Capital City

11.01.11

Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 106 minutes. Michael Perry.


MORTALITY IS A FACT AND A MYSTERY in Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, Werner Herzog’s best documentary in many years. Herzog’s subject is state-mandated execution, which he addresses via a case of triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas. Michael Perry, on death row at the time the movie was shot, was executed eight days after Herzog interviewed him. His accomplice, Jason Burkett, received a prison sentence that would not make him eligible for parole until he was nearly sixty years old. Their story began in 2001 when, seemingly on impulse, the two young men stole a red Camaro and killed its owner while she was in her kitchen baking cookies; slightly later, in a botched attempt to cover the crime, they killed her teenage son and one of his friends.

The movie is all the more haunting for being so straightforward in its narrative organization, visual composition, and method of address. It’s hardly news that Herzog is not a conventional documentarian; so-called objective journalism is never an option for him. He opens this depiction of a death penalty case by stating openly that he is against the death penalty. While the release of Into the Abyss follows hard on the execution of the likely innocent Troy Davis, Herzog’s position is not founded on the possibility that the criminal justice system can make mistakes. “A state should not be allowed—under any circumstance—to execute anyone for any reason,” he says, adding that, as a German, he is acutely conscious of the barbaric extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi state.

Herzog chose Texas as his location because it is the largest execution mill in the US, and this particular case because the date of Perry’s death had been set and perhaps because (as Herzog said in an interview) out of all the convicts with whom he had spoken, Perry seemed the most dangerous and the most likely to kill again if he could. Despite his baby face and soft, eager voice, Perry’s pathology—his overwhelming narcissism—is evident from his first seconds on screen. Herzog begins by cleaning the glass window that separates him from the prisoner. As in all the interviews, the director never appears in front of the camera, but his voice—in part because of the clarity and intelligence of his questions—equals in presence the voice and image of his subjects. Herzog is a superb interviewer, never bludgeoning the interviewees with his power as filmmaker nor shying away out of discretion or discouragement. He’s expert with the follow-up question, which he employs not merely as a basic journalism technique (sadly fallen into disuse) but because he wants, above all, to put the truth of his subject’s experience on the screen.

Into the Abyss consists almost entirely of interviews with eleven people, each of them framed alone as they respond to Herzog’s offscreen questions. There are also brief tours of the execution chamber and of the crime scene. (If the latter footage is archival police video, the camera operator was an artist; if it’s a re-creation, it’s the only misstep in the movie.) The picture that emerges of Conroe, Texas, is bleak and despairing, and although there are economic class differences among the interviewees, no one’s family life is untouched by problems of drug and alcohol abuse or incarceration or poor health care or violent death (sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional). In addition to Perry, the interviewees include Burkett; his father, Delbert Burkett, who has spent over half of his life in prison and whose testimony about the horrors of his son’s childhood convinced the jury to spare him from the death penalty; and Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were killed by Perry and Burkett. Stotler-Balloun, who says that she felt “relief” after she saw Perry executed, offers through that description the movie’s only support of the death penalty.

The clearest anti–death penalty arguments are made near the beginning of the movie by Richard Lopez, a death row chaplain, who says he would have stopped certain executions if he could, and late in the movie, much more compellingly, by Fred Allen, a prison officer who was the leader of the team that strapped people to be executed to their gurneys. Allen performed this job for 120 executions, sometimes, he says, working two a week. (Texas Governor Rick Perry has signed off on over two hundred executions. But of course his involvement isn’t hands-on, which is perhaps why, unlike Allen, he seems never to have given the death penalty a second thought.) Allen describes how he went from believing that if execution was the law, he was going to see that “it was done with integrity” to realizing that “no one has the right to take another life even if it is the law.” It is the movie’s most revelatory sequence. Acting on his belief, Allen quit his job just a year or so short of being eligible for his pension.

Herzog’s penchant for over-the-moon characters is more than satisfied here by Melyssa Thompson-Burkett (a dead ringer for Phoebe Cates). She goes schoolgirl giddy describing her relationship to Burkett, whom she married after connecting through a prisoner letter exchange program. Although their physical contact is limited to supervised hand holding and kissing, she is nevertheless pregnant with his child. Herzog seems to regard this as a manifestation of the life force, but he still presses Thompson-Burkett for an explanation of her conception. She plays it coy (perhaps saving the details for a tabloid payout), forcing Herzog to come up with his own version of the origin of life, a combination of fact and metaphor that, like the entirety of Into the Abyss, jostled my thoughts for days.

Amy Taubin

Into the Abyss plays Wednesday, November 2, at 7:30 PM at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts as part of DOC NYC. The DOC NYC festival runs in New York November 2–10, 2011. Into the Abyss opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 11.