The National Catholic Review
Werner Herzog's 'Into the Abyss'
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Considering Werner Herzog’s fascination with humankind’s relationship to the natural world, you would assume his latest documentary “Into the Abyss” has an oceanic or geological thrust. For his most recent nonfiction films, the German director traveled to Alaska to profile a doomed bear-lover (“Grizzly Man”); to Antarctica to interview scientists in their adopted habitat (“Encounters at the End of the World”); and to France to photograph Paleolithic art in 3-D (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”). For this project, he ventured into equally forbidding and trenchant territory—the human chasm that is capital punishment as practiced by the State of Texas.

“Into the Abyss” centers on Michael Perry, a 28-year-old death-row inmate convicted for a triple homicide committed in the town of Conroe, Texas when he was a teenager. Herzog does not concern himself with guilt or innocence; he is not out to reinvestigate the crime or assess the merits of the legal case against Perry. Rather, with his trademark serendipity, tenacity and nose for the odd and offbeat, Herzog examines the conditions necessary for the murders and their aftermath. On July 1, 2010, eight days following Herzog’s sole interview with him, Perry was put to death by means of lethal injection.

Without offering arguments, Herzog declares his opposition to capital punishment early on in the movie when he tells Perry, “I think human beings should not be executed.” This typically forthright statement underscores Herzog’s brilliance as a documentarian. Unlike most nonfiction filmmakers, he does not feign objectivity. He makes his views known and brings them into play honestly so they don’t skew his analysis. By not pretending to filter out his own thoughts and opinions, while also eschewing judgment, Herzog is able to get at truths—to reveal what’s going on without obscuring the complexity of the issue he is addressing and without closing himself and his audience off to discovery. 

The gravity of the subject matter, along with Herzog’s default mode of disarming frankness, gives “Into the Abyss” an appropriately somber tone. Partly because he chooses not to narrate, the deadpan irony he often deploys is muted, which isn’t to say the movie is totally humorless or that Herzog’s radar for wackiness has disappeared. He exhibits respectful sensitivity but it is possible to discern brief flashes of skeptical bemusement. As ever, he moves effortlessly between detailed anthropological investigation and imaginative, philosophical speculation.

His ability to put interviewees at ease is shown in the movie’s prologue, which consists of a discussion with a Death House chaplain named Richard Lopez. We’re taken aback when Herzog asks the reverend point blank, “Why does God allow capital punishment?” Typically, that question is posed in relation to the incipient crime, about a “senseless tragedy” that a death sentence is intended to somehow balance out. To his credit, Lopez responds “I don’t know.” As the interview proceeds, Lopez talks about golf and squirrels, and eventually starts to cry as Herzog invites him to reflect on his experience consoling the condemned.

For multiple reasons, presumably including logistical constraints, Herzog doesn’t have similar success with Perry. Perry is already in a hugely vulnerable position as he sits on death row trying to fathom his fate. It is as if there is no point in revealing anything more, in letting his facade be broken down any further. His bewildered visage and the anxiety in his voice are more memorable than any words he utters during the jailhouse interview. He makes lukewarm mention of his Christian faith but almost a decade after the crime, appears to be in shock—unable or unwilling to take responsibility. His fear is all consuming.

Before we first encounter Perry, Herzog’s camera has slowly studied the rooms at the Huntsville facility where he will die. Later, a police lieutenant offers a general description of the crime and we visit various relevant locations. It is difficult to piece together a coherent account of what transpired, other than that the perpetrators’ drug-and-alcohol-fueled desire to steal a car led to the murders. Without discounting its severity, Herzog does not try to clarify the forensic circumstances. He is more interested in talking with the victims’ family members, specifically to the woman whose mother and brother were killed and to an affectless, local man whose younger brother was the third casualty. Trawling for insight and gravitating toward anyone who might provide it, Herzog poses broad, open-ended questions such as “Why did they die?” No satisfying answers are forthcoming,

Herzog interviews an illiterate acquaintance of Perry and his accomplice Jason Burkett as well as Burkett himself, who is serving a life sentence. The director also videotapes a conversation with Burkett’s father, in jail for unrelated crimes. Prodded to explain how his son came to such a bleak juncture, the elder Burkett laments his own past as a drug-user and felon. In a section of the film titled “A Glimmer of Hope,” Herzog sits down with Jason Burkett’s wife, Melyssa Thompson-Burkett, whom he wed while behind bars. Although it is not uncommon for prisoners to wed while incarcerated—and without the benefit of conjugal rights—it is fascinating to watch Melyssa explain her relationship with Burkett, her belief in his innocence, and about the child she is carrying. Their tabloid-worthy romance and the child that it has mysteriously produced do constitute some grounds for optimism. Still, as Herzog surely notices, its bizarre aura puts the absurd, surreal nature of the entire situation into relief. The deaths of three innocent people, plus the lethal punishment the state will carry out in the name of justice, cannot be offset by one marriage and one child (evidently conceived via artificial insemination).

Herzog moves beyond this one case, to reveal the extent of the damage involved in the film’s final chapter, entitled “The Protocol of Death” during which the director interviews Fred Allen, a former Captain of the Texas Death House. Allen quit his job, thereby forsaking his pension, after overseeing 120 executions. His testimony about the toll the job exacted concludes with a simple claim, “Nobody has the right to take another life.” The hole left in Allen is one of many figurative and literal voids encountered throughout the documentary. They include the lake in which a victim’s car was scuttled, the green gurney inside the execution chamber, the demise of Perry (which the viewer half expects to be depicted on screen, but which is only described by a witness), the society in which the homicides were committed, and the culture of death that allows capital punishment to be pursued with such comparative zeal.

Werner Herzog has a well-deserved reputation for tackling difficult, risky subjects. It took courage to enter the Lone Star State and wade into the mire of capital punishment. He does not resort to sentimentality or rail against the practice (or the murders); he respects all those concerned. He does not bash the culture or wonder aloud about how the death penalty jibes with its dominant Christian ethos. His goal is to understand, and yet beyond a certain point comprehension is clearly futile. Those who come to the movie sincerely opposed to the death penalty won’t find much to debate, nor will advocates. 

In other words, “Into the Abyss” is unlikely to change many hearts or minds on either side of the issue. We are left at the edge of both reason and emotion, staring into the abyss that is capital punishment. It is scary and depressing to be near the brink of the unfathomable. Whether you step forward toward the darkness armed with faith and hope or remain still, hollow and resigned to injustice, is beyond the ken of even Werner Herzog.

John P. McCarthy reviews films for Catholic News Service and various publications.

Comments

Dudley Sharp | 3/23/2012 - 9:53am
I mis-typed.

I should have been "2000" years, not "200".
Dudley Sharp | 3/23/2012 - 9:18am
I think Werner Herzog is a thoughtful brilliant filmmaker. On the topic of the death penalty, he's a dim bulb.

Herzog's foundation for being against the death penalty is based upon the Holocaust. He was born in Germany in 1942.

The Nazis leadership and government programs were horrendous with mass killings of innocents, including genocide, mass incarcerations, horrendous medical experiements, and on and on and on.

Is Herzog apposed to all governments, all government leaders, all incarcerations, all medical treatments, etc, because the Nazi's were so horrendous in all of those areas?

Of course not. That would be stupid, just as Herzog's foundation of death penalty opposition is, based upon that same foundation.

The US executes very bad people for doing very bad things. The Nazis executed innocent people for being innocent, be those innocent Jews or any other group the Nazis didn't like.

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Herzog asks Death House chaplain Richard Lopez “Why does God allow capital punishment?” Lopez responds “I don’t know.”

Oddly, author John McCarthy says Lopez' response is "To his credit".

As God is a just God, we know the answer is justice. Mr. McCarthy, why is it to Lopez' credit that he doesn't know that? Curious.

This is a very basic biblical/theological topic:

Even Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey gets it:

" . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect." "A Bible Study" (p. 111-113) Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

As do:

God/Jesus: 'Honor your father and your mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.' Matthew 15:4 full context (NAB) www.usccb.org/nab/bible/matthew/matthew15.htm

Saint (& Pope) Pius V, "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566).

Pope Pius XII: "When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live." 9/14/52.

"All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.


Again, Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: ". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy." (p. 116). "A Bible Study" (p. 111-113) Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

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Fred Allen, a former Captain of the Texas Death House states:“Nobody has the right to take another life.”

Really? How odd. The moral foundations for killing an unjust aggressor, in defense of one self or defense of others, is well established, as is killing in a just war and killing by execution, as an act of justice in taking the lives of those who have committed horrendous crimes. There are 200 years of Catholic and other Christian biblical and theological teachings supportive of those moral killings.

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I love McCarthy's take on Texas justice: "the culture of death that allows capital punishment to be pursued with such comparative zeal."

Texas has executed 0.8% of her murderers since 1973, after an average of 11 years of appellate review, prior to execution.

0.8%. Comparative zeal?

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In interviews, not only does Herzog "wonder aloud about how the death penalty jibes with its dominant Christian ethos", he boldy states " I'm pretty certain that Jesus would not have been an advocate of capital punishment.”, musing “I probably know the Bible better than my peers."

Which, I observe, means very little.
Andrew Russell | 11/11/2011 - 5:04pm
Another correction to Chris is that the review mentions Perry's accomplice being married, but nothing regarding Perry being married and fathering a child while on death row.

Thank you John McCarthy. The review made me interested in the film, and gave me reasons to want to see it.
BENET CAFFREY | 11/9/2011 - 10:44am

Chris, it is curious you fault Texas for "allowing" Perry to live for ten years and spending millions on "maintaining" him. Would you deny him his Constitutional right to appeal his case? And surely you know that life in prison is actually cheaper than keeping a prisoner on death row. If your concerned about the taxpayer, then why spend millions on capital punishment?


I know you will not be convinced by the these facts, and I'm not interested in an extended argument, but your tendentious arguments call out for correction.

Christopher Mulcahy | 11/9/2011 - 10:12am
Michael Perry murdered three persons. Michael Perry was convicted. Michael Perry was allowed to live for ten years, marry, and father a child before his assigned punishment. Meanwhile, untold innocents were murdered in Texas and elsewhere in similar fashion, undeterred by Michael Perry’s delayed execution. Meanwhile, about half a million dollars of hard-earned citizens tax revenues were spent maintaining Michael Perry, tax revenues taken from citizens by force of law. Meanwhile, as well, the relatives of Michael Perry’s victims were denied justice.

“Into the Abyss” indeed documents a massive ‘geological’ impediment to civilization, i.e. the inability of modern self-appointed moralists to confront evil and deal with it. Be assured that any civilization that comes to actually utter en mass “I believe human beings should not be executed” will join the many cultures and civilizations that have gone before us and disappeared into the abyss of history, remembered if at all in museums of cultural anthropology.

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