Into the Abyss

‘Why does God allow capital punishment?’ Werner Herzog asks a prison chaplain in the prologue to Into The Abyss – this being a documentary, like much of the Bavarian’s work, that encourages participants and viewers to confront the dark and difficult questions of life and death that are buried within all of us.

The chaplain admits he doesn‘t know, and proceeds to give an answer taking in the local wildlife that the director seems to find unsatisfactory.

‘Please describe an encounter with a squirrel’, Herzog then says to the chaplain. This request elicits a tearful, meandering response about the wonder of existence and the horror of seeing people die, revealing to the viewer, and perhaps the man himself, a glimpse inside the chaplain’s heart.

Herzog’s documentary films are laced with this genius technique: offbeat questions bringing about responses that strike at the core of the deepest issues. And in dealing with murder and capital punishment, the brilliant Into The Abyss explores the very blackest of concerns.

Herzog was researching for a documentary series about the death penalty when he came across a story he deemed worthy of telling in its entirety. The result is a film stemming from horror and distress, but which is shot through with the director’s customary sense of gentle humour and deep humanity.

Into the Abyss (2011) review
Into the Abyss (2011)
Revolver Entertainment
Directed by Werner Herzog

In Texas in 2001, drunk, homeless teenagers Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett murdered Sandra Stotler in her home in order to steal her sports car. In making their escape, the two also killed Stotler’s stepson and his friend. The triple homicide resulted in Perry being given the death penalty and Burkett sentenced to life in prison.

Herzog examines this horrendous crime, and the spider’s web of its effects, by talking to a wide cast of people connected to the case, including the investigating police officer, Stotler’s daughter, Burkett’s incarcerated father, Burkett’s wife, a former captain of the nearby prison’s ‘Death House’, and the killers themselves.

As Herzog prods and probes around crime and punishment, it becomes apparent that rather than being fixated on the facts of the case, he is more interested in discovering the humanness in, and the essential ‘truth’ of, each individual. The director offers each of the interviewees the opportunity to state their case on what they did and why they did it, and what they believe and why they believe it. Everyone is granted respect, even if they are unlikeable. Herzog does not pass judgement, he is here to stimulate and record. Indeed, the director is a lot less visible than in many of his films. He remains out of shot, and there is no heavy voiceover. The people tell their stories.

We do hear the giant German’s kindly-grandfather voice in the often-heartbreaking interviews – or encounters, as Herzog calls them. The killers both claim innocence, but seem resigned to- almost comfortable with – their fates. Perry, in particular, has fallen back on religion, believing he is going off to a better place. Stotler’s daughter is eloquent and reasoned in describing how her life fell apart following the killings, and how she has tried to come to turns with her loss – watching Perry’s execution, she admits, being central to the healing process. The case’s investigating police officer is straightforward and exact about the banal chain of events that lead to the killings. Relatives and acquaintances of Perry and Burkett provide entry into the world of poverty, drugs, crime and violence from which the killers came and could not escape. This corner of Texas is a place of no nonsense and little subtlety  – ‘I had to be at work in 30 minutes’, says one man explaining why he didn’t go to hospital after being stabbed with a 14-inch screwdriver. To what degree do environment and circumstance ‘create’ a killer? – this age-old question, though not addressed directly, lingers in the air of the film.

Herzog’s encounter with the former captain of Huntsville Prison’s Death Row provides one of the film’s most moving passages, and a tale that can be seen as the film’s moral centre – clarity, like so often in the German’s work, coming from the most unlikely of sources. Fred Allen conducted over 100 executions before breaking down, staring into the abyss, and realising he couldn’t live with what was staring back. ‘Nobody has the right to take another life’, he says. He resigned his long-served prison guard post, giving up a large state pension in the process. ‘On a gravestone, it reads two dates with a dash. That is your life right there. How are you going to live your dash? I myself am trying to make everything right’, says Allen.  This life-affirming film provides few answers itself, but asks its participants, and its viewers, the eternal question of how they will feel when they meet their maker. Herzog’s gaze into the abyss of the human soul continues.