Into the Abyss (2011) - Werner Herzog


On October 24th, 2001, two young men Michael Perry and Jason Burkett travelled to the home of the Stotler family to steal the cars the family owned. During the course of the crime they killed three of the family members; the mother, father and their son. After being caught Perry was sentenced to death while Burkett was given life imprisonment.

That's just an outline really that Werner works around. This isn't really a film about the crime, it's really a way for Herzog to explore the issues around capital punishment. The themes of life and death are common themes for him, and it's rather the waste of life of Perry and Burkett that he focusses on rather than making an 'issue film' about the 'evils' of capital punishment. He manages to talk to both Perry and Burkett, the prison chaplain, a member of the Stotler family as well as the detective in charge as well as select others and with his own particular style gets them to open up. Werner is clearly anti-capital punishment though apart from one moment in the film, he doesn't really try to push that viewpoint explicitely across, instead letting the protagonists of this tragic story express their own views. Though I'm always struck by an infectious enthusiasm for life by Werner in his films, even when looking at the issues of death and murder here.

What I'm always looking for in these types of films are when the mask or performance of the people are stripped away or slip; since they're talking 'to' a camera there's always an initial layer of performance that is naturally there. You can see the layers of bullshit in Burkett and the delusion of Price, the sadness and anger of the grieving sister but What Herzog is great at doing is leaving the camera on them for that[i] little bit extra[/i] so we can see at the very least glimpses of the truth; the way he pulled the chaplain, at the start of the film, out of his rehearsed rhetoric by a seemingly left-field question about a squirrel is just distinctly him. Plus as always his unique avuncular German voice is a character in it's own right :o It's a tough watch at times; the two youths committed a despicable crime but Werner does dig deeper into their backgrounds and, almost inevitably, a picture of dysfunctional families, absent father figures, living in poverty builds up and if not exactly eliciting sympathy it does make you feel more than just revulsion for these men.

Perhaps Werner could have investigated the actual story of the crime more but I understand that's not the film he was trying to tell, though it feels sometimes there are gaps as Werner pursues his agenda. Though he only had time to shoot 8 hours of footage and craft it into a 90 minute film remarkably enough. It's nevertheless an enthralling documentary from a master of the genre.