Werner Herzog's 'Into the Abyss'

Rare is the film review that makes you want to rush out to see a film immediately. but John P. McCarthy's review, in our online Culture section, of Werner Herzog's searing new film about the death penalty, had that effect on me.  I'm a great fan of Herzog's eccentric but effective filmmaking style and the topic he confronts in "Into the Abyss" is of the greatest importance.  McCarthy begins:

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.

Read the rest here.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
david power
6 years 11 months ago
Herzog is a great filmmaker and of all of his movies that I have seen the only one that actually bored me was "The enigma of Kasper Hauser".
His treatment of the "Bad Lieutenant" was really great.Different to the original and maybe emphasising the changing demons that we are dealing with.
Fitzcarraldo is a memorable movie with the fantastic scene of Caruso being played on the river .
He is not in the same league though as Bunuel in terms of drawing out a theme.At least to my mind.
I will check out Rotten Tomatoes to see if it is worth the 8 euros. 
james belna
6 years 11 months ago
According to Perry's confession, he and his friend Jason Aaron Burkett decided to steal two cars from the parents of another friend, 17 year old Adam Stotler. Burkett knocked on the front door and asked to use the phone. Perry then went into the house through the back door in the garage with a shotgun and hid in the laundry room. Perry then knocked on the back door. When Sandra Stotler went to the back door, Perry came out of the laundry room and shot her in her side. Sandra Stotler fell, then tried to get up, and Perry shot her again. They loaded the body into the back of a truck and rolled her body into a nearby lake. Burkett and Perry then drove to pick up another friend, Kristin Willis, from work and returned to the Stotler house. When Adam Stotler arrived with his friend Jeremy Richardson, Burkett and Perry convinced them that a friend had been shot in the woods and needed their help. Adam and Jeremy followed Willis's truck into a nearby wooded area and according to Perry, Burkett then shot Jeremy and then Adam. They returned to the Stoller home then went to a bar. Two days later, Perry was stopped for a traffic violation and after a high speed chase was arrested and booked in as Adam Stoller since he was in possession of his wallet. Several days later after posting bail, while in the stolen Isuzu, Perry and Burkett ran into a deputy sheriff's vehicle while trying to escape arrest. Both were arrested hiding in a neighboring apartment complex where the shotgun used to kill Sandra Stotler was found. Forensic evidence found near Crater Lake, in the woods, and at the Stotler residence matched Perry's confession. Perry was tried for Sandra Stotler's murder. During his trial, Perry took the stand in his defense and claimed that his confession was coerced by police and untrue. The jury did not buy it. Accomplice Burkett was tried separately, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.


The latest from america

Kevin Clarke tells us about his reporting from Iraq.
Olga SeguraOctober 19, 2018
For U.S. Catholics, every synod is also a valuable reminder—and corrective—that it is not all about us.
The EditorsOctober 19, 2018
For decades, the U.S. church has gifted its public servants with the social teachings and magisterium of the church.
Christopher Jolly HaleOctober 19, 2018
Whether evangelicalism survives Donald J. Trump depends upon whether it has leaders who are able to disentangle its political witness from the dimensions of Mr. Trump’s presidency that have so clearly scandalized the Gospel witness.
Matthew Lee AndersonOctober 19, 2018