Article/ Into the Abyss: A Film About Killing

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary enters the moral vacuum of America’s penal system

By Ailsa Ferrier

In July 2001, two burglars murdered a woman in Lake Conroe, Texas, subsequently killing her son and his friend when they returned to the home. Matthew Perry, one of the young men convicted of the murders, spent 10 years on death row before he as executed in July 2010. Eight days before, German filmmaker Werner Herzog interviewed him as part of the documentary Into the Abyss, an examination of the US capital punishment system.

Herzog conducted numerous interviews with death row inmates, which will appear in an extended TV series, but for the feature-length film, he settled on this one story. The result proves his knack for finding the perfect narrative to expose a bigger picture.

This intimate account includes some extraordinary and disturbing crime scene footage that could have almost been shot by Herzog himself: lingering shots of unbaked cookie dough that was ready for the oven when the first murder took place, a discarded soft toy and blood-splattered walls. There are numerous and frank interviews with the families of both the perpetrators and victims, as well as police and prison officers – all of which are seamlessly edited, presenting a riveting portrait of what happened during and after this senseless crime and, more importantly, the corrosive impact of the judicial process that followed.

Herzog’s camera lingers on subjects long after they have finished speaking. It is a technique that underpins his whole approach in the film. He holds his camera up to the system and then watches it squirm under his gaze, unable to avoid presenting itself as senseless as the crimes it is so absolute in punishing.

Herzog is uncharacteristically absent. We see him briefly in reflections on windows in the prison. His voice is also noticeably quieter; the questions he asks are frank, dignified and fair, no matter who he is speaking with. As a subject, this system is endemic of Herzog’s own conflicted feelings about his adopted homeland, and the film is, in many ways, a story about the contradictions of America itself. It is a country of great privilege and extreme poverty, with a comparatively casual relationship with violence and yet is deeply religious.

Herzog concludes his statement about the film by saying “The balance, the right tone, in the dialogues is essential: there is no activist’s anger from my side, although my position is clear; there is no false sentimentality; there is no commiseration; there is no clumsiness; but there is a sense of solidarity with the inmates concerning their appeals and legal battles in order to have there is a strong sense that these individuals are human beings. It is also absolutely clear that the crimes of the persons in my films are monstrous, but the perpetrators are not monsters. They are human.”

Into the Abyss, although void of many idiosyncrasies normally present in Herzog’s films, still hinges on ideas elemental to his career: the passage of time, death and violence, and what it is that makes us human. Like the Amazonian creatures of earlier films such as Fitzcarraldo (1982), everyone in his new film is suffering. That is argument enough against the system that he documents.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Into the Abyss screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 30 March