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.