed, he spends a lot of time explicating the brutality of their crime and the horror of its aftermath. He does question the proposition that these people are worthless, or pure evil, or that they don’t deserve treatment more human than to be strapped to a gurney and executed in cold blood. And he marvels at a system that can do that to a person and call it justice.

The last section of the film, entitled “The Protocol of Death,” tries to convey the experience of a death row inmate’s last day. It’s impossible to fully capture, of course, but Herzog begins to give a sense of its surreal terror. He films inside the death house where his subject will be executed. It’s clean and clinical, disturbingly utilitarian. We don’t see any executions, but you are invited to imagine them. It’s hard.

My problem with Into the Abyss is the extent to which Herzog injects himself — not his point of view, but his persona — into the film. He is a terrible interviewer, incoherent and inattentive; he is brutally condescending to his largely poor, undereducated subjects. He asks obvious, repetitive questions that seem intended to make people break down in tears, which they do, repeatedly. (“You loved him.” “Yes.” “You really cared about him.” “Yes.”) He makes bizarre, unprompted pronouncements from his off-screen perch.  (“I don’t have to like you, but you are a human being.”) I love that Herzog treated this subject as a personal journey. But I wished he would shut up.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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