While Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s film about capital punishment, is filled with moments that will make you shudder or cry, it also finds moments of sublime wry humor and commentary. Which is what makes Herzog Herzog, after all; when you peel away all the nuttiness and the myths surrounding the director what truly shines through in his best documentaries is the way that he respects people while also being aware of just how silly or strange they are.
My favorite bit of Herzogian commentary comes in the film’s epilogue, titled ‘The Urgency of Life.’ The title card for the segment plays over a blue sky filled with wheeling birds, but if you look to the bottom of the frame you see they’re careening above a landfill. One of Herzog’s subjects, a death row captain who quit after overseeing over 120 executions, talks about taking a moment in life to look at the birds. Herzog agrees, but he also wants us to take a look at what has the birds so interested.
Herzog is against the death penalty, and he more or less announces it up front, but Into the Abyss isn’t a film dedicated to making a point. In fact he’s picked exactly the opposite kind of case you’d want to focus on if you were making a film about the evils of the death penalty. It seems fairly certain that Michael Perry, the man on Death Row, did in fact commit the triple murder with which he was charged, and that he did it without a particularly good reason. Herzog has chosen a case where dumb people did bad things for dumb reasons.
The case he chose does have an interesting aspect to it for an anti-death penalty person, though: there were two killers, and the sentences were split. While Michael Perry was sentenced to death, his friend and accomplice Jason Burkett got life in prison. And so here is a case where one man dies and one man rots in jail for the same crime and we can compare what difference either punishment makes. The first half of Into the Abyss is a lengthy reconstruction of the crime, using haunting and surprisingly artistic police crime scene vidoes - shots linger on shoes, on the elbow of a corpse floating in a lake, in a bullet hole in the side of a sheet rock wall. The film makes no apologies for the criminals (although later Herzog does investigate who they are and what sort of world they lived in), and it never attempts to demonize the victims (in fact the film is dedicated to the surviving family members). The ugly randomness of the crime is chilling.
There are moments of profound sadness and grief, but Herzog doesn’t wallow in it. He allows his subjects the space to tell their stories and, as always, goads them with interesting and philosophical questions, but there’s never a sense of milking the tears. What he is truly tuned into is the thread of pain that goes through all of these lives; each of the people involved or impacted by the murders have led lives filled with pain and tragedy. Violence and early death and prison are not strangers to these people.
Except Perry. The film never makes this explicit, but Perry comes across as the one person involved whose life wasn’t filled with misery. Burkett avoided death row by having his jailbird father take the stand and plead for the boy’s life; it’s unclear how Perry’s parents were involved in the trial. He came from a strong home, it seems, and it’s unclear just what made him a bad kid. Is that why Perry died and Burkett lived, because of a bit of emotional pandering to the jury? That’s surely no way to run a death penalty.
Into the Abyss is unlikely to change the minds of any hardcore death penalty supporters, but I’m not truly sure that Herzog thinks those minds can be changed. At the very least it seems as if he isn’t particularly trying. What he’s trying to do is find the humanity at the center of a terrible crime and its aftermath. From the father of one of the killers to the daughter of a victim to the man who oversees executions to the preacher who stands with the condemned for his last moments alive, Herzog follows the pain to each of them, with the crime being the finger that taps the wires, sending them all buzzing with hurt.
I was profoundly moved by Into the Abyss. I also laughed, and in the end I emerged from the darkness of the theater feeling energized and inspired. Yes, the abyss will gaze back into us, but the reality is that the only way to define our lives is by the brevity of our lives.