Saturday, April 28, 2012

Into the Abyss (Werner Hezog, 2011)

Dead man talking

Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss (2011) opens with a harrowing account by a chaplain of being with each convict as they are executed. He describes how he 'empties' himself of all notions and expectations, making himself a mere vessel to be filled with the experience. All proper and humble, until his voice cracks, and he has to stop and pause; it's at this point you realize that along with all the talk of being 'in the proper frame of mind,' of 'preparing oneself to be filled with the experience,' one must deal with the cost of watching men and women being strapped down and killed, again and again and again.

The documentary is about Michael Perry and Jason Burkett who in 2001 killed Sandra Stotler, her 16-year-old son Adam, his friend Jeremy Richardson. According to police Perry and Burkett approached Ms. Stotler in her house and shot her from behind; they later waited for her son and his friend to arrive and shot them too. The motive? Ms. Stotler's red Camaro.

It's a strange documentary, even for a man known for making strange films. Here Herzog has been criticized for de-emphasizing the facts--he doesn't question the solidity of the case against Perry and Burkett, nor does he even try cross-examining the two convicted killers for veracity, at least not much (Perry claims Burkett committed the killings while Burket claims the opposite). He doesn't develop a case a la Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1998)--doesn't even appear to be trying.

Herzog states right off with his first interview that he's basically against the death penalty; he tells Perry point blank he doesn't have to like the young man, but respects him. He's quite open about his stance, but doesn't seem all that interested in building a case against said penalty.

Instead, for better or worse, Herzog seems to be trying to explore the emotional impact of the crimes on the people involved, the victims included. There's Sandra's daughter (and Adam's sister) Lisa: we hear of the pain she felt, having lost almost all her family overnight, and the consequences to her life from that day onwards. We listen to Charles Richardson, Jeremy's brother, who has to live with the fact that he introduced Jeremy to Michael and Jason.

We listen to the testimony of a warden who oversaw over a hundred and twenty executions, at the rate of two a week; at one point he goes home, and suddenly can't do it anymore--just can't do it. He's firmly against the death penalty now.

Perhaps the most painful and honest interview is Burkett's father, Delbert. There's some sad comedy to their life--at one point father Delbert, son Jason and one other brother are reunited while transporting on the way to their respective placements, and it struck Delbert how embarrassing this all was: a family reunion with hands cuffed and ankles chained. He seems to be the most clear-eyed of all of them, acknowledging just how terrible a father he's been to his sons, how bad his life is right now, and how low he must seem to everyone watching on camera. Hard material to view--no, impossible--without being affected.

You wonder if, as some critics assert, perhaps Herzog has gone all soft-headed here; you wonder why he doesn't ask more pointed questions, confront his subjects with the contradictions in their testimony, strip away the illusions that so obviously shore up their respective worldviews.

I think one clue to what he's doing and why can be found in what's different in his approach: unlike in most of his documentaries he's hardly in this one, preferring to stay offscreen as a questioning voice-over (it's not as if he's unaware of his personal charisma, either--he can play the engaging, somewhat lunatic host-documentarian either in his own work (Grizzly Man, 2005; Cave of Forgotten Dreams 2010) or a parody of such in others (Zack Penn's Incident at Loch Ness, 2004).

Seems to me he's deliberately erasing himself from this film, allowing others' voices to come to fore. At one point he offers the rare--at least in this picture--opinion that Jesus wouldn't agree to the death penalty and tries to get Lisa Stotler to agree that an alternative like life without parole might be satisfactory, to which Lisa smiles and shakes her head. “But some people do not deserve to live,” she says. Herzog does not argue with her.

He seems to be laying out the groundwork, marking the boundaries--the depth and width--of suffering involved in murder, from the killers (legal and illegal) and victims' standpoints. This was reportedly an expansion of one episode in a mini-series to be titled On Death Row, and if he has anything more definite to say, he may possibly say it in further episodes.

Meantime Herzog has staked out some powerful, if vaguely organized, material here. He's basically stepped out of the way to allow some  memorable people to come to fore--no less memorable for the fact that I've met and talked to (and come to know) people like Michael, Jason and Charles (some not as far gone perhaps; some as internally anguished). The picture of Michael Perry grinning at the camera is haunting precisely because I've seen that grin so many times before, directed at me. You think: "he can't possibly have a violent thought in his head; he can't possibly be a killer." Oh yes, he can.

Seeing them on the big screen, pouring their hearts out to this visiting German filmmaker, is a remarkable sight (I suspect his accent disarms them--confessing to a stranger can be easier for some people). They spin out their stories, they praise God for what meager blessings fall their way, they express a nervously defensive hope for the future. What one can't see in their faces is a strong sense of security, of serenity in life, of emotional and spiritual peace.

First published in Businessworld, 4.19.12


Epoy Deyto said...

still haven't seen this one, but I saw somewhere that Herzog has a tv-docu follow-up for this.

Noel Vera said...

Yep, what I mentioned in the article...

Noel Vera said...

Easy to criticize a movie when it's the pilot episode to a series...